Unexpected Encounters – Cape Town, South Africa

Unexpected Encounters
Cape Town, South Africa

Table Mountain

Table Mountain

Any country is beautiful from the tourist point of view, but gazing out from a hotel room doesn’t always give the real feel of what that country can offer. Through hanging out with a local in his hometown, I hoped to find a little more adventure and insight. So last December, my friend Jacob and I decided to head to South Africa with my flatmate Rob, who was heading home for the summer and extended an offer to show us around.

The welcoming drive from the airport into Cape Town is ‘interesting’. The sides of the highway are littered with ‘shanty towns’ � small communities of shelters many built from corrugated iron and whatever other materials can be found. The actual structure of these places is quite amazing with the land divided into organised streets, recreational areas, and even shops plastered in very basic advertising. In certain communities power lines reach out like tentacles from poles to the houses below. An unexpected sight creating a memorable first impression of what was to come.

Driving past these suburbs, the scenery slowly changed and the expected suburban styles emerged before us. We dropped off our bags, had a good drive around the city, cruising out to a few look out points and getting a feel for what was on offer. After a big welcoming night out, we awoke at Rob’s place ready to face the new day. Looking out at the beautiful day through barred windows was an odd feeling, but unfortunately one of necessity. With high crime rates in Cape Town, deterrents are needed but do not always work. Last year, our flat received a newspaper clipping from Cape Town showing a photo of a would-be burglar who actually got stuck climbing in between the bars and the window. The police simply turned up and burst into laughter as they saw the trapped man. At least some humour can come of it, I guess.

After the hangovers had subsided a little, we headed round to Ryan’s house (Rob’s friend) house then down to the shooting range to do some pistol shooting, as you do around here. The first real shock I got was when Ryan casually placed the loaded gun in the back of his trousers as we left, just like in the movies. This seemed perfectly normal over here, but for someone from New Zealand where our police only carry batons, you can imagine my shock.

At the shooting range, ear muffs on as it’s pretty loud (all cops in the movies must be deaf for sure), and the loaded pistol in hand looking down the sights to the target, the barrel was shaking from my fear. I calmed myself, and squeezed the trigger. Bang!! The recoil on the gun caught me by surprise and I was amazed by the power of the device I was weilding. Once I got over the hype, my aim got better and there was much enjoyment too of hitting the target accurately. For the last clip, I let off five bullets in a salvo, like in the movies when the cop is chasing the bad guys down a street or something. My accuracy was non-existent but the adrenaline certainly started pumping after that.

The next day, we took a trip down the coast. We were heading down to the Cape of Good Hope, checking out the little towns dotted along the way. The weather was perfect and along the way we stocked up on lots of fluids and snacks � keen to try the local foods on offer. We quickly got hooked on Biltong, cured meat that is salted and spiced for some extra taste, available in many flavours � Kudu (antelope), Ostrich, Chicken, Beef, etc. When you first look at it, you actually wonder if it’s edible, but after a quick taste you are soon ripping into it like some savage animal. Highly amusing to watch. After a while we pulled up at the beach. There were a few people around, having swims, eating picnics or just relaxing.


Excuse me, is this spot taken?

On beaches all round the world, there are always pests around, buzzing flies, swooping seagulls, annoying people. The one that caught our attention here were the baboons. As we pulled up to the sand, we noticed the local wildlife also likes a day out at beach. We got out of the car to check out the scenery, and like stupid tourists got a photo of the baboons, but keeping right back. While looking around, the baboon decided we might have some food, so started staring at us. We ignored him. Then he started moving towards us and we all jumped in the car. Nice and safe. Some locals who were cooking nearby had a good laugh at our response, until the baboon took interest them, only to be chased away by a large stick. As we drove on, the baboon paced with the car, still quite interested in what we might have.

Further down the coast we made it to the Cape of Good Hope, paid a fee and entered the reserve. This was tourist central � buses and people everywhere. The carpark was filled with baboons wandering around, sitting on cars, enjoying the sun. We saw many people ignoring all the warning signs and getting into the baboons faces with a camera for a good shot. Not the best idea when these primates can tear you apart without difficulty, and an even stupider idea when they are nursing a baby � might get a tad overprotective. Here we wandered the trails through the barren land climbing down to explore Diaz Beach, while also spotting a bit of the local wildlife � a few ostriches, birds and snakes.

Camps Bay

Camps Bay: stunning, pity the water is ice-cold

A few more days passed, with fine meals down at the glistening waterfront, lazing on beautiful beaches, ‘refreshing’ dips in the freezing Atlantic ocean, sipping wine out at the vineyards, wandering around buzzing shopping centres, exploring the nightlife, and the usual other touristy stuff (has to be done). Although I’ve heard many stories about South African crime, Cape Town does feel safe and secure as long as you have movement around you. But after being shown some ‘bad’ areas while driving around and places to avoid, you do realise that you must have your wits about you and that crime does exist here. The locals are aware of all this, but I doubt all tourists are.

While walking back to the car from a look around the markets and shops in the middle of town, we soon realised that we were being followed. Not too scary though as it was fairly obvious, a glue sniffer was directly behind us and had been for the last 20 meters or so. We got into the car and he simply stood in front of it taking another whiff from the brown paper bag. After some negotiations from Rob honking the horn and yelling, he moved to the side of the car, and as we pulled out made a reach for Rob’s sunglasses through the open window. He missed completely, and after taking some abuse from Rob, we drove on. An accepted way of life for the locals, but an unexpected experience for us.

In our second week, we hired a car (as Rob’s wouldn’t have made it) and drove a quick 800km across to Port Elizabeth (PE) for a slow journey back through the infamous Garden Route. After a quiet night in PE, we arose in the early hours and headed for Addo Elephant Park. After a few hours of missed turnoffs and seemingly endless dirt roads dodging scampering monkeys and large tortoises, we arrived at the entrance. Paying R15 each (basically £1) to enter, we received a map and hit the trails. The concept here is that you drive around on marked roads and spot the animals yourself. Minutes after starting we came across two ostriches, checked them out and continued along. Thirty minutes passed, and we had seen a few more ostriches, but nothing else � not even the flightless dung beetle who hangs out around here. So we chose another road, cruising along, each of us staring hard out the window for the apparent wildlife lurking around here.


Bull elephant

As soon as I saw it I blurted out “Stop…”. We pulled to the side of the road. In the bushes over to the right was a large grey ridge behind some trees, we waited and the elephant slowly emerged. While fascinated with his movements, we didn’t realise that we weren’t alone. To our left another elephant emerged, then a family of four elephants (including a baby) wandered out of the bush, ignorant of us tourists watching. They slowly headed up the road. We just watched in silence. Then our water bottles started to shake, and we heard a boom, boom in Jurassic Park style, and a huge bull elephant wandered out about ten meters in front of us. He was at least three times the height of the car, and just glanced at us watching in awe as he passed through. By this time some other cars had finally caught up so we decided to move on. Inspired by this sighting, we went into stealth mode, cutting the engine and rolling along silently.

Curious zebra

Curious zebra

Further in the park, we spotted more elephants, kudu, tortoises, a puff adder (which we nearly ran over) and a few zebra chilling out near a water hole. One of them was fascinated with us and just stared for literally five minutes before snorting and walking off. Then back into stealth mode and along the path. We pulled up and spotted two meercats a few meters away from the car. Rob decided to have some fun with them and said “Watch this”. He then proceeded to make a hissing sound, “sssss, ssss,” like that of a snake. The meercats heard him and quickly perched on their back legs and looked around for the danger. Then sensing nothing got back to whatever they were doing. Quite amusing. We continued along and the roads soon merged back into the trail leading back to the main gate. Feeling satisfied with our day we headed out of the park and onto the Garden Route.

The Garden Route is called so because the drive takes you through many variations of scenery along the way, from lush forests and coastal drives, to lagoons, harbours and canyons. We took a few days to slowly drive back to Cape Town, encountering many ocean swims, drunken nights (in J’Bay and Knysna), meeting interesting locals and travellers, and exploring many small towns along the way. Good times had by all.

More fun-filled days passed and then the time had come to leave South Africa and all its charms. Looking back upon a plethora of beaches, nightlife, shopping, forests, mountains, wineries and wildlife that the Cape Town area offers, I reluctantly boarded the plane. Taking my seat, I prepare for the dull designated schedule ahead of me wondering when my travels will be interrupted by the next unexpected encounter…