South Africa — Cape Town, Table Mountain and Shark Diving

South Africa is perfectly paired with Champagne, or the bubbles of your choice.

Our first night in South Africa, we camped at a vineyard and enjoyed a wine tasting by the pool. Picture a beautiful barn, a big wooden table, a mountain view, and me in my safari clothes and messy hairdo.

And it was our last night in the tents, so we had reason to celebrate. 40 days of camping in Africa — done.

We sipped refreshing sparkling wine and South Africa’s famous Pinotage.

There was no better place for a last hurrah than Cape Town. It’s a stunning city sprawling the dramatic landscape between the coast and the mountains. The vibe feels European and Californian but with a cool, African flare.

When we arrived, I took a long, hot shower and then ripped off the camping Bandaid with a luxurious wine and sushi lunch at the waterfront.

That night, our group went for an amazing goodbye dinner at Gold Restaurant complete with African cuisine, singing, dancing and tribal face paint that looks a lot like rave face paint.

The tour was officially over and I had 5 romantic days to myself to explore Cape Town.

Hiking Table Mountain is an absolute must. Table Mountain is the giant flat-topped mountain that reigns over Cape Town and is one of the new wonders of the world. I loved hiking up in the afternoon, exploring the more deserted areas, and then watching the sun set over the city, the mountains, and the beaches. The view from the top just might have been the best view I’ve ever had.

Like any good natural wonder, there is a cafe and gift shop at the top. There’s also a cable car. I was grateful for the glass of bubbly and the ride down.

In the morning, I was set to be picked up at the ungodly hour of 3am for cage diving with great white sharks. South Africa is one of the few places on earth where you can do this, so it seemed like a perfect final dose of adrenaline for the trip. I was staying in a hostel room with 7 other people who weren’t even all back from the bars yet when my alarm went off at 245am. I got dressed in the dark and waited in the lobby until a small man approached and said “Ariel? Come with me.” The American in me hoped he might have some badge or paperwork so I would know he was the right guy. But this is Africa and everything here is at your own risk. So I did what they always tell you to do in situations with strange men in foreign countries — I hopped in the back of his van and fell asleep. I woke nearly 2 hours later to a van full of people and the news that we had arrived in Gansbaai.

We boarded the boat and headed out to shark alley, each with our own hooded and booted wetsuits for the icy water. But the sea was very rough and within minutes people started to fall sea sick. I never get sea sick, and because of that, I think I’ve always had an almost holier-than-thou feeling toward people who do. Surely they must be very high-maintenance, or fragile, or just not very adventurous.

But then there I was, feeling incredibly queasy, in small boat rocking violently in the waves, wearing an extremely tight wetsuit zipped up to my chin, and surrounded by people puking. Living the dream, if you will.

Many of the sick people took off their wetsuits, starfished on the front of the boat, and waited for it all to be over. But I was determined to do the dive. And I remembered that getting in the water is supposed to help with sea sickness.

I kept trying to tell myself that as the frigid sea water infiltrated my wetsuit and I clung to the cage bars. What I didn’t foresee was that the cage was attached to the boat, so when the boat rocked, the cage rocked, meaning getting in the water didn’t actually make it a smoother ride. I learned this the hard way as I swallowed large gulps of salt water.

When the sharks came, I almost didn’t notice the nausea or the overwhelming scent of the fish chum we were pouring into the water.

Seeing such huge sharks up close was breathtaking — literally. The first few times I instinctively pushed to the back of the cage. We’re so trained to fear that jagged fin. But most often the long body slid by gracefully, sometimes jumping to chomp on fish bait or a fake seal we were dragging. It was both terrifying and fascinating to watch.

The boat ride back was freezing and turbulent. I celebrated surviving and reaching dry land with a glass of champagne and a nap.

The next day, I went to see the Cape of Good Hope. On the way, I stopped by Hout Bay to visit a seal colony and Boulders Beach to see penguins. I wouldn’t mind being a seal or a penguin here — both seem playful and carefree, just hanging out with their friends all day long.

After the penguins, I took a bike ride through the mountainside with views of gorgeous beaches. Baboons can be seen on the beaches eating shellfish, which is rare for primates. They are incredibly human-like and apparently share 92% of their DNA with people. But I’ve also heard we share 99% of our DNA with bananas so who’s counting?

At Cape Point, the most South Western tip of Africa, there’s an old light house you can hike up to. The view from the top is a stunning cliffy coastal landscape and deep blue ocean stretching out to Antarctica. It’s the type of place you want to wear a flowy white dress, eat fresh seafood and sip champagne.

On my last full day in Cape Town, I took a hop-on / hop-off bus around the city and surrounding areas. I took a lovely walk through the park at Kirstenbosch Gardens. I jumped on the wine route and did a tasting at a magnificent old winery. The equivalent of four glasses of wine later, I was sufficiently sloshed and on my way.

I tried to take a “township” tour (which seems to be a euphemism for slum) but wanted to understand how to join the tour before I jumped off the bus in a slum by myself. The driver pointed me to a 9 year old boy. The boy seemed friendly and told me his name was Melijuwon (sp?) but didn’t seem clear on whether he worked for a tour company. After a few minutes, he told me to sit on the corner with him and wait for the guide. It seemed to stress him out when I asked him for more information. So there we sat, just me and Melijuwon — him tapping furiously on his cell phone and me still woozy from the wine and wincing as I watched six year olds carrying 1 year olds across busy traffic lanes. After about 25 minutes, though Melijuwon insisted that a guide would come, I decided to get back on the next bus.

I did mange to take a walking tour of District Six. This area was once home to a vibrant mixed community but was bulldozed during Apartheid to become all-white housing. Previous residents were forced into slums or places like one named Ocean View that in reality has no ocean view. To add to the tragedy, the land was never used — nothing was ever built. Empty fields sit still sit in the middle of the city as a reminder of what happened there.

Before circling back to the city, the hop-on / hop-off bus drives down the coast by several gorgeous beaches. I made my final stop at Camps Bay, a long white beach with a cute shops and restaurants. I got a Nutella banana crepe, arguably my very favorite treat, and walked along the beach.

It was a perfect last day and it’s always good to remember how much fun I can have on my own.

That being said, I was happy to discover that Victoria, my lovely Canadian friend, was on the same flight as me to Joberg. And she too feels that South Africa calls for bubbles. So before we left, we enjoyed one final glass of Champagne in the Cape Town sunshine and cheers’ed to a fantastic trip.

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