Mark Meredith returns to his childhood stamping ground.
In the 1970s, when I was a teenager, my father was sent to manage the South African arm of a multinational British company in Cape Town. My mother, sister and I went with him. I was to spend five years there growing up in what I thought to be the most beautiful place I had ever seen. In March, 40 years later, I went back (with my wife) for the first time to find Cape Town changed in so many ways, but still gorgeous.
We spent two weeks there and that is about the right amount of time to see Cape Town and its outlying wine-growing regions. You could include a few days driving up the coast on the famed and lovely Garden Route past Knysna towards Plettenburg Bay, a holiday town set along stunning white sand beaches we used to visit as kids.
Table Mountain and the city
The most striking aspect of Cape Town, obviously, is its mountain. You can't escape it, even when it has white cloud billowing over the top, the Tablecloth. The quickly changing environment on the mountaintop governs whether you can go up or not, and the cableway is often closed without notice due to cloud or wind.
I last went up in 1973 when the cable car was small and rickety and we had just a handful of passengers for company. Things are very different today. Two large circular cars rotate as they carry a never-ending cargo of humans, crammed like sardines, up and down in their thousands, from 8am to 8pm. Prebook online to avoid ticket queues.
Once at the top the views are superb in every direction, all the way to Cape Point, with the seaside suburbs of Camps Bay and Sea Point directly below, and Robben Island sitting like a large pancake in Table Bay. The mountain is pretty flat and narrow, with many pathways to explore. You may come across dassies, or rock hyrax, a rabbit-sized rodent that lives among the rock crevices on the mountain, where they are preyed upon by eagles and hawks. They are quite unafraid of humans. An afternoon visit that takes in the sunset is probably the best time to go up.
The other place for views is Signal Hill, joined to the distinctive, pointed Lions Head mountain above Sea Point. At sunset, locals and tourists in their hundreds drive up the hill to marvel at the view of the city lights, and it is quite a sight.
The city is built on a grid and finding your way around is pretty easy. We walked and took very cheap Uber rides. Most visitors head for what used to be the old docks and harbour but which is now the impressive V&A Waterfront development of shops, bars, restaurants and swanky apartments. It draws in huge numbers of tourists and locals, to what has become Cape Town's premier entertainment and retail venue.
For a more traditional African experience of arts and crafts, go to Greenmarket Square or St Georges Mall, a street market off the square. Here you'll find colourful batiks, masks, animal carvings and leather goods at much better prices.
On the Foreshore, on reclaimed land, is the Castle of Good Hope. The first stone was laid in 1666 and it was completed in 1679. It's the oldest colonial building in South Africa and was used by the British as a prison. This is well worth a visit and the guided tour is good.
One afternoon, I put on my All Blacks shirt, braved the wisecracks, and went to see the Blues get hammered by the Stormers at Newlands antiquated rugby ground. All I can say is, don't diss Eden Park. By comparison it's a marvel.
A pleasant area to walk is alongside the impressive parliament buildings in the Company Gardens, which also has a nice restaurant. At the top end of the gardens you'll find the National Museum and the South African National Art Gallery, the latter more deserving of your time. Our favourite museum, however, was a much smaller one, hidden away on Buitenkant Street.
tells through photographs, newspaper cuttings, tapestries and storyboards how the 60,000-strong multi-racial community in the centre of Cape Town was forcibly broken apart, with people removed and the neighbourhoods flattened to make way for a "whites only" area under apartheid's Group Areas Act of 1966. A display shows a luggage tag on a suitcase, the contents of which was about all they could take with them: "Remembering 60,000 Forced Goodbyes".
It's a moving experience and a timely reminder that the normality of multiracial South Africa one experiences today was anything but that just a short time ago.
To give you an even greater understanding of how apartheid was enforced, you need to take a trip to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. The boat ride affords fantastic views of Table Bay. The island had long been on my list of places to see, ever since I read the great man's autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom. It seems to have also been on the list of many others.
I wondered what Mandela would have made of today's hordes of tourists, disembarking from boats to board phalanxes of coaches for tours of his former abode. Each coach had a guide who gave us a history of places we passed, like the lime quarry where Mandela's eyesight was affected by the harsh glare.
The petty-minded racial cruelty of apartheid's gatekeepers on Robben Island was illustrated by the diet that coloured and Bantu (black) prisoners were given. The lighter your skin the more you were given: coloureds would get one ounce of jam, Bantu none; coloureds two ounces of sugar, Bantu one ounce, etc.
Ex-inmates guided each coach party, making the obligatory stop at Mandela's tiny cell. His bed was a thin mat on the floor with a thinner blanket. When he was incarcerated there was no glass in the small, barred window, and in winter the wind howled and the rain swept in. Mandela spent 18 years in that cell.
If there's one aspect of a Cape Town holiday guaranteed to leave you with a satisfied grin it's the wine farms. By comparison, our wineries look rather small and quaint. We visited a lot of them, in the winelands of Constantia just outside the city, and further afield in Stellenbosch and lovely Franschhoek, about an hour's drive away.
As a teenager my parents never took me to the wine farms. They should have done, not for the obvious reasons but because of the magnificent Cape Dutch architecture that I happened to be studying in art class. Groot Constantia, Buitenverwachting, Boschendal, La Motte, Grand Provence Estate, and Spier were just some of those whose vintages I sampled 40 years later in grand old buildings dating back to the 1600s.
Set in sprawling estates ringed by dramatic mountains, the wine farm experience in the Cape is very sophisticated and, like most food and drink in South Africa, is outstanding value. At beautiful Buitenverwachting (buitenverwachting.com) in Constantia we were given a picnic rug to spread under the trees and had a platter of breads, cheeses, meats, pates and a bottle of their delicious Blanc de Noir for about NZ$20, more than we could finish.
Coast Roads and Cape Point
Hiring a car will give great flexibility, but if you'd rather not drive, you can get the Red Bus, a hop-on, hop-off method of seeing the major sights outside the city. One of the first stops of the Red Bus, or your car, should be Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens (sanbi.org/gardens/kirstenbosch) on the slopes of Table Mountain.
Kirstenbosch is rightly world famous; more impressive gardens we have not seen. They are extensive and you should set aside at least a few hours. The highlight is the Boomslang (a tree snake) Canopy Walkway which winds above the tree line affording spectacular views.
You can get to Cape Point by doing a tour that encompasses both sides of the peninsula.
Drive to the popular surf beach of Muizenburg, then past the colourful coastal communities of Kalk Bay, Fish Hoek and colonial Simonstown. This road will take you directly to Cape Point, but first stop in Simonstown at Boulders Beach to visit the fantastically accessible African penguin colony that has established itself there.
Cape Point is now part of Table Mountain National Park. I remembered how beautiful it was — where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet and the surf pounds in at Buffels Bay.
As kids we would sit and eat sandwiches in the car while Chacma baboons would scamper about us or climb on the bonnet. Sometimes we would spy antelope or ostrich while exploring the roads leading to lonely coves or lookouts.
You can still do all these things, and it's worth taking your time to experience the wonderful, peaceful ambience to be found at this, the most south western point of Africa.
Return to the city via wonderful scenery above immense Noordhoek Beach, and along Chapman's Peak Drive cut in the mountainside to Hout Bay, where you can watch the sun set behind Sentinel Peak. It's a short drive from there past Camps Bay at the foot of The Twelve Apostles, part of Table Mountain, to the city.
Cape Town was due to run out of water shortly after we left, but the crisis was averted through strict rationing and a concerted and ongoing effort by the population to conserve. But the shortage remains,and will do so for the foreseeable future. For the visitor, it's an inconvenience but no big deal. We stayed with friends and had to ration our use carefully: one two-minute shower every two days, catching the water in a bucket for toilet flushing. If you stay in a hotel, expect baths with no plugs and two minute showers. Public toilets and restaurant bathrooms generally only have hand sanitisers, or one tap working.