Exploring Cape Town with a Local Private Guide
Explorer in Residence, Graeme Bell, uncovers hidden gems in one of South Africa’s capital cities on a journey with Kensington Tours.
What makes for an excellent tour? I believe that there are three main ingredients: the location, the guide and the accommodation. Our recent tour of Cape Town with Kensington Tours was simply superb!
I am a traveler. I have driven my Land Rover overland across four continents. And, if I am honest, it takes a lot to impress my family, we are weathered and wizened and know what we want. We had lived in and explored Cape Town for many years before leaving to explore the planet, so our tour guide James had the unenviable task of breathing new life into a well-read story, and he only had one day to do it. He came prepared.
James collected us from the More Quarters hotel after a delicious breakfast of salmon, croissant, yoghurt, fruit and coffee. The Sunday sky shone bright blue despite the prediction of rain and the city bustled with low intensity. And what a city it is. Cape Town is the undisputed jewel of Africa, a city as vibrant, soulful, prosperous and beautifully located as any. Nestled at the foot of Table Mountain, Cape Town is arguably more beautiful than San Francisco, more inclusive and alluring than Monaco (her Mediterranean twin), and almost matched by Rio de Janeiro for her majestic beauty. Unlike those three exceptional coastal cities, Cape Town is the heart of a natural paradise, within a few hours drive you can find yourself exploring mountains, desert, forest, on safari with Africa’s giants or sipping wine at one of many award-winning vineyards. Or you could brave the mighty Atlantic Ocean. Yes, Cape Town has it all.
We chose to explore the southern Cape Peninsula and our new friend James drove us parallel to Table Mountain, past the glorious Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, which hugs the eastern slope of the mountain and delivered us to the Constantia winelands, an area rich in history and home to the wealthiest Africans and Europeans. Bordering Constantia is the affluent suburb of Tokai, ironically the location of the maximum security Pollsmoor Prison where the great Nelson Mandela was incarcerated during the 1980s. A drive over the scenic Ou Kaapse Weg revealed the legendary False Bay and we stopped to explore Muizenburg, home to the oldest surf shop and most popular surf beach in Africa. It was then that we discovered that our guide was more than we imagined, James has a passion for the ocean – he is a big wave surfer, a commercial diver, an oceanographer and spear fisherman, born and bred on the Cape Peninsula, a true local. Over a cup of coffee and after visiting a workshop where wooden surfboards are hand made, we discovered a bit more about the suburb and the history of surf culture in the Cape, a region which boasts many world class breaks, infamous big waves spots and an ocean once teeming with sharks. James is your man if you want to get up close and personal with walls of water or rows of teeth, luckily neither were on the itinerary, but they could have been, we needed only to ask.
Further south along the western shore of False Bay we came to Simon’s Town, home to a South African naval base and the statue of a Great Dane called “Just Nuisance” who is the only canine ever to be officially enrolled in the Royal Navy. After visiting the hilltop site of Redhill Gun, a disused cannon watching over False Bay (my son is fascinated by military history), we changed into swim gear and carried sturdy yellow kayaks down to Boulders Beach where penguins frolicked in clear blue water amid huge granite boulders and kelp beds. I paired up with my daughter Jessica while my wife Luisa and son Keelan teamed up to paddle our kayaks 600 meters out to the large granite Ark Rock where seals and birds enjoyed the sunshine. The ocean became wilder once we left the safety of the beach and I did not forget that Seal Island, where great white sharks breach the surface as they prey on seals, was a short shark swim away. Unfortunately great white’s numbers have declined substantially in False Bay in recent years due to environmental factors and overfishing. We were in capable hands guided by James who effortlessly piloted a stand up paddle board, despite the unsettled sea. After circling the granite boulder we powered towards Pebble Beach where we floated once again surrounded by boulders and clear blue water while James explained the story of the African penguin and hordes of tourists gazed upon us enviously from their crowded viewpoints. We glided back to the beach amid the kelp beds with penguins, seals, sea gulls and cormorants for company. Exhilarated, we toweled dry, changed back into our clothing and had a drink of water before heading back to the van and the road to Cape Point.
Fynbos is the natural shrubland vegetation located in the Western Cape and there are an estimated 9,000 species (of which 6,200 species are endemic) making this region the most bio-diverse region in the world. The fynbos thrives in infertile soil and we were treated to a landscape filled with color as spring took hold. Proteas, red gladiolus and shale fynbos competed for our attention and James was able to offer many insights into this natural spectacle while we crossed Table Mountain National Park and emerged on the western shore of the peninsula where large waves broke, perfectly aided by an offshore wind. The sleepy, windswept suburbs of Scarborough, Noordhoek and Kommetjie greeted us as we made our way down to the beach to enjoy a picnic among the dunes. James’ new and comfortable Volkswagen van was well stocked with drinks, typical South African snacks, a cooler box, towels, beach umbrellas and mats. We sat in the shade and enjoyed a quiet lunch while huge waves broke upon the beach before heading back along the coast to the scenic Chapman’s Peak Drive, where we stopped often to enjoy the view of Hout Bay, The Sentinal Peak, Dungeons big wave surf spot and a seal colony in the distance.
All too soon, we returned to the hotel as the sun began to set, revitalized by a day learning about, and exploring, one of the most beautiful regions in the world. Before heading to bed we set off to Cape Town’s famous Long Street to enjoy a superb meal at one of the many excellent restaurants.
Cape Town is called the Mother City for good reason, she really has it all!
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