The inhabited world seems to peter out at Noordhoek Beach, a five-mile strip of white sand bordered by verdant cliffs, on the Atlantic coast of the Cape Peninsula 15 miles southwest of Cape Town.
At 4 o’clock in the afternoon, with a pale sun shining weakly through an overcast sky, a friend and I followed a trail on horseback through dunes and wetlands leading to the coast. A long-billed Hadeda ibis and a pair of Egyptian geese waded in a freshwater stream swollen with recent rains.
The horses broke into a trot, then a canter, as we hit the beach speckled with gnarled driftwood and great, squiggly strands of kelp.
In the distance, a near-perpendicular cliff face soared high above the sea, its striated green flank cut by the fabled Chapman’s Peak Drive, one of the world’s most heart-stopping stretches of asphalt.
The air was thick with seagulls, cormorants and black oystercatchers. We watched a huge seagull soar high in the air, a clam in its beak, and drop its prize on the sand; two dozen attempts later, it succeeded in breaking open the shell, and ripped into the clam’s flesh. Farther on, I caught sight of a dark form moving in the sand; it was an injured seal in its death throes.
“They wash up all the time,” our guide, Hope Flex, told us.
“Nothing can be done for them.” The creature wagged its flippers, lay still, then lifted its head and flopped down again. I turned my horse away and continued down the beach.
There’s wildness to Cape Town — the big skies, the rugged canyons, the jagged outcroppings of sandstone and granite that rise over the icy South Atlantic at the tip of Africa.
Penguins waddle across white-sand beaches, elands roam the dunes, hungry baboons swoop down from their shrinking forest habitat on unsuspecting suburbanites, ripping apart their cupboards and closets in a desperate search for sustenance.
Part Alaska, part Big Sur, but always African, Cape Town can overwhelm a visitor with its grand-scale landscapes and its feeling of remoteness.
It’s an agoraphobic’s nightmare, this patch of wind-whipped scrubland and mountain at the bottom of the world, and a naturalist’s dream.
But there’s another side of Cape Town as well: the Dutch colonists who settled in the Constantia Valley 350 years ago were determined to tame nature, and they covered the fertile, sun-drenched basin with vineyards that still produce some of the world’s finest wines.
Beach communities like Kalk Bay, reminiscent of Massachusetts— a funky mix of tidy Edgartown and rough-edged New Bedford — hug the coast.
Then there’s the urban poverty that most tourists, and most white Capetonians, seldom see, except when they pass by it on the way to and from Cape Town International Airport: the squatter camps of the Cape Flats, where tens of thousands of immigrants from impoverished rural areas dwell in shacks beside canals overflowing with raw sewage, and makeshift bars, or shabeens, fill with the alcoholic and the unemployed.
The city’s collisions of culture, class and geography can be both exhilarating and unsettling, as I discovered while I lived in Cape Town as a Newsweek correspondent between 2005 and 2007. What’s more, it’s all become very cheap to experience.
The ouster of President Thabo Mbeki last September, along with continuing trouble in neighbouring Zimbabwe and the worldwide economic crisis have pushed the South African rand to its lowest level in five years.
The rate of exchange was 7 rand to the dollar when I left in March 2007; these days it’s around 10. Even though high South African inflation has pushed up prices in rand, they have declined in dollars.
A night in a double superior room in the summer high season at the Constantia, a boutique hotel in the Constantia Valley, for example, has risen in the past year from 3,100 rand to 3,400 rand, but in dollars, it has declined from about $400 to $345.
It’s now possible to stay in a cheaper but still very good hotel room, rent a car, eat a couple of excellent meals and hike or mountain bike in the world’s most magnificent wilderness reserves, all for a total of $300 a day.
For the budget-conscious outdoor-loving American traveller looking for a bargain in the recessionary era, Cape Town is hard to beat.
I arrived in Cape Town in mid-November, at the start of the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, and decided to splurge for the first two nights of my stay at the Constantia, on Cape Town’s historic wine route.
Elegantly furnished suites laid out around lawns and bamboo gardens, breakfast on a patio facing the rugged Steenberg Mountains, a private mini-swimming pool in the tiled courtyard outside every room — it was easy to feel guilty about such shameless self indulgence, but I was paying only the equivalent of $250 a night at a temporary discounted rate, so I didn’t dwell on it.
The Constantia was a luxurious and well-situated base from which to rediscover the city. Early on my first afternoon in Cape Town, I set out for the Food barn in Noordhoek, a prominent example, I had been told, of the culinary revolution, that Cape Town has undergone in recent years. I drove from the Constantia over Ou Kaapse Weg — Old Cape Road in Afrikaans — a two-lane ribbon that winds steeply through the Steenbergs.
Like much of the Cape Peninsula, this treeless range of hills is blanketed with fynbos — the hard-leafed heath like vegetation that evolved in isolation in this windswept, arid and fire-prone corner of the world.
After climbing through the rolling terrain to about 2,000 feet above False Bay, the road dipped toward Noordhoek, a rural beachside community that feels Californian — a bit like Topanga Canyon, a bit like Malibu.
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