Friday, February 17, 2017

All You Really Need To Know About December Is That I Went To Cape Town

 … and it was fabulous.
… and I can’t wait to go back.
… and it’s made of almond milk and rainbows.
… and secret gin joints.
… and really you should go.

One of the best brunches I've had so far, this was at Bacon on Bree . It was such a big deal because we rolled in at about 9:00am, tired from an early flight, and there was this gorgeous pile of food waiting for us AND...
... an almond milk chai tea latte with cinnamon on top. It's official: Cape Town is made of joy and all that is good in this world. 
With all that hype, I have to be fair and back up a bit. There are a ton of different places to see in the cape, and Cape Town really is just one of them. Some of the other Canadian interns and I banded together over the Christmas break, and that’s what led us to a bit of jaunt through the Knysna, Stellenbosch, and Cape Town. So to be fair to all locations visited: I’ll be doing this in chronological order.

There was so much happening at work with audit season right before we left that I haven’t been able to sit down and write non-legal stuff even once. It’s actually really unfortunate, because I have taken a metric TON of photos that I’m really keen to share. So I need to be fair and warn you… this is a masive post.

Looking up at the Table Cloth on Table Mountain.
1/ Knysna
Chances are high you took one look at the name of this little cottage-and-fishing-holiday-town and thought ‘kuh-‘… ‘kin-‘… ‘cuck this*, that town with a K’. I’m with you. I was also concerned about anyone asking me where I was going in such a way that I would have to attempt pronouncing the place out loud. Really, it sounds much simpler when it’s said with a little creative thought. Nye’s-na. ‘Nye’ like Bill Nye, the Science Guy!, and ‘na’ like ‘na-uh’. Congratulations! Put an ‘s’ in between the two, and you’ve got Knysna.

*Nope, this is not a spelling mistake. It is my very favourite Afrikaans profanity, and highly appropriate in that setting. I sincerely hope you are enjoying this particular piece of cultural integration I am experiencing.

Can Canadians braai, or just BBQ? Obviously both, because we breai-ed a whole dinner and it was mighty!
Please also note the Hunter's Dry on the right. It is a South African cider, and I am sincerely hoping I'm able to get it at home. (It's ok, I already know it's not going to happen. Just let me dream alright?)
Knysna itself is cute, and there are coffee shops, and wifi, and restaurants with loads of pretty colours and delicious foods. Really if you’re in Knysna though, it’s so that you can see everything that’s outside the town. The hiking along the coast here is pretty unreal, and it’s that that I’d recommend first and foremost about the area. There are all these huge rust-red mountains that run straight up to the blue blue ocean, which is of course frothing with white seaspray because it’s meeting all of those aforementioned red cliffs. On top of that, everything is draped in deep jungle green, or the lighter sage colours of the fynebos and lowveld.

Best trails? Noetsie, Nietzie, and the beach hike that involves going down the Giant's Steps.
Please note that these steps aren't actually giant. There are, however, 128 of them and they are unevenly made of old stone. 
It is unreal.

There are also some pretty cool things within easy driving distance of Knysna that you clearly need to know about. Like seals. And elephants.

Possibly my favourite photo of Kelsey. In which she dramatically depicts her exhaustion due to excessive hiking by collapsing on the nearest available (ahem... conveniently tilted) tree. 
The single biggest personal goal of my time in SA is to dive. This region is a mecca for shark diving, and for diving generally. I’ve run into rough luck so far as seeing sharks (entirely due to weather, please don’t panic, I haven’t been nibbled), but I had a blast with a colony of cape fur seals in the town of Plettenberg.

If you get the chance to dive with seals, you should definitely do it when the pups are just old enough to be considered teenagers. At this point, all the guide boat has to do is make a pass in front of the colony as it sits up on the cliffs (a safe distance back, you don’t want them to panic and hurt the pups), and then tip off the boat into the water and hang out about 3m down.

A zoom-in from the dive boat at the seals on the cliffside. 
People are bizarre, interesting, perplexing creatures… especially if you’re a weird looking biped with a tank on your back. Curious teenaged cape fur seals are great! You can really only spend about 45 minutes with them before they get a little too curious though. For example: Less than 5 minutes in someone grabbed my elbow and tugged. I thought for sure it was another diver letting me know that I should look somewhere specific to see a seal doing a cute thing.

… hahaha no. I was the cute thing. There was a seal pup, his whole mouth wrapped right around my elbow, staring up at me with these huuuuuuuuuuge black eyes. Both a little shocked, we stared at each other until I wiggled my arm and he let go.

Right towards the end of the dive, another pup (maybe the same one? I have no idea) took a mouthful of my fin and tried to bring it back to the colony with her. We had a firm discussion – which mostly consisted of me attempting to pull my fin out of her mouth – about how her behaviour was really very rude.

They were like little upside down corkscrew-torpedoes, winding their way through the water, and sometimes floating nose-down right above your head to play in the bubbles from the respirator. Very cool animals. 
Other than hiking and seals, there’s an amazing elephant sanctuary just outside of Knysna that I’d also recommend. Kelsey, one of the other interns and I, spent a lovely afternoon feeding, walking around with, and taking dozens and dozens of photos with orphaned elephants.

At first I wasn’t so sure about animal sanctuaries. You hear all sorts of horror stories in North America about how atrocious foreign animal sanctuaries are. The lions are being sold for canned hunting, big cat cubs are over-stimulated due to the greedy capitalists putting the wants of tourists over the needs of the animals, it must be terrible because PETA said so! In reality, I for sure believe that that happens, and I am extremely picky about which animal attractions I go to specifically because I don’t want to contribute to something comparable to a Shriner’s circus. Here in SA, mostly I’ve been very impressed. The Knysna Elephant Park is a great example of this. 
This sanctuary only takes in orphaned elephant calves, and with the ivory trade in full swing there is plenty of demand for that service. They take in any calf offered to them, regardless of the calf’s state of health. That means that there are some pretty serious vet bills that can accumulate for these guys. Further, the park (and many like it) don’t receive any funding from the government. It forces the parks to rely on donors, and specifically on the tourist traffic that comes through the Eastern Cape all the time. I have zero issue paying to spend an afternoon walking in and around elephants while they strip leaves off a tree, or happily sniff out fruit in my hand with their adorably-rough-and-somewhat-hairy trunk tips.

The only picture where both of us look somewhat attentive in the direction of the camera; because really... who wants to pay attention to a camera when there is an elephant next to you? These animals are so smart, and so gentle, and just have so much PRESENCE that they inspire this awe when you're close to them. 
I’m especially willing to do so after the guide answered my (ahem… dozens of) questions about the park. How many elephants are there? Near 50.

Do they see humans every day? Nope, they’re on a rotation system.

What if the elephant isn’t into tourists? Then they’re paired with another elephant and released onto a reserve park where there is a lack of elephants and the staff there are hoping to repopulate the area.

Do some elephants love the tourists? Yes, the matriarch of the main herd has been with the park for almost 30 years, and particularly gets a kick out of little kids.

… and so on, and so on.

2/ Stellenbosch
It’s not a secret that I’m a fan of wine. Also cheese. Also charcuterie. Also after France I was sure that it was entirely unrealistic to believe I’d get the chance to live somewhere the wine was fabulous and reasonably priced again. (Sorry BC, I just don’t like your wine.)

This minimalism thing that wineries have going? It's good. I am a fan of cement floors in this heat, and plants growing in tiny glass containers. 
Ha! Guess again. South African wine is awesome! Although Stellenbosch itself is a little odd. It is excessively (and almost exclusively) white, except for the wait staff at non-winery establishments. There were definitely moments as a mixed group of travellers where we looked at one another with a bit of a side-eye. Those moments where you thought to yourself ‘Wow, that was some solid subtle racism and I’m uncomfortable with this. Am I being way over sensitive or did anyone else pick up on that?’ … and then you realise that the other two Canadians are also looking around and yes, yes that was racist.

The happiest of campers! 
So there are definitely problems with the area, and I want to be clear that there were things I didn’t even notice until someone pointed them out afterwards. All of that said though, each of us agreed that we were glad we went, and that we WOULD go back. In particular, the wineries Simonsig and Niel Ellis blew everywhere else we went out of the water. The sommeliers were great about picking wines that appealed to all sorts of palates, and there wasn’t a single wine that all three of us rejected right out of hand.

Sampling 'The Mint' in one hand, and something else that was actually not very good on the other. Even if you don't like wine though, you should really visit Thelema. The winery itself is beautiful. 
Thelema was also very good, it just wasn’t off the charts amazing like Simonsig and Neil Ellis. It is the only winery I begged my travelling companions to let me zip back to in the morning before we left, because I foolishly didn’t pick up a bottle of ‘The Mint’ when we were there. Good news? They relented, and I am the happiest of happy campers with my growing stash of South African wine.

See? Beautiful. My little phone camera really struggled with the light, but this whole winery is right on the edge of a mountain, in a valley of mountains. As usual down here, everything is beautifully and verdantly green. 
3/ Cape Town
Last but not least, this is the city I was most curious about in coming here. Joburg is edgy, Pretoria is quiet and political, Cape Town was supposed to be like the Vancouver of South Africa. It is, although with fewer pretentions millenials humble-bragging about their compost heaps, or their latest trip to the organic market. (I say this with love, Vancouver, I really do. Seriously though, can’t you just recycle quietly?)

A reflection of the dockyards along the V&A (Victoria and Albert) Waterfront. Really, it's a lot of tourist-y shops, and some bars, and a comedy club, and some really incredible restaurants, and a mall. There is also a ferris wheel though, and if you're looking for night life and live music in a safer spot, this certainly does the trick. 
Most of my time in Cape Town was spent eating. I can’t fairly describe my New Years in Cape Town without telling you about the restaurant scene. Once the other Canadians and I had parted ways, I had the chance to stay at the Silwood School of Cookery in Rondebosch. This was not your typical party all night sort of vacation for me, but if you want that, Long Street and the V&A waterfront have got you covered. This was an adventure in the morning, and good food in the evening sort of trip. So between eating, sleeping, and wandering the boutiques downtown, I managed to work in…

Prime Circle played the evening I was there. They're a South African rock band, and it was kind of hilarious to go to a rock concert attended by a completely all-ages crowd. Kirstenbosch gardens does these open-air events quite regularly during the summer, and I'd for sure have come to see more of them if I'd picked a placement here. 
Kirstenbosch Gardens, complete with an open air rock concert, another free-range tortoise, a walk through the canopy on a really fascinating structure called the 'boomslang' bridge, and more plants than I can name.

Looking down...
... and going over!
Hiking Table Mountain, of course, but also abseiling off Table Mountain. This was entirely necessary, and I hugely enjoyed it.  

On the hike back up after the abseil, the weather phenomenon called the Table Cloth rolled in. There's a legend behind it about a famous pirate/settler challenging the devil to a smoking competition, but regardless of myth or science: it's a cloud that settles right on top of the mountain like a blanket, and just sits there.

Another shot of how dark and moody the top of the mountain gets once the table cloth rolls in. It was very cool to abseil over the edge in the sun, and then hike back up in the shade and cool mist of the cloud.
[Sign: This is not an easy way down]
Hiking out to the Venus Pools with my fabulous AirBnB host.

On our way to the Venus Pools, which are filled with this violently neon green seaweed that is supposed to nourish your skin and keep you young and beautiful. 
I don't know about hiking all that way to stay young and beautiful, but swimming in  a natural pool,  heated by the sun, while the Indian Ocean sprays up over the side? That was worth it. 
(Bonus: If you’re in Cape Town you’ve really got to drop by the Silwood Café for lunch midweek. The school has been open for three generations now, and I’m kind of in love with everything about the campus.)

One of the best parts about wildlife tourism in December here is that all the young are teenagers, and that is definitely worth enjoying. African penguins are called 'Baby Blues' when they're fluffy and dorky teenagers, and I will always find that funny. 
The penguins of Simon’s Town in all their dorky, fluffy, teenaged glory.

I've been told what that little guy on the left is at least six times, and I still can't remember. He was also checking out the penguins with me. 
The Cape of Good Hope, complete with its lighthouse and dizzying cliffs dropping straight into the Indian and Atlantic oceans. (This was slightly anti-climatic, as I was expecting a clear visual divide between the two. Really, one is cold, and the other is extremely cold; but there isn’t a clear point where they connect.)

Looking down from right on top of Cape Point, next to the lighthouse. 
Looking up at said lighthouse. 
… and then the food. Oh wow guys, the food. You know what? I’m just going to include links to the places I really enjoyed eating at, and recommend that you go to all of them and then some. 

The view from just outside Homespun by Matt, which is in a community aptly named 'Table View'.
Bacon on Bree - For that first breakfast and the latte you saw above. 

The Honey Badger - For free wifi, good tea, and completely satisfying sandwiches. 

Honest Chocolate Café - Chocolate confectionary, and a mean chocolate chai latte. Try one, I promise you won't be disappointed.

Truth Coffee - Not actually for the coffee, but for a huge lunch portion and steampunk everything.

Haas Collective - Right across from Truth. This is where you want to get your coffee.

The Gin Bar - The gins are amazing, but so is the atmosphere. In an old morgue just behind Honest Chocolate. Well worth an evening of your time.

Savoy Cabbage - For the wine. And the tomato tart. And the Eland. Just... all of it.

Homespun by Matt - For beautiful fresh fish, and more wine, and everything served on tiny wooden pallets instead of placements.

Nobu at One & Only - For sushi and fresh fish like you've only dreamed of.

Signal at Cape Grace - This is one of the coolest eating experiences I've ever had. As a solo diner I was invited to do the tasting menu, and it was endlessly cool to actually try food that a chef sat down and tailored from start to finish as an eating experience! Bonus points? The very cool (muslim) lady chef who now runs everything in the kitchen and works with the sommelier trained at Silwood. This was easily one of my favourite nights.

Also worth trying? You bet!
I basically took myself out for dinner every night I could afford to, and I do not regret it. I guess one of the perks of being stationed in Pretoria is that I wasn’t tempted to spend any of my living stipend on fancy brunches or nights out before reaching Cape Town. Or shopping, actually.

Is it really Cape Town without a visit to Bo-kaap and District 6? Eh... not really. If you get the chance, I definitely recommend doing all the walking tours you can fit in with Cape Town Walking Tours. The guides are lovely, full of information, and genuinely happy to see you. So here's a photo of the bright streets of Bo-kaap! Where houses were originally painted to help locals find the tailor (in the pink house with white trim), the barber (yellow with green), or the cobbler (blue right through).

Well done, past me. Well done.

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