National Park #1 in Africa already not kidding around
After 10 weeks in South America we flew onto the African continent with 5 National Parks on our itinerary and very little idea of what to expect in between. Between talking to other travelers, pouring over our digital copy of The Rough Guide to Africa and a lifetime of movies and nature documentaries we had each crafted a mental image that blended stories of danger and crime with fantastic tales of intimate wildlife encounters and all manner of wild adventures in between.
The names of the places we found ourselves researching were familiar: Kruger, Skeleton Coast, Victoria Falls, Cape of Good Hope but to see them begin to appear on flight reservations and hostel bookings was deeply intimidating. With so much possible and so much unknown we found ourselves going back and forth between feelings of excitement and deep apprehension as our flight date approached.
For one week prior to our flight out of Ushuaia, Argentina to Cape Town, South Africa we stayed in an AirBnB run by a very nice lady named Violeta where we secluded ourselves in an upstairs bedroom and crafted an itinerary for the next continent. Using the aforementioned travel guide and the incredibly helpful SANPARKS website (South Africa National Parks) we were able to book accommodation and tours at many of the national parks that we wanted to visit in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia without going through a tour agency. Still, we boarded our flight on March 13th with our wallets strapped right to our bodies, our backpacks cling-wrapped in plastic to minimize theft and began the long journey that would take us back up the length of South America, over the Atlantic Ocean and into Cape Town.
Adios, South America!
Upon groggily disembarking 30 hours later and taking the official airport taxi to our Airbnb, we began our immediate immersion into South Africa. Our host, an American expat, toured us around the nearby restaurants and we were surprised to find so many familiar looking cafes and burger bars. He assured us (and was right) that walking after dark was no problem if we stuck to the well-lit Kloof Street and just used our 'city smarts' as he put it. There were credit card readers, toilet paper was flushable again, and waiters not only expected you to tip but offered actual service in exchange. After months in South America it was a relief to be able to speak English conversationally again and while still visitors in a foreign land we no longer stood out as gringo tourists.
We were also very excited that all of our camping gear made it to Africa
Our apprehensions about safety, it seemed, were not so much unfounded as they were misplaced- we found it easy to make good decisions about which streets to avoid and how to steer clear of unsavory areas. If nothing else, practicing avoiding pickpockets and scams in Peru and Ecuador had adequately prepared us to approach Capetown with the appropriate level of caution without becoming paranoid. Basic rules like not walking on empty streets at night, carrying minimal cash in several different places and not stopping the car or stopping walking when accosted kept us safe and without incident for our whole time in South Africa.
Cape Town is a beautiful city sprawled between the towering cliffs of Table Mountain and the sparkling blue False Bay. It also happens to have hilariously bad streets for re-learning how to drive a stick-shift (on the opposite side no less), which we discovered in our rental car on our first day. Luckily, Rosie is a champion driver so she acclimated to the challenging situation quickly and after a busy day of getting used to the left side of the road and outfitting ourselves with camping essentials we delved into our first national park on a new continent: Table Mountain National Park!
And with coffee no less!
A confusing trend in the SANPARKS system is to group several areas, sometimes hours apart, into the same park under one name. As such, we visited three distinct places that are all part of the Table Mountain National Park over the course of two days. On the first day we drove down the coast through numerous small beach towns to visit the penguin colony on Boulders Beach and then headed to the most Southwesterly point of Africa at Cape Point. On the second day (our third overall in Africa!) we headed up Table Mountain and spent the day hiking around the massive cliffs that loom over the city. All three parts of the park are a great visit in themselves, and taken together they paint an incredibly varied picture. It is also worth noting that SANparks has a 'Wild Card' that you can purchase which grants you entry to all the country's parks as an international visitor and if you are staying long enough can be a great deal.
Day 1: Boulders Beach and Cape Point
You'd think that we'd be bored with watching penguins by now, right? We were a little worried too until we drove into the parking lot at Boulders Beach to be greeted by signs advising us to check under our cars for penguins- this was clearly going to be a different kind of wildlife experience! A 'car guard' at the parking lot promised to watch our vehicle while we explored the penguin colony and after paying the $5 entrance fee we entered our first park in Africa.
There are lots of helpful signs in South African National Parks
Boulders Beach is named for the massive stones that surround the sandy areas and the park has constructed a series of boardwalks all around them making walking around the penguin colony very easy. We joined the press of tour groups and large families and pushed to the end of the path where flashing cameras and banned selfie sticks swung dangerously. Peering over the edge we realized that we had found the penguins!
Behold, penguins at the beach!
There is almost nothing less graceful and dignified than a penguin... good thing they're cute
The African penguins were spread out all over the beach and warming in the sun. Some were down by the shoreline and occasionally waddled down to the water to flop in the waves. Others basked contentedly on rocks painted white with guano. Most popular, however, was the area where penguin parents were cuddled down close in the sand either sitting on eggs or guarding their chicks.
Tour groups came and went in the 2 hours that we spent there watching the birds come and go on the beach. We didn't think too much of the gulls circling the beach until one swooped down and began to harass a penguin sitting on some eggs. Some posturing and snapping from both sides followed, until with horrifying swiftness the gull snatched the egg out of the sand-nest and flew away to eat it. The entire boardwalk of tourists (which had been waiting in apprehensive silence) gasped as the gull made its move but then paused to contemplate if something this wild was in fact what they had come to see. We had come to Africa prepared to see predation and wildlife, but had not expected to see it even in the penguin colony!
Driving another hour and a half up the winding coastal road led us to the massive entrance gates through which lay Cape Point, the most Southwesterly point of Africa. The narrow, rocky coast hugged red earth road cuts on one side and had a perilous-looking drop on the other marked with "Caution: Baboons" signs.
Past the gates we found ourselves amazed by the change in the topography and temperament of the sea. Roads lead all through this part of the park to various picnic spots, trailheads and viewpoints, many of which boast amazing views of the crashing coast. We picnicked overlooking some tidal pools and admired the supposedly baboon-proof trash cans before taking a short hike up the coast.
48 hours in, South African parks are looking pretty good
Can YOU spot the baboon?
Walking only 30 minutes off the gravel road took us to the edge of a marine sanctuary where tide pools carved into massive slabs of pink and yellow stone flickered with fish and tiny crabs. Baboons hooted from the coastal forest and massive green hills blotted out the low afternoon sun, giving the booming shore below us an eerie lonely feel.
Searching for national parks
Before leaving for the day we did head out to Cape Point itself, a rocky spit into the sea where the waves broke with astounding force. We had our picture made while listening to the thundering surf pound against the corner of Africa before driving back to town, only 48 hours in and already a whole other world away.
From Cape to Cape in a week!
Day 2: Table Mountain
After three mornings of watching the sun go down and the stars come up over Table Mountain from town we were ready to make the journey to the top. Cape Town truly is laid out around the base of this monolith by the sea and it stands as a imposing, angular block of stone that gives the city a feeling of being butted up to a wall. The mountain is one of the principal tourist attractions in town and boasts a cable car that will take you up to the top or a number of hiking trails that wind through rocky jumbles and up steep cliffs as it rises above the city. Hiking up Table Mountain in a group is safe enough, but with just two of us we thought it better to take the rotating cable car up to the top, which sounded like an adventure in itself.
Table for two, please!
Rising early, we negotiated the packed Cape Town streets up to the lower parking lot at the very base of the mountain. We paid the car guard a few Rand to watch our car (about 50 cents) and took the free trolley to the cable car station. Whereas the other sections of Table Mountain NP had been quiet and windswept, this part of the park was akin to an amusement park almost immediately: stepping off the trolley we were greeted by two gift shops, an ice cream stand, and a line that looked like it came from Disneyworld.
Pro Tip: you CAN buy your tickets when you get there, but you will also pay with hours of your life.
After getting our tickets ($45 each, 20% discount with a Wild Card) we and 62 other people we were about to become very intimate with were ushered up some stairs, onto an elevator, through a gate and into a holding corral. Walking the path up the mountain was starting to look pretty good by now! Upon finally boarding the cable car we were instructed not to touch the guard rails and as the car began to rise, the floor began to slowly spin.
Pulling up out of the cable house in our spinning car immediately gave an impressive view of the city and the bright blue bay. We rose up over scrubby brush against an unbelievably steep slope, occasionally spotting the stone pathway on the cliff side, and in just 5 minutes were at the top- a journey that takes several hours if you are walking.
Just happy to not be hiking up the mountain for once!
The top of Table Mountain from afar is indeed flat like a table. Close up however, it is a stoney and boulder-strewn expanse covered in tiny gnarled trees with miniature dassies running around the cliff sides. The view is sheer and far-reaching, and clouds blow in at eye level or up from below, pouring up over the cliff faces from all directions. The feeling of being in a crowded theme park thankfully dissipated the farther that we walked from the top cable house, and we spent several hours just exploring the paths that lead around the top of the mountain.
Dassies: Closest living relative to the elephant, which obviously doesn't mean much
One short hike that we were thankful we did went about an hour out to Maclears Beacon, a massive pile of stones that was once used to chart constellations and meridian lines. The beacon lies far from the crowds along a winding stone path that offers more and more dramatic views the farther you go- massive King Protea flowers line the way and dassies hide in the rocks, making this part of the national park feel much more wild than at the entrance gate.
King Protea looking regal
Table Mountain National Park presents several distinctive South African experiences; winding drives, unexpected wildlife, beautiful vistas and the press of international tourists trying to get a picture of it all. With several days in Cape Town under our belts we felt ready to move beyond the city to try to see more of the country's parks, so with gas in our tiny rental car and our backpacks in the trunk we drove east towards the Garden Route and the elephant-haunted forests of Knysna.
Table Mountain National Park, By the Numbers
What Did It Take to Get From Ushuaia, Argentina to Cape Town, South Africa: 4 flights, 30 hours, 1 in-flight meal
How Much Should I Tip the 'Car Guard' Watching My Car in Cape Town: R10-15 (Depending on how sketchy the street is)
Hairy Near-Misses While Learning to Drive on the Opposite Side: Fewer than you might expect!
The Hold That Cape Town Hertz Wanted to Put on Our Card: $10,000 (What the Hell, Hertz?!)
Baboons Actively Raising Hell in the Cape Point Parking Lot: 15 (all of them)
Hours Spent In Line Making It to the Top of Table Mountain: 2.5
Epic Views: 1 Sweeping Panorama at Table Mountain, 1 Spectacular Coastline at Cape Point, and 1 Alternately Adorable and Grisly Scene at Boulder's Beach