Unexpected Cape Town

Expect the Unexpected


Cape Town is full of things for the visitor to do; from the majesty that is Cape Point to the breathtaking views atop Table Mountain. But, as I discovered earlier this year, Cape Town is also full of the expected.

What I experienced is surely part of the reason Cape Town has just been awarded the prestigious 2012 Telegraph Readers award for Best WorldWide City.

An energetic tortoise, butterflies and a huge dragonfly complement a lazy breakfast in a peaceful garden. 

Fortified with buttermilk rusks and cups of rooibos, we headed off to walk through the cool and shady Company Gardens, already filling up with school children and tourists taking photographs of the ubiquitous grey squirrels. [photo of peanut seller] It was all so familiar, but when last were the many lovely, uniquely Cape Town museums and art galleries situated just off Government Avenue visited? The South African Museum, Bertram House, South African Jewish Museum and St Georges Cathedral to name but a few of the places to tempt those not on a timetable to stray and spend time exploring.

What is there not to like about the V&A Waterfront? Still a working harbour, famous too for the place to catch the ferry to Robben Island, we were shown a different side to this busy shopping destination. We were going to explore the links between the land, sea and people, though still important, perhaps not that obvious, and that is what our lovely guide Alida was planning to show us.  Not many tourists take the time to experience a guided tour and we had the opportunity to see the unexpected diverse layers of the V&A. We had a look at the original fortification that protected Cape Town in the early 18th century in the Chavonnes Museum, built by the Dutch East India Company and named after the governor of the Cape Colony Maurits Pasque de Chavonnes. Did he look as grand as his name? We studied the nearby Claudette Schreuders’ bronze creations of the four South African Nobel Peace Prize Laureates in Nobel Square: Nkosi Albert Luthuli, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, F.W de Klerk and Nelson Mandela.

#CapeTown is a walkable city. Not to be rushed, but explored and savoured.

Something new that is being trialled are ‘pop-up’ shops – a great way to give access to local talent to sell their wares, many using reclaimed materials that are given a new function or fascination.  The locals really do incorporate design in their daily life, and it’s evidenced in these tiny shops. [photo of recycled bags]

We were disappointed that we would not have time to have a sleep-over at the Aquarium – and quietly pleased that we would therefore not be invited to dive in the huge tanks for a new perspective of the occupants!

I want to find an arum lily frog in the wild. These tiny creatures are only found in the Cape. #Aquarium 

We recommend the heritage trail that has been developed to bring all these hidden Waterfront gems together. Make sure to get the V&A map at the information centre which will give a clearer perspective.

Khayelitsha cookies were served at the Mount Nelson Hotel, a lovely juxtaposition of Cape Town and a hotel with historical links to the sea.  In 1890, a private residence was converted by the owner of the Union-Castle line, into a luxury hotel for the exclusive use of first class passengers, who were among the tourism pioneers and early travellers to stay in the Cape. All around the hotel, famous for its ‘blush’ of rosy-pink, are lovely old street maps of Cape Town, travel posters from a time when travel was exclusive and exotic locations out of reach for most people, and stern-looking Victorian generals, resplendent with busy beards and military regalia stare out of their frames.

Helmsley place, now part of the #MountNelson was where in 1841 the first Jewish service was held in #CapeTown.

Our ‘Unexpected Cape Town’ tour was only warming up, and already we were overwhelmed with new experiences and it was about to get better. That evening, we were heading off with Michael from CoffeeBeans Routes to dine with Sheila and listen to Cape Town jazz at her home. It feels awkward visiting someone’s home whom you don’t know, but Sheila, Tete, Lateli and Itumeleng soon made us welcome. The evening was unexpected for so many reasons; the conversation over the home-cooked meal of local vegetable dishes and ‘chicken a-la Sheila’ with our group of ex-pats and a family from Gauteng, who all went back for second helpings – and of course the musicians. We slipped away to chat with Sheila who introduced us to her sister-in-law and 90-year-old father, who we couldn’t help but think looked like a younger Nelson Mandela!

Spotted:  Dramatic panorama’s high up on the walls inside the old Post Office building that show a colonial view of the old Cape Colony 

The flavours and fabric of Cape Town were slowly being revealed. Beneath the smart exterior of a busy, cosmopolitan city we were discovering the many layers that have gone into the making a modern city and it’s people. Our next stop on the Unexpected was a walking tour with Deon, our guide on the ‘Sex and Slaves in the City’.  At times uncomfortable, but only because the subject matter was difficult and the attempts at theatre did it no justice. What this tour did successfully, was expose the dark chapter in Cape Town’s history of slave trading, how the slaves lived and died and how important they were to the survival and prosperity of the new colony. Records exist of the first slaves who were imported from Bengal, Angola, Mozambique and Benin. And of Eve, a five-year old girl from Madagascar among them.  A number of buildings used by the slaves, and their masters can still be visited, including the Slave Lodge, St Stephens, Slave Church Museum and Slave school.

We grabbed a delicious lunch in the courtyard of Heritage Square, sat beneath the Cape’s oldest vine, planted in 1771 and still producing crops of white grapes. 

It was time to return to the cobbled Bo-Kaap streets as we had an important lesson to attend; cooking a real Cape Malay curry. We were welcomed with a delicate glass of faloodah – a traditional, lightly rose-scented milk drink – by our host and cooking star Jasmina, a life-long Bo-Kaap resident who was keen for us to get our hands full of chickpea flour, whilst regaling us with stories of her family, cooking traditions and how we had all been making our curries incorrectly! Flavours and names of local ingredients washing over us as I battled to fold my samosa; jeera, barishap, koljander and dhanja were all part of the enthralling story-telling of the Bo-Kaap and it’s residents. Our small group of cooking ‘guests’ were as different as the spices Jasmina had introduced us to, but we could not have felt more welcome in her home and around her kitchen table, and it was a pleasure to experience such warm authentic hospitality.

Overheard: “I love cooking and talking. The two go together” 

Despite having just eaten lunch, we had no hesitation in getting stuck into the fruits of our labours – samosa’s, roti and a chicken curry, all washed down with a glass of homemade lemonade. We were despatched with recipes and spices so that we could cook this wonderful food at home, although we may need a satellite link to Jasmina’s kitchen!

Just as Cape Town is full of the Unexpected, so was our next visit! We headed down to the CTICC to meet with Deon, our paddle-board instructor and keen surfer, who was ready to show us an alternative mode of transport along the quiet canals that flow into the V&A Waterfront. Paddle-boarding is a favourite with celebrities, who seem to be impossibly stuck to the board, but Deon showed us how easy it could be. After a few sessions maybe, so will have to save that for a return visit.


The Camissa (sweet water) stream flows down the mountainside and past the Platteklip Wash Houses, a little gem of a place with amazing access right onto Table Mountain. So-called after the slave women who used to trek up the slopes to beat and clean the laundry on the flat rocks on the banks of the stream. It’s a wonderful taste of the wilderness, right in the City, with only the stars and the mountain as your backdrop.

Crayfish tails and tales of leopards hunting crocs enjoyed beneath an old oak tree at the #WashHouses

Wine is one of the few products that effortlessly reflects its origin and influences…the soils, climate and winemaker all have a hand in crafting a particular type and taste [Wine Tourism Handbook 2012]. And wine is a thread that been woven through the history and social development of the Cape, not least of all on the farms in the northern suburbs and our next stop Durbanville Hills. Our image of a dark cellar full of old wooden barrels was quickly dispelled by Kate, who showed us round the winery.  We marvelled at each 35,000 litre tank of their famous Sauvignon Blanc, tantalizingly within reach, but we had to wait for the wine tasting. Knysna-made Artisan chocolate, biltong, beef sticks and six lovely wines served up in a magnificent and modern tasting room. Poor us… We were assailed by a few new taste combinations, not least of all the Cape Malay spiced chocolate served with an equally ‘spicy’ shiraz. Who knew that a white lemon verbena chocolate, combined with an un-oaked chardonnay could recreate the taste of a Lemon Cream cookie?

The view of Table Mountain and Table Bay in the distance was a distraction over our gorgeous lunch of local dishes, including another Cape Malay Curry. Who could resist?

Blown away by the artisan chocolate and wine paring at #DurbanvilleHills#UnExpectedCapeTown

The District Six museum, established in 1994 works with the memories, experiences and history of those involved in the forced removals of 1966 when 60,000 local residents were forcibly removed to outlying Cape Flats, and their houses in District Six were flattened by the bulldozers and much of the rubble taken to the Waterfront and used as landfill.



Covered by the dust of defeat – 

so the conquerors believed

But there is nothing that can

be hidden from the mind.

Nothing that memory cannot

reach or touch or call back.

Don Mattera, 1987

Our guide Norman, from Roots Africa Tours, tells us that ‘shanty’ is from two old Irish words; shan – old and ty – house. Khayelitsha on the other hand is a local word and means ‘new home’, likewise Langa which means ‘sun’.

The Guga S’Thebe Arts and Cultural Centre in Langa is wonderfully decorated with ceramic murals and within we found artists creating ceramics, water colours and textiles. We visited Sandile Mdekazi’s mosaic studio, and watched him work on new pieces to be sold in the cultural centre and he hoped, further afield.  We visited the Pilane ‘Go Well’ Project that was established in 1995 in Khayelitsha to teach women traditional weaving skills and to then be a in position to start their micro-businesses. Guess who dived into the shop and emerged with armfuls of goodies?

By now we were getting hungry, and it was time to visit a restaurant that has appeared in the media around the world – Mzoli’s. Fine dining it is not, but if you are fan of braaied meat, then this will be your idea of heaven. Busy busy, on a Friday afternoon, the weekend had clearly started early, and the locals were seated around big platters of meat smothered in BBQ sauce. Dotted about where a few conspicuous tourists, bravely tucking into local delicacy cha-ka-la-ka (spicy salsa) with pap (smooth maize porridge). This is definitely a place to get your hands dirty with delicious food, and the chance to ‘live like a local.’

We spent a quiet evening in the SWI Lodge, that has rave reviews from almost everyone. We tried to stay out of the way of a wedding party, putting the finishing touches to their banquet taking place the next day, and so retired to a local restaurant to get stuck into some ostrich steaks – must have been delayed meat withdrawal from the lunch stop earlier.

Cape Town is often accused of being full of good-looking, yoga mat holding, trendy people, and we think we found the place where they all meet. The Cape Quarter bills itself as a lifestyle village, with plenty of opportunities for shopping and people watching.  Of course we wanted to scoop up even more goodies to take home, but with suitcases already full we just had to walk away. That didn’t stop us however, buying from the BayHarbour market, in Hout Bay. A newer market, it doesn’t have the polished edges of some of the other well-known establishments, but therein lies the charm. We tasted beer, ate pizza and fell in love with some meerkats!

Spotted: Pink carpet on the ceiling and leopard skin-heeled doorhandles in the ladies loos. 


Our final stop was the beautiful Steenberg estate, watched over by the Elephants Eye on the mountainside at the Silvermine reserve. Amazing views of the mountains and sea set the scene for wine tasting and authentic Spanish tapas in Bistro Sixteen82 with our lovely host, Gaby. We experienced some food one-up-man-ship with the table next door who wanted to take pictures of our tapas to boast to family back home that ‘their’ meal was by far the superior! Bought by Graham Beck in 2005, this estate and hotel have never looked back, and we could have quite happily cancelled our flights home and settled beside the pool. For ever.

Later that evening, we pounced on the recently opened ‘Gorgeous’ champagne bar – truly a spot for the young and the beautiful – we were allowed in for of our beauty, if not our age…

No view of #TableMountain is the same. As you move around the peninsula, intriguing ravines & buttresses are revealed. 

We had come to Cape Town to experience the Unexpected City, and found new friends, stories, characters, resourceful women, music, pioneers, art, history, beauty and taste.

I was fortunate to travel with my colleague and friend Adel Grobler USA Rep for Cape Town Tourism

3 thoughts on “Unexpected Cape Town

  1. I don’t comment, but after reading a bunch of remarks here Unexpected Cape Town SeeTheSights. I do have 2 questions for you if it’s allright. Could it be simply me or do a few of these remarks look as if they are coming from brain dead individuals? 😛 And, if you are writing on other social sites, I’d like to keep up with anything fresh you have to post. Could you post a list of every one of your social community pages like your twitter feed, Facebook page or linkedin profile?

  2. You could definitely see your enthusiasm within the article you write.
    The world hopes for more passionate writers like
    you who are not afraid to say how they believe.
    All the time follow your heart.

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