Saturday, August 09, 2008

Up in the Clouds, At the End of the Earth

CAPE TOWN, Aug. 9 — I asked a cab driver today, “What is your favorite part of South Africa, besides Cape Town?” He cut me off before I could spit out the modifying clause, exclaiming, “Cape Town!” He’d only visited a handful of other places, but he also had little desire or need to see much else, he said — Cape Town has, at least in terms of landscape, anything that visitors and residents alike could want.

An older, white South African woman on my flight from New York shared similar sentiments as we both paced the aisles during our stop in Dakar, Senegal.

“We’ve traveled a lot,” she said of her and her husband, explaining that they were avid hikers. “But every time we fly in to Cape Town, we’re glad to arrive, and we see again why it’s home.” She lives on the mountain above the village of Simon’s Town, a bit south of the city on the Cape peninsula, she said, but she can walk down to the beach in 10 minutes.

Today, I saw the evidence that supported the claims from these and other Capetonians. Early-ish this morning, we called a cab (Excite Taxi — reportedly, according to the Obs crew, the cheapest and most reliable fleet — enjoy your free ad now before I start charging!), and jumped in with our jackets packed.

“Dispatch, dispatch,” the cabby called over the radio, “pickup in Obs, headed up the mountain.” Cruising along Lower Main Road through Obs to Main Road, we hit City Bowl at least twice as quickly as we did in the kombi on Friday.

Then, up the base of Table Mountain we headed, to the lower cable station, at approximately 300 meters, for the five-minute ride up the to the top at about 1,000 meters.

On our arrival at the upper cable station, the temperature was considerably cooler, at about 45° F, and I pulled on both a fleece jacket and a skullcap.

We picked this morning because the skies in Cape Town looked clear from Obs (and our vantage point of Lion’s Head, a 600-some meter outcropping adjacent to Table Mountain, and before our ascent, the mountain was clear. Almost as soon as we exited the cable car, however, almost as if we were dinner guests arriving for the party, the mountain began to retreat under its Table Cloth, a blanket of cumulus that forms atop the mountain when the warm air off the southern Atlantic hits the cool temperatures at altitude and condenses.

A few shots into our photographic record of the visit, the clouds closed in, and we were all but shrouded in mist. A walk around the plateau at the top nonetheless revealed a handful of remarkable views before the clouds cut visibility to zip, including a couple guys preparing to repel, or abseil, as is the local parlance (I overhead one watcher say that Table Mountain is the highest commercial abseiling site in the world), from the top, seemingly into thin air, with the city behind them 1,000 meters down.

The flora are stunning, even in winter, and the fauna showed themselves a couple times, with a little chipmunk-looking creature darting behind a rock after I photographed him, and a pair of birds hoping for Starburst from my girlfriend as we sat on a stone step to write a postcard, before depositing it in the post box outside the mountain-top gift shop for transit to the States.

After chilling ourselves almost to New-York-winter temperatures, we headed down, and the mountain, as if it knew some of its guests were leaving the party, began to remove the Table Cloth, clouds parting for our final glimpses as we headed for the cableway, and out of the clouds.

Back at the lower cable station, we called a Rikki for the trek to the end of the earth — Cape Point (here’s another free ad — Rikkis is a company that provides cabs by the hour instead of by distance-time meter, and they have 16 London-style black cabs, some of which are decked out in Rikkis’ decals and World-Cup preparatory ads). Our Rikki driver, whose name we never picked up, unfortunately, shared his stories of life in Cape Town — born and raised there and never spent much time outside it, he said — as we headed south to the capes.

Yes, capes, plural. At the southern end of the Cape peninsula are Cape Point, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet, and the Cape of Good Hope, the southwestern most point of the African continent. The drive down to the capes is itself spectacular and warrants an essay unto itself, but time is short and the Internet here is painful, so I’ll give you the highlights.

Cape Point is marked, at its most touristed spot, by a lighthouse, and a view of the point itself, after which the next land is Antarctica. Awe inspiring, to say the least, and neither words nor photos do it justice.

In a small-world moment, after asking a tour guide to take our photo, one of the guide’s tour-group members asked if we were Americans, surely based on our accents. Yes, we said, we are. Turns out she lives on the Upper East Side, and her former husband is an adjunct professor at Columbia Law, and I heard him speak not too long ago. Almost 8,000 miles away, and the City lurks.

Back in the Rikki, we made a quick stop at the Cape of Good Hope for some more spectacular views and photos at the end of the earth. (Either spot is arguably the end of the earth, and they’re only a mile or two from one another, so really, the point is somewhat moot.)

On our return to the park’s main road from the point, we spotted a gang of baboons hangin’ out by the side of the road. Baboons, just chillin’, except for the one eating popcorn from a bag, while guarding a bag of clementines.

If you told a South African about the baboons, he probably wouldn’t be too surprised — they’re around the capes often, especially on warm, sunny days like today. But if you told a South African about the popcorn and clementines, then you might get a classic quizzical response, “Izit?” — as in, is it true? Really?

Yes, really, it is.

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