Day 1: The company of nature in Cape Peninsula
There is a rugged poignant beauty to the Cape Peninsula with its indigenous fynbos draping age-old sandstone rocks, colossal crashing waves, and foraging seabirds. I had a whole day to explore the Cape of Good Hope and Boulders, which together with Table Mountain comprise Table Mountain National Park. A whole day in glorious, unsullied nature! Bliss.
A drive through the spectacular Chapman’s Peak Drive took me to the Cape of Good Hope, a desolate rocky headland jutting into the Atlantic Ocean at 34°21’25″S 18°28’26″E. The ice-cold Benguela current of the Atlantic Ocean and warm Agulhas current of the Indian Ocean meet some one kilometre away. There is a misconception that this promontory is the southern tip of Africa. It is not. It is instead the south-western most part. The southern most tip is Cape Agulhas at a distance of 150 kilometres south-east.
Initially named the ‘Cape of Storms’ by the Portuguese navigator, Bartholomeu Dias in 1488, the ‘Cape of Good Hope’ got its current name from the Portuguese King, John II, in anticipation of the fortuity that the discovery of this sea route to India and the East promised.
The peninsula’s unique flora is part of the Cape floristic kingdom, the smallest in terms of area covered, but richest of the six floral kingdoms in the world in variety. The kingdom consists a whopping 1,100 species of indigenous plants, many of which are endemic, growing nowhere else but on the coastline of South Africa. An integral part of this kingdom is fynbos (fine bush), which one finds everywhere—tumbling over mountains, clinging to the shore, lining the roads—with its pride of glory being the protea family, led by the King Protea.
I walked up to the old lighthouse at Cape Point, another protrusion a little further east. There is a strange kind of joy in doing things the hard way. After a steep uphill amble the views look just that much more splendid. 🙂
My next stop was Boulders—a sheltered cove with unspoilt beaches, 540 million-year-old granite boulders, and a thriving colony of African Penguins. Starting off from just two breeding pairs in 1982, the colony now numbers about 3,000. Listed as a vulnerable species, the birds are monogamous; the lifelong partners take turns to incubate their eggs and feed their young. Humans, I guess, can learn a lesson or two from them on loyalty and gender equality. 😉
It was fantastic watching the penguins at close quarters at Foxy Beach as they wandered freely in a protected natural environment, ‘braying’ to each other in rapt conversations, the odd solitary bird flapping its wings in defiance as it stared me in the eye. The black and white colouring of the birds, white sands, grey boulders and black weeds creates monochromatic paintings on nature’s canvas. The company of nature never disappoints.
Whereas yesterday was all about the beauty of the Cape’s untamed wilderness, today was about the province’s fine wines and rich history. The European chapter in South Africa’s story started in Cape Town when the Dutch settlers arrived in 1652 to set up a vacillating stop for the VOC ships that were trading with India and the East. These settlers soon spread further into the Cape and were followed by the Huguenots, Protestant refugees from France, in 1688 who brought with them the art of wine-making. And thus started a rich tradition of world-famous wine estates which still lives on, making South Africa one of the leading wine producers globally exporting around 300 million litres to the EU and US.
The Dutch imported slaves from Malaysia, Indonesia, and other parts of Africa to work on their fields. This social amalgamation led to the birth of a language unique to South Africa—Afrikaans. It was, thus, fitting that I began my day with visiting the beautifully symbolic Afrikaans language monument in Paarl, which commemorates the declaration of Afrikaans as an official language of South Africa, distinct from Dutch.
And then to the real business of the day—wine tasting—at Seidelberg, a wine estate established in 1692. After a tour of the estate’s vineyards and cellars, the ritual commenced. Select wines, pour itsy bitsy amounts into the glass, sniff, swirl, sip, DO NOT SWALLOW, swoosh it around your mouth, and spit it out! Haha. Ok, I was too inexperienced to do the spitting, and instead cheated and drank. The tasting included an assortment of wines such as Roland’s Reserve Pinotage which was supposed to have “morella cherry and sun-dried banana aromas on the nose” and Viognier “reminiscent of stone fruits… supported by subtle oak undertones.” I’ll be honest, I did not get any of the subtleties. I just could make out that some were dry, some semi, some saccharine, and that I got drunk very fast.
The Cape’s historical cities are full of old world charm and packed with elite cafes and gourmet restaurants. A quick stop at Franschhoek, the ‘French Corner’ set up by the Huguenots and one of the oldest towns in the country, reveals the engaging Dutch Reformed Church and the classical Huguenot Monument. It is also famed as the food and wine capital of South Africa; there are apparently more award-winning restaurants in this one town than anywhere else in the country.
Stellenbosch, likewise, is no less lacking in gastronomical delights on offer, despite being essentially a university town today. This second oldest European settlement in South Africa (after Cape Town), was founded in 1679 by the governor of the Cape Colony, Simon van der Stel, who named it after himself. I spent much of my time here at the Village Museum in which four houses, ranging in date from 1709 to 1929 have been recreated, and strolling through the heart of the town visiting boutique eateries and galleries.
Back to business again, for one last time. This time in Asara, a wine estate dating back to 1691. More sipping, more swirling, less able to make out any differences except that some are red, some white, and some somewhere in-between. And that I was in beautiful settings.