Table Mountain and Its Cableway

What’s a trip to Cape Town without going to the top of Table Mountain? Obviously I wanted to do this from the get-go but it’s apparently also one of the around 15 things you just HAVE TO DO in Cape Town, which I found to be unnecessary pressure for people who only had five days there…

…because taking the cableway up was NOT that simple. First of all, Table Mountain is often under cloud cover, or what locals call its “table cloth,” meaning you can go up, but 1) you won’t see anything of the view 2) you may fall off because you won’t see the edge either. Also, when it’s windy, the cableway closes. Even if you’re already up there, and almost 6 months pregnant, and in no shape to hike down.

We discovered further obstacles when we stopped by after visiting the botanical gardens on Sunday afternoon: for a full week or so before we arrived (including that Sunday), the cableway had been closed for maintenance. It re-opened Monday August 8th. August 9th was a national holiday (National Women’s Day) and South Africans, like the French, do the “pont.” So, needless to say, when we stopped by around 3 pm on Monday (because all the guidebooks say there’s less of a line in the afternoon), it was swamped. Not only would we have waited two hours to get the car up, but we would also have waited two hours to come back down, and the final car down was at 6 pm (so… logistically impossible). We gave up and planned to go up on Wednesday morning before our evening flight home.

So, here’s how we eventually managed to go up the cableway with beautiful weather on our final morning in Cape Town.

  1. We lucked out and had beautiful weather. I had brought my coat because it can apparently be much colder up top than down below, but I didn’t need it.
  2. We bought our tickets online the night before to avoid the hour-long ticket line. We obviously couldn’t print them but I could download them onto my iPhone.
  3. We arrived at 8 am. The cableway opens at 8:30. We were on the first car up. People who arrived at 8:30 had an hour’s wait.
  4. We came back down at noon, when there was no line for the ride down.

Table Mountain was really beautiful and a great way to spend our last day in South Africa but given the number of potential obstacles I would say not to stress if you can’t make it during your trip. Of course if you’re in good physical shape and not afraid of a little light climbing, you can hike up for free in about 3 hours, which is what our friends did the day before. But if it’s cloudy you can still fall off.

So, here are some pictures.

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Ju on the car on the way up

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The view of Cape Town and Robben Island from the top

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The plateau

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Ju and Lion’s Head

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Signal Hill

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Finally managed to get a decent selfie

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Dassies near the cafe

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View on the way down

The cable cars are pretty fancy, with both closed and open windows and a revolving floor. I was a little too afraid of heights to deal with the open windows so sat on the little bench in the middle of the car that didn’t turn. The car was much emptier on the way down (very few people leave at noon apparently) and J managed to get that last shot.

There is a restaurant that opens at 10:30 where we had second breakfast (after getting up at 6:30). There’s also a shop and a mail box where we sent off our post cards. There’s an open picnic-type area between the two and the dassies hang out nearby taking advantage of dropped crumbs. Otherwise there are a number of different hikes you can do on the plateau. We didn’t really do any of them but wandered around the shortest one, because I didn’t want us to get lost and waste time—we did have a flight out that evening, and also, my legs were pretty tired.

 

Visiting Robben Island

It was absolutely imperative for me to visit Robben Island on our trip to Cape Town. There were other cultural and historical excursions that we didn’t do: a tour of a township, the District Six Museum, etc. But I wouldn’t have felt I had really visited South Africa without at least seeing this prison.

It’s the only activity we reserved before leaving France, because the tours fill up a few days ahead of time. But tickets are really easy to buy online and then print out or keep on your smartphone.

The trip starts with a ferry ride out of the V&A Waterfront after passing through security detectors. The ride itself is nice and allows a sea view of Cape Town and its ridiculous gigantic mountain in the middle of the city.

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Table Mountain and Cape Town from the bay

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The stadium (built for the World Cup in 2010) from the bay

Besides the ferry ride, the tour includes a tour of the prison with a former prisoner and a bus tour of the island with a professional guide.

Our prison guide was a man who was arrested in the student movement of the late 70s after having left the country to get military training in Angola and other places (which in itself was illegal). He was 24 when he was arrested and sent to Robben Island after a period of detention before trial during which, like all the other prisoners, he was tortured and unsure whether he’d make it to trial alive.

He showed us a group cell for forty men, explaining the different rules for the different “races”, an effort by the prison to divide the prisoners.

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Group cell for forty men (obviously there were no longer forty beds in here)

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An example of an ID card with the prisoner’s number

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The different meals according to the prisoner’s race

We then moved on to the individual cells which we saw from the outside before passing in front of Nelson Mandela’s cell from the inside.

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The yard outside the individual cells

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Nelson Mandela’s cell (pre-bed)

I learned a lot from this part of the tour about the functioning of the prison, including the different meals and uniforms according to race, the absence of beds until 1969, the limitations on visitors and the censoring of letters (all letters and visits had to be in Afrikaans or English).

The guide was actually quite difficult to understand and I had to concentrate to catch as much as possible, and then try to quickly interpret for J. There were a lot of foreign visitors on this tour and I think a lot of them probably didn’t understand much. To be honest the group felt too big for such a heavily historical place with a guide who wasn’t professional but rather someone directly concerned by what he was telling us. It felt like some of the other tourists were more in a “consumerist” tourist mode and some of the respect for the place was lost. But at the end a lot of people thanked this guide personally so I think it was a visit that counted for a lot of people too. There’s so much demand that I don’t know if they could make the groups smaller, but I felt it would have been more appropriate.

As for the bus tour around the island, we learned a bit more about the prison and the stories of the island, which served as a prison as early as the 1600s and also as a leper colony. We got a good review of how the Pass Laws worked and some of the other important prisoners on the island. We also saw some turtles.

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On the walkway from the boat to the prison

I’d be interested to know if anyone out there has visited any comparable historical sites. This part of South Africa’s history is so, so recent and had so much impact on its current culture that as a tourist “attraction” Robben Island feels exceptional to me.

Four Days in Cape Town

Ahhh Cape Town. Where to start? We only spent about five days there, including our first night in South Africa before heading to Rocklands, and the final three and a half days before we came back to France. I’m sure you could fill at least a week easily, especially if you went less hard core than we did. But we actually had trouble sleeping in and ended up getting up early (7:30 or 8:30) most days, and since it got dark around 6:30, we tried to be back by then.

I think we managed to hit all the high points.

Bo-Kaap and City Bowl

We arrived in Cape Town at around noon having left France the day before. Though I managed to sleep more on the plane this time than other times, we were still totally wiped upon arrival, not to mention that it was winter and the sun set at 6:15, so we took a walk around the cloudy, cold V&A Waterfront and went to bed at like 9:30.

The following morning we packed our things, somehow hid them all in the trunk (there were three of us at this point including three crashpads), and headed to Bo-Kaap, known as the prettiest neighborhood in Cape Town and also historically Muslim. Despite the clouds and the gray, it was still something special to look at.

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Looking down from Signal Hill

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Toward Signal Hill

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Bo-Kaap traffic with City Bowl behind it

We parked at the edge of Signal Hill and walked our way through Bo-Kaap, into the tiny Bo-Kaap Museum, and toward downtown. We came randomly across a wholesale African art market, which it turned out are a real thing in Cape Town and a really good deal. J cracked for a couple of items, but this visit helped give us a reference for good prices for the rest of the trip, and we returned to a similar spot the day before leaving Cape Town to complete our purchases (we bought a lot of stuff, ok?).

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

After Rocklands and the Garden Route we returned to Cape Town with much better weather which we took advantage of immediately at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. It was particularly motivating to come here after having spent two weeks in the fynbos of Rocklands.

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Entering the gardens (Table Mountain National Park in the background)

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Birds of paradise

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The new tree canopy walkway (very cool)

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Protea

The gardens were tiring for me: they were almost completely hill. At one point our decisions about what parts to visit became entirely based on which parts involved going uphill, but since we weren’t very good with the map we ended seeing almost everything anyway. We spent the whole afternoon there, eating lunch at the restaurant and ending in the greenhouses. There were lots of families having picnics.

Going out on Long Street

I have no pictures of this part, but it was definitely worth doing and led to our one day of sleeping in in Cape Town. Our friends wanted a night out in the city and the place to go was Long Street, in the middle of downtown. I have never seen a city street so packed with night life in my life, including Paris and 6th Street in Austin. I don’t know why they don’t close this street to through traffic on Saturday nights. We arrived around 8 and had burgers, drinks and milkshakes at a local restaurant. When J took me back to the apartment at 12 things seemed to just be getting started, and he returned with our friends to stay out till 2. They on the other hand were out till 5—needless to say they didn’t do much the following day. But this did really feel like a cultural experience worth having, even at the potential loss of the following day’s sightseeing. And the street was so packed with police, taxis, and bar-goers that it felt safe, though I can’t speak for the side streets. I told one of our friends that I wanted him to physically put J back in the rental car at the end of the night to make sure he got home, but he had no trouble at all (and it was only a ten-minute drive from where we were staying).

The V&A Waterfront

With the now sunny, warm weather we went back to the V&A Waterfront and it was a different place from the first night we’d arrived. We were there primarily to catch our ferry for Robben Island (separate post on that coming), but we had about an hour to visit the art shops and look at the different boats anchored in the harbor. We also managed to find Nobel Square this time, which is a series of four larger than life statues of the four South Africans who have won the Nobel Peace Prize.

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Me and Nelson Mandela (the statues are in the shade in the morning), with the waterfront and Table Mountain behind

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Art for sale outside a massive shop on the waterfront

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Inside on the second of three floors: We amazingly did not buy anything here.

The Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve

The Cape of Good Hope is not actually the southernmost point in Africa, but it is traditionally where people considered that the Atlantic and Indian Oceans were divided. It is also not the only cape in the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, the most visited actually being Cape Point, which is where we went.

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In the zoomed in section you can see the Cape of Good Hope in the west and Cape Point in the east

The reserve itself is huge and I’m sure you could spend a day there, plus there is actually some accommodation in the reserve if you want to spend two days. We paid our entry of 130 rand each (less than 10 euros) and drove down to the Cape Point stop, where there are toilets (as always, South Africa for the win), a small souvenir shop where we bought two sets of salad spoons, and a funicular up to the start of the hikes. The funicular is unnecessary if you’re in reasonably good shape, but I was breathing for two, so we didn’t hesitate to take it. Since we were there at 9 am, we were the only ones on the trip up (we walked down).

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Going up the funicular

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The Cape of Good Hope from Cape Point

Once at the top of the funicular, there are yet more staircases up to a lighthouse. I was very clearly incapable of walking these stairs and so let J run up. While I was sitting waiting for him and enjoying the view, and entire busload of South African schoolchildren arrived at full sprint running up the stairs, and they almost all collapsed right about where I was sitting. It was hilarious.

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Cape Point J saw this viewpoint, I was watching South African kids collapse on the stairs

From this spot there is actually a 90-minute hike out to the actual tip of Cape Point, but that was sort of physically of the question and we also didn’t have time.

After that we got back in the car and explored a couple of other places on the east coast of the peninsula before heading up to Simon’s Town.

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Simon’s Town and Boulders Beach

We headed up to Simon’s Town on the east coast of the cape peninsula for lunch and for a boat ride. Simon’s Town is a small town not far from Boulders Beach where the African penguin colony is located. We had booked a “boat ride” to Seal Island out of Simon’s Town since it was way cheaper than whale watching and promised possible dolphin sightings.

Little did I know that this boat ride was actually on an 8-person zodiac boat. Before departure the company told us that the winds had lifted and the bay crossing promised to be a bit bumpy, and did anyone want to drop out? I figured “a bit bumpy” was fine as long as I had one last pee, and we headed out. As soon as we sped up to cross the bay I felt like I had made a truly insane decision to stay on that boat. But with some quadricep work and heavy concentration, I managed to keep it together through the gigantic bumps across the waves and we even saw dolphins. Like, lots of dolphins, swimming with and around the boat. One of them even splashed J. Pictures were impossible to take during the crossing but he did manage to get a video that we can remember them by.

I enjoyed the way back more than the way out mainly because I was on the dry side of the boat and J got drenched.

After this insane boat ride we headed to Boulders Beach, one of our main goals for the entire trip to South Africa. The penguins are small and have free roam over the beach and the woods surrounding it, but people, after paying about 4 euros to the park, go through a wooden walkway that keeps them from disturbing the penguins too much. Still, some of them get pretty close.

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Penguin on the sand

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Penguin saying hello (I mean not really)

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Adult with two babies

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Penguins coming out of the water

They were pretty cool. There was some good information around so you could recognize some of their behavior and the age differences (baby, adolescent, adult) and also informing visitors that they do indeed bite, so don’t be dumb.

Our final day in Cape Town we finally managed to get up Table Mountain, but I feel like that’s a whole thing of its own, so I’ll be back to write about that and Robben Island.

 

The Garden Route

When planning where to sightsee in South Africa after rock-climbing, J and I had to rule out the Winelands because of the pregnancy. So we had to go farther afield and the other popular location that seemed to make the most sense was the Garden Route, on the south western coast of the Indian Ocean.

It was a long drive from Clanwilliam (7 hours) but South African drivers, contrary to what our guidebook suggested, seemed better than French ones and we made good time even without a GPS. I had ordered a road atlas for the whole Western Cape and highlighted all our routes in it, so except for circling around Worcester for about twenty minutes trying to find the road out (bizarre, since it was the road we came in on), we had no trouble navigating.

We found an AirBnB in Plettenberg Bay, which is pretty much the final town on the Garden Route before changing regions to the Eastern Cape. It’s supposed to be the wealthiest of the towns on the Garden Route, and it’s true that we saw some impressive villas, but at least in winter it didn’t feel over-developed.

With P-berg (not a real nickname) as our base we managed to do a lot of things in two days.

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An evening stop on the road to Plettenberg Bay: The beach at Wilderness

First thing the first morning we drove down the road to the Robberg Nature Reserve, which has three different hikes: one 20 mins, one 120 mins and one 4 hours. They were not easy walking so we did the 20 minute one with some exploring into paths that went off it. At one point I let J continue onward for about ten minutes, and while I was sitting waiting for him I saw a shark in the water below. So, win for the pregnant traveler!

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The Indian Ocean

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The Robberg Peninsula

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The Robberg Peninsula

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A sampling of the coastal villas (heaviliy protected by private security companies)

On our way out we asked a park ranger about the shark, and he said it was a great white, that they have three or four of them, and that they keep the seal population at bay.

Next we went for lunch at a restaurant on the Knysna Lagoon. I could not get over the color of the water.

Those pictures are taken in the direction of the exit from the lagoon, a notoriously dangerous passage for boats, and the rocks that mark the exit are called the Heads. We had a little walk around the rocks here and I bought a little stone figurine from a vendor by the restaurant.

We finished that day at the Knysna Elephant Park, an elephant orphanage with currently 7 elephants. They gave us a little bucket of beets, apples, etc and drove us out to feed and pet the elephants. There was about one guide for every four visitors, who told us when we could pet which elephant and kept us from getting trampled.

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It was a little stressful trying to pet them and look at the camera, since you never really knew when they were going to decide to move, and they didn’t care if you were in the way.

The next day we went to the Knysna Waterfront and then this weird little beach.

It was at the end of a dirt road that started with the Knysna township on either side, and progressively got better until we were outside a bizarre walled golf resort. There were four people at the beach and these funny little private homes that look like mini castles.

Two days on the Garden Route was enough for people who couldn’t really do any hiking, but it would make a good week-long vacation too. There are other excursions that you can do: whale watching, ferries in the lagoon, diving, if you want to spend more money. It was definitely more developed for tourists than the Cederberg area and a little more “chic” in general, but still pretty cool.

Visiting Rocklands, South Africa (as a non-climber)

The impetus for our trip to South Africa (as it often is) was, besides a long-standing desire of mine to visit it, a world-class bouldering site called Rocklands three hours north of Cape Town, in the Cederberg Wilderness Area.

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Rocklands is the northwest corner of the Cederberg Wilderness Area, which is not marked here because it’s a purely rock-climbing map

Unfortunately this is the fourth world-class bouldering site we’ve done without me being able to climb: Hueco Tanks, Texas (foot operation #1), Albarracin, Spain (knee accident), and Squamish, BC (knee accident), being the other three. I tried a little indoor bouldering back in May and it was clear that the knee wasn’t ready and also that not being able to let myself fall because of the baby interfered too much with climbing.

We had somewhat of a hard time finding a place to stay near the rock-climbing site, but were happy in the end with the choice we found, which was a collection of cottages 10 minutes outside Clanwilliam, Clanwilliam being the main city near this part of the Cederberg Mountains.  The place we stayed was not known by rock-climbers, who tend to stay at places higher up in the mountains and closer to the climbing, but farther from things like groceries, cafes, and bars.

Our cottages were on the edge of a marsh filled with birds and next to a gigantic rocky hill in the style of the Cederberg Mountains.

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We rented two cottages: this was our friends’, where we ate and hung out.

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The marsh in the afternoon

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The hill in the afternoon

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The bilingual Afrikaans/English Bible in our cottage (in this area we heard almost exclusively Afrikaans rather than English between white people and in black-white interactions)

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The marsh before sunet

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The marsh just before sunset

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The hill during sunset

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Sunset over the marsh

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The dirt road we drove down for ten minutes every day to get to the cottages

The first days in South Africa were cloudy and chilly but the weather quickly improved. It did freeze one night, and since there was no heating in the cottages we were QUITE cold. Fortunately it warmed up afterward.

Clanwilliam was quite convenient with a Spar supermarket (with well-marked toilets), liquor store (liquor stores are separate and just outside the supermarket), banks (it was interesting to see everyone lined up by the banks on Friday evenings), an off-brand cash-only clothing shop where the boys bought coats, and a few tea rooms. Rooibos is from this part of South Africa, so everyone but me (too much peeing) drank their fill, and we also tasted some Rooibos flavored deserts at Nancy’s Tea Room. There’s a Rooibos factory that you can visit but we never got around to it.

The boulders in Rocklands have a very aggressive grain and my climbing companions found themselves in need of a lot of rest days. So besides eating at Nancy’s Tea Room, we also went to Lambert’s Bay on the Atlantic coast twice. The first time, we visited Bird Island:

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Masses of Cape Gannets on their breeding ground

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Seals

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Cape gannet

We returned to Lambert’s Bay another day for a massive seafood buffet at a restaurant on a dirt road on the beach.

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The restaurant before the buffet

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Preparing the food

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Mid-buffet

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The beach outside the restaurant

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Our beach booty

Rocklands itself was also beautiful, and I enjoyed the warmer days sitting around reading and watching the others climb.

One of the rock-climbing spots was located around the local campsite, and accessing it involved doing this:

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After a day of rain

It did not motivate us to stay at the campsite for any future trips.

The car clearly got quite dusty during this part of the trip but not as dusty as these that were parked at the campground:

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After a day of rain

Visiting the Cederberg requires buying a permit, and it took us a day or two to figure out where to buy one, but the best turned out to be at the official park entry cabin… we just hadn’t seen it. It cost about 30 euros for two weeks. And they do patrol the park and ask to see your permit.

While this area was less touristy than the others we visited, visitors were clearly not unexpected. In a future trip we would get started on the accommodation search a bit earlier and try to find something with actual heating (rather than just fireplaces), but overall we were very happy with where we stayed.

One final picture from this part of the trip:

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Caterpillar in front of our cottage

Traveling Pregnant: South Africa at almost 6 months

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Adult and child statuette I bought from a street marketer at the Knysna Lagoon

Our trip to South Africa would never had happened had J’s rock-climbing friends not already planned their trip for this summer. J and I have long wanted to go there but we had other plans for this year: making a baby. When our friends bought their tickets, I was not yet pregnant, but I told J that if we planned to go, we had to plan as though I would be. And then I was. So that worked out well.

All the same I had to wonder:

Was I crazy to travel so far at such a time, or was this just the only way to live?

And really this question never left me. Fortunately the second trimester is the time to travel: you’re typically feeling much better but still fairly unencumbered by the growing baby.

Rationally I also knew that this trip was much less dangerous than getting in a car every day of just normal life and risking an accident.

But the pregnancy did shape our trip in many ways.

1) No Kruger

Our trip only included the Western Cape region because I wouldn’t have been up for a week of safari driving in Kruger National Park. Organizational obstacles mattered here too, since it would have involved a domestic flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg. Kruger is also a low-risk malaria area and I know our trip was in winter, but I just wanted to steer clear of all potential medical issues.

We did do a two-hour game drive and it turns out the main obstacle to a safari would probably have been peeing.

2) Frequent Urination

On that note, let’s talk about bladders and public toilets. South Africa has some impressive public toilet game. The supermarket in Clanwilliam had toilets clearly marked at the entrance. All the nature reserves had them all over the place. When we were in Rocklands I just peed behind a bush, which mean carrying toilet paper and a little plastic bag with me, but it was total wilderness so I was really fine with it.

Honestly I think this would have been more of a problem in a place like Paris where public toilets are sh*tty and you can’t just pee behind a bush. But for general pregnancy travel, it is something to keep in mind. In my experience, I sometimes had to urgently pee without warning just because the baby had moved.

3) Paranoia/Caution

Which one is it? It was definitely present for this trip, though it had already started before leaving, in that I’ve become even more of a backseat driver with J. Fortunately in South Africa he actually needed an active passenger because of having to remember to drive on the left and not knowing where he was going. But I was probably a pain in the ass about things like not putting the suitcases in the backseat in case of getting rear-ended. And I was much more nervous about general safety given the crime rates in South Africa.

4) Being out of Breath

A hard second trimester symptom for me has been breathlessness. Any sort of uphill causes it, and sometimes I’m a bit out of breath just sitting or laying down. There’s a simple reason for it: baby is taking up lots of my oxygen and guess what, he can’t breathe by himself.

Our time in the Rocklands involved a lot of walking. J and his friends took care of me like it was their own little brother being carted around in my belly, but still, I felt a little like a deadweight. At times I had to hold back because even though I wanted to try to walk faster, it would have been very strenuous and I refused to put the baby at risk. It was a surprisingly hard mental conflict between not wanting to be a drag and knowing that that was dumb.

As for hiking, we didn’t really do any because walking uphill was so demoralizing. The Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens are actually one big hill next to Table Mountain National Park, and they were surprisingly difficult to get around for me. At Cape Point we took the little funicular up to the higher level and I didn’t go up to the lighthouse because I couldn’t deal with the stairs. But in general I was fine letting J go higher and sitting around below because the views were so breathtaking. At the Robberg Nature Reserve, I actually saw a great white shark in the water while waiting for J to come back down (I was not close enough to know it was a great white—a park ranger told us when we asked).

5) Flying

J and I were very careful in our choice of airline and stopover when we bought the tickets, and ended up going through Dubai on Emirates Airlines, which was a real treat. We had a three-hour layover both ways, which was a bit more expensive than the 8-hour or 1-hour possibilities. But it was out of the question for me to spend 8 hours in an airport, or to have to run between flights.

Paris-Dubai was on an A380, with beautiful bathrooms. Dubai-Cape Town was a Boeing 777 too which meant that on both flights the seats were quite roomy and comfortable for coach. The food and drink were frequent and delicious with real silverware. The movie selection was endless. On our Dubai-Cape Town flight we received a little case with an eye mask, ear plugs, toothbrush, toot paste and socks.

I did wear compression stockings that my doctor gave me a prescription for and told me to wear. My feet only swelled up on the Cape Town-Dubai flight on the way back, and they went back to normal during the layover. I was a little uncomfortable toward the end of the trip to Cape Town but otherwise as far as flying goes it was one of my better trips.

On a side not, I was not a big fan of the Dubai airport, I gotta say, though I did take advantage of their showers.

6) No Wine-Tasting

South Africa produces great wine and the Winelands are very close to Cape Town, so we would definitely have done this had I been able to drink alcohol. The craft beers in South Africa are quite good as well—but I took advantage of my pregnant state to discover their other fizzy drinks.

7) Group Tours

J and I did most things on our own which meant being able to do them at our own pace, but there were a couple of group activities that were a little more stressful: the game drive and the Zodiac boat ride in Simon’s Town. And waiting in line, anywhere, though I was fortunately able to let J do that most of the time. Though anyone who knows me can tell very clearly that I’m pregnant, strangers didn’t tend to pick up on it (especially because it was winter so I was often wearing a coat and always wearing a sweater) so I didn’t feel I had any extra courtesy automatically extended to me.

All in all this trip went exceedingly well, with just a little extra stress for me because of being over-protective. I am extremely happy with our decision to go through with this trip at this time, and it was a wonderful thing to do pre-baby. It felt special having him along in my belly and I couldn’t help thinking that in a small way he was already on his second continent. That said, I would never judge anyone who didn’t feel comfortable taking such a trip at such a time. Pregnancy paranoia/caution (which is it???) was real and you have to go with your gut.

 

South Africa: General Impressions

J and I got back from South Africa yesterday 24 hours after our first flight took off from Cape Town. It is a trek, but I really loved Emirates Airlines and they made the trip much more pleasant both ways.

I have so much to say about this trip that I’ll probably be writing about it for weeks, but I thought I’d start with some general impressions.

J and I went to three different destinations: Rocklands (a bouldering site in the Cederberg Mountains Wilderness Area), the Garden Route, and Cape Town. I’m glad we did the three because they were quite different and I feel like it gave us a more complete vision of South Africa, even though all of it was still just in the Western Cape region.

Poverty and the Remaining Effects of Segregation

Okay so obviously, three weeks in South Africa makes me absolutely no kind of expert on the country, these are just the observations that I couldn’t help making. We had been told by a friend that we wouldn’t feel “dépaysé” at all in South Africa and I don’t agree though it clearly feels like a developed country (more on that later).

It was indeed striking how the divisions between blacks and whites are still so marked. I can’t speak for relations between people at all of course, but many bars, at least in the countryside, were still either frequented by whites or blacks, and we found ourselves sometimes in totally unmixed crowds.

The marks of poverty were also very clear though it did seem like there were serious efforts to fight it going on. For example, we must have seen at least ten different townships of differing conditions: most seemed to have electricity, many had wooden or cement houses, and the “best” of them positively looked like little developments with little identical houses of painted cement all in rows or even paved roads between them. Outside Knysna on the Garden Route was a remarkable township that took up both sides of the highway, with people dressed from closer to middle class to more markedly poor.

On that note, the number of people we saw walking long distances, along highways, or crossing highways (especially in Knysna) was incredible. Hitch-hiking, both free and paid (which meant holding out a 10-rand note instead of your thumb) seemed like a solid system of getting around for people who didn’t have a car or a bike. Interestingly, on our Robben Island tour, the guide mentioned that South Africans hate walking—I can understand why though he may have been talking more about the middle class.

There was some begging, but it was actually very limited, and only really happened in downtown Cape Town. The more popular way of making money seemed to be by guarding parking lots and garnering a 5-rand tip from people on their way out. This seemed like a fairly practical service except that there were times when there was pretty clearly nothing to guard from and the parking guy pretty much just pretended to help us park the car.

Otherwise, to end on a positive note, the black middle class was also quite visible on our trip most notably on our sightseeing around Cape Town in places like the Cape of Good Hope Reserve and Robben Island. On Signal Hill and the beach at Sea Point we saw a lot of black visitors. On the other hand, the high-security vacation mansions on the Garden Route were sometimes down the road from townships, and the contrast was shocking. I wondered why you would even feel it was appropriate to build such places so close to such poverty, but J had watched a TV report before we left that suggested that a lot of them were owned by foreigners (wealthy businessmen and actors for example).

Development

The only other country I can compare South Africa to in terms of development is Morocco, and it definitely felt more developed than Morocco. The streets were well maintained, sidewalks perfectly finished, very few people hanging out aimlessly in the streets, and the tourist infrastructure (except maybe in Clanwilliam) was really solid.

Also, South Africa’s public bathroom game is on point. Way better than France. Ninety-five percent of the time public toilets were readily available, clean, well-supplied, and free.

Safety

Unfortunately South Africa was the only country I’ve visited where I didn’t feel totally safe, and thus never went out alone. Now of course I can’t say if this is the result of pregnancy paranoia or not. We were completely safe in our cottage a ten-minutes drive out of Clanwilliam during the rock-climbing portion of the trip, but I didn’t like being out in town after dark anywhere and since it was winter, night fell between 6 and 7 pm.

Everywhere but the wilderness cottages, entrances to homes had a second barred door and bars on the windows, and in Cape Town, all the homes seemed to also have a sign for a private security company on them. Buildings were frequently protected with electric or barbed wire. Now we see some of these things even in San Antonio where my parents live, but it struck me our first night in Cape Town how it was EVERYWHERE.

Our AirBnB hosts in Cape Town gave us this advice: Never leave anything in the car and at night don’t go anywhere there’s no one else around. We followed that advice throughout the trip and we never had any problems.

Besides the heightened sense of danger due to pregnancy, the other thing that made me more paranoid was the reading I did while we were in South Africa. I finished two books that took place in South Africa: Coetzee’s Disgrace and Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying. Of the two I probably liked Ways of Dying better because the characters were so lovable, and the protagonist in Disgrace is an incomprehensible sexist for the first third of the book. But here’s where the real problem was: in the middle of Disgrace a horrible crime takes place in the countryside, and Ways of Dying doesn’t hold back in relating the horrendous violence that black people had to deal with on a daily basis in the recent past. Add to those images the high frequency of rape and that rape often leads to contracting HIV, and, well, these were just not easy thoughts for a pregnant woman!

So, if you go to South Africa, read these books afterward.

Interaction with People

So as not to end on that note, I’ll finish by saying that 99% of the interactions we had with actual South Africans were lovely. The people were truly kind and friendly.

Coming Next

So I didn’t take pictures of any of these things (townships, bathrooms, parking lots…) but we saw some really beautiful places and I will be posting about them soon with accompanying photos. My mom left her better camera with us for the trip so we took over 900 photos—don’t worry, I won’t put them all up.