Scoping Out Cape Town

My landlord welcomed me to Cape Town by saying “welcome to the most beautiful city in the world”. I thought to myself, like a wanna-be smug Vancouverite, “I dunno, it seems nice, but it’s gonna be hard to beat Vancouver”.

I stayed in Camps Bay for two weeks. It’s a super ritzy beach town on one side of Table Mountain, a 1km-high mountain that sits in the middle of Cape Town. Camps Bay certainly didn’t feel like the third-world Africa I was in in Tanzania in 2005, but more like an upscale European beach town. I spent a bunch of time in Cape Town proper, as well as exploring the ridiculously beautiful coastline to the south.

looking down on cape town
View from Table Mountain

The Prices

I was told that because of the weak Rand, Cape Town was cheaper than Buenos Aires. I didn’t believe it, but holy crap, I do now. I had a five course meal at Five Flies, one of the best restaurants in Cape Town (and one I’d highly recommend – the ambience, service, and food were excellent). Including a great bottle of wine ($16) and coffee and tea, the total bill for two was $90 USD. That was by far the most expensive meal I ate – the average meal was about $25 for two, usually including a glass of wine. And wine tasting cost $6 US to taste 14 wines… insane.

divide by 10 for USD prices
Divide by 10 for USD

Weather

The weather in Cape Town is worth paying attention to. Eight meter swells forced us to reschedule our shark diving trip, high winds prevented us from taking the cable car to the top of table mountain, and rough water cancelled our trip to Robben Island, where many “political prisoners” were held during apartheid (including Nelson Mandela). I would recommend booking your weather-dependent activities early in your trip so there’s time to reschedule if they’re cancelled.

Cape Town was getting worked over by howling winds while I was there, which is common in the summer. The South-Easter rips through town and is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It also turns hot days at the beach into mini-sandstorms.

Natural Beauty

Cape Town is stunningly beautiful and would make any Vancouverite reconsider whether theirs is indeed the most beautiful city in the world. Table Mountain makes for a beautiful backdrop. The elevation differences make for great views, especially of the gorgeous white sand beaches and blue water. And the drive south along the coast is one of the most beautiful I’ve done.

table mountain

Lots of Things To Do

Cape Town is low-key, maybe even sleepy, and I wouldn’t call it super urban, but there are tons of things to do. You can go shark diving, paragliding off of Lions Head mountain, abseiling off of Table Mountain, surfing, canyoning, sand surfing, go on safari, enjoy brilliant beaches, and go wine tasting… amongst other things.

It’s also got fascinating colonial history – Cape Town was originally a Dutch trading outpost where ships could refuel en route to India, and was taken over by the British in the 1700s. Add in the fascinating history of apartheid and you’ll be hard-pressed to run out of things to do and learn. It’s a vibrant, manageable city with friendly, cosmopolitan people of all colors, and a good food and wine scene.

sunset at camps bay

Apartheid

No description of Cape Town would be compete with addressing race. I was there for a little under two weeks, so I can hardly be expected to understand the rich and nuanced history. Instead, I will just add a few things that I learned.

During apartheid, people were classified as white, black, or colored. Colored meant one was of mixed (non-white) descent, and it a term still used today without, I’m told, the stigma that it has in the US. Colored people generally had it better than blacks during apartheid, though they were most certainly second-class citizens. People were sometimes classified based on the width of their nose, or using the “pencil test”: stick a pencil in your hair and if it sticks, you’re black.

ID card

Mixed marriages between whites and non-whites were allowed, as long as the white person was ok with being classified as black or colored.

The Japanese were honorary whites because they were valuable trading partners with South Africa.

One of the harshest examples of apartheid occurred in District 6. It was a dense area in downtown Cape Town that was inhabited by 55k largely blacks and colored people. The apartheid government decided to move the inhabitants to shanty towns 20km outside Cape Town, which ripped apart tightly-knit communities and families, and made living life a hell of a lot more difficult for those who were moved. Those shanty towns had crappy or non-existent infrastructure: no power, running water, or indoor plumbing were the order of the day (indeed, some parts of the townships still don’t have indoor plumbing – people use community port-a-potties). The District 6 buildings were razed to the ground, and a few test homes were built for whites… but nobody bought them (because, our tour guide said, “people had a conscience”). This is one reason that when South Africa held democratic elections and established a constitution in 1994, the right to basic housing (including indoor plumbing and electricity) was established as a right in the constitution.

i.e. whites only
“European” was a euphamism for “white”

Crime

“They” say that crime is bad in Cape Town. It certainly is in parts – Cape Town had a jaw-dropping 2000 murders last year, and most occurred in sketchier parts of the townships, which are outside central Cape Town. My spidey sense never went crazy, but I was definitely more aware of my environment than in, say, Vancouver.

The traveler’s maxim holds true here – be aware, don’t be stupid, and know that people are generally good and are just trying to live happy lives.

Living Here

If I was picking a city to live in for the rest of my life, this would be high on the list. Especially right now with the strong dollar and low prices, you could get a nice apartment in the city for about $100k, or a sick house two minutes from the beach in ritzy Camps Bay for 300-400k. Thrown in a nice summer home in wine country in Franschhoek (about an hour away) for $200-300k and you’d have a nice setup. The downside is that there’s still uncertainty about the country’s stability. Rumor has it the educated middle class are leaving because, as one friend put it, “the social contract is slowly unraveling.” I didn’t stay around long enough to get a good understanding of whether this was true or not, but South Africa is still one of the most stable countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

In the short term, I would recommend living in Cape Town in a heartbeat. It’s very livable, very chill, reasonably priced, with lots to do, good people, and great diversity. I’m considering coming back during for a few months in 2010 for the World Cup, and to see Great White sharks breach, which they only do in the winter. I was sad to be leaving Buenos Aires to come here. But as awesome as BsAs is, Cape Town rapidly made me feel good about the decision. It’s an excellent place to hang out for a while, and I intend to be back for longer.

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