Three Months in the Mother City – Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town has been at the top of my list ever since I decided to start travel full time. The city on the southern tip of South Africa is a hot spot for digital nomads. Year for year, especially in winter, a large number flocks down south. This year I decided to spend my winter period there.

Getting there

Around Mid-December I stepped on a British Airways plane to take the around 12 hours down. They fly the route twice a day an hour apart. One at 9PM and another about 90 minutes later. Both are overnight flights.

I decided to experiment with premium economy after I got a good deal. Unfortunately BA serves the routes with older Boeing 747 (the renown jumbo jet). Even in premium economy there are only ancient plugs. I challenge you to find somewhere they sell the required adapters to plugin in any device. The screen on the very old entertainment system is roughly 5 inches. I solved these issues by bringing my own iPad and I knew this about the route beforehand.

My real reason for choosing the upgrade was the extra recline on the seat. Although I have further testing to do I think it’s worth it for long haul overnight flights. Especially for digital nomads that may need to be working the very next day and want to improve their sleep. (Subscribe for the next post where I got to detail about premium economy on a flight I’ve done in economy as well.)

Arriving and Getting Around

Immigration into South Africa was swift and Ubers are available at a moment’s notice to pick you up. They will drive you into town and other areas in about 30-60 minutes depending on traffic. If you are arriving on BA you will have no problem getting into town as the rush hour is going out of town at this time. The cost is roughly 200 Rand which is about 14 EUR.

Uber ist a must-have in Cape Town. It’s cheap and availability is excellent. The drivers are private drivers. This is in stark contrast to Europe. There the driver usually require a commercial license to operate a taxi-like service. But with 40+ trips during my time there I only once felt the driver could have driven a bit safer.

There is also a MyCiti public bus transport system. I personally did not give this a try. But I have heard many good things from friends. The one thing you need to know is you must buy a bus pass, a prepaid mastercard, from the ticket office before you go use them.

As you may have gathered from my other posts I like walking. I prefer this form of transport to all other regardless of distance unless I’m in a hurry. Take not of the safety and area notes below, but Cape Town is very walk able. Inside the city center everything is walk able in about 30 minutes. This includes Sea Point ocean front and Waterfront entertainment areas.

Areas

Although I spent almost three months in the Mother City I didn’t get to see as much as I had hoped. I spent a lot of time in some main areas and got to experience them to a good degree.

Inner City – The Bowl

Here you will find the business center, backpackers and generally a lot of the city takes place here. It calms down quite a bit on Sunday – the actual CBD (Cape Town Business District) in the south is empty then. Everything you might need is at your doorstep in walking distance. From edge to edge the inner city is a half hour walk. This is also where I decided to live. One half of my stay in the north near Gardens and the rest of the time at the south end of St. George’s Market.

Seapoint / Greenpoint

Considered safer than the inner city this is where I found a lot of Digital Nomads. Especially if they wanted safety and still wanted to be close to the city. Seapoint reminded me of a classic Hollywood representation of a beach promenade. You’ll find people being active in the fitness or jogging. Families having an ice cream walking along the beach. The only thing you will have a hard time finding here is a beach. There’s a small cove where Kayaks launch between Seapoint and Greenpoint. But you’ll have to go further south to find a sand beach.

The main road leads from Camps Bay into town. l you’ll find High Road which runs parallel. Even living in Sea Point you might miss this bustling area for food and nightlife.

Greenpoint is a large park with the Stadium as the center piece.

V&A Waterfront

A leisure area located in a working harbour area. You may have to take another way when the foot bridge is not accessible for an hour because a new ship is coming in for repairs. Or wait in line for the swing bridge to close again as a sailing boat comes back from a trip.

When you enter the gates at V&A it’s a different world. It’s still Cape Town, but a different Cape Town. You’ll find KFC and Debonairs Pizza next to boutique Cafés and high restaurants. But you can come and sit in the sun, have a read and enjoy the bustle. It’s almost always packed and considered safer than Sea Point even.

There’s a shopping center, cinemas, luxury hotels and the rugby museum inside, but I enjoyed many an afternoon relaxing in one of the many hidden nooks looking out onto the water. From the city center you can walk there in 20 minutes, but once the sun sets take an Uber back into town. Also go see the seals one of the piers.

Blouberg

If you kitesurf you go to Blouberg. A strong and steady wind and a long beach for enough space to practice jumps I’ve heard. If like me you don’t kite then it’s still an enjoyable area with a great beach vibe. My impression though was it’s very much only that. I compared it to a wild west town. A town built to cater to gold miners, in this case it’s the water sports enthusiasts.

There’s a coworking office and a lot of beach bars. It’s about 30 minutes from the city center. I’ve decided to give this part of town a chance for at least a month next time and may warm up to it a bit more.

Two areas I did not visit but I know are popular and I am considering for my next trip are:

Hout Bay

A very quiet and isolated part of Cape Town it boasts a beautiful beach next to Mariner’s Wharf. The Wharf itself is a collective of multiple restaurants. A great market to visit is Bay Harbour Market. Or catch the ferry to Seal Island and try to spot rock between the thousands of seals.

Newlands / Claremont

Part of the so-called Southern Suburbs these two areas are experiencing a lot of growth. Specifically Claremont seems to be developing a secondary business center for startups and small and medium companies. It’s also packed with little restaurants and close to some of the leisure areas on that side of Table Mountain.

Of course there are many more areas like Camps Bay, Clifton, Simonstown or Nothern Suburbs. Those I will have to explore another time.

 

 

Safety

The number one concern you hear from digital nomads is safety. Everyone has a story of how a friend got mugged, scammed or pick pocketed. They may have even had it happen to themselves. I had researched a lot before going and arrived probably a bit to over conscious about it. (Partly due to the fact that someone mugged my father while in Cape Town a couple of years back and he suffered two knife wounds.)

The first thing I realized was how blessed I was to call Vienna my home base. A city where you can – and I have – roam the streets at any time of day and the probability of experiencing anything bad is very low.

In Cape Town you should not walk alone once the sun sets. This is a general rule of thumb especially for the inner city. If you go out at night, take an Uber there and back. Sea Point and Waterfront are an exception due to their touristy status and more or less safe. I was out on the streets at any time and did not feel unsafe.

My biggest issue was not being able to hike by myself. The hiking routes are off track and you can become a target there. Even the primary hiking routes to Signal Hill and Lion’s Head are better done with a group. This means going for long walks on my own as I usually do was not possible. At the same time this introduced me to wonderful new people.

My recommendation is to be aware and street smart. ATM scams are very common. On a Sunday in an unprotected area of a shopping center I was approached by an older gentleman. Usually there are security guards, a common sight, but as it was Sunday there was no one. He told me some story of needing a receipt to go to the second floor where I needed to go. He assured me an ATM receipt would do. He proceeded to guide me to his colleague standing at an ATM. Recognizing what they were attempting I saw an opportunity to go in between both of them and head to the escalators. The ATM guy shouted that I need to come to him but I ignored him. I can only guess that the guy would have at best stolen my card and who knows at worse.

Some tips:

  • If possible use an ATM where a public safety official is nearby.
  • Don’t let anyone help you with the ATM. Don’t go to an ATM that someone recommend because the one you wanted is not working. Don’t hesitate to cancel the transaction if you feel unsafe. If someone approaches, block them with your shoulder and get loud. Shout “GO AWAY” to alert people around you. Rather be rude to a helpful stranger than fall prey to the bad guys.
  • Use a prepaid credit card and only have that one in your wallet. This limits your losses if it gets stolen or skimmed and also if you’re in a mugging situation hand it over. It’s not worth your life and again you only lose the prepaid amount and any cash. Apart from cash and that card I only have my driver’s license in my main wallet.

But having said all this these are exceptions and the people are a minority of bad individuals. You will have this in any town. The Cape Townians I met were genuinely helpful, went out of there way to direct to places I couldn’t find. I’ve made many new treasured friends in Cape Town and I will go back with the same thoughts of safety as I would in New York or any greater metropolitan area.

Working

Depending on which area you’re in, you’ll probably find a coworking space nearby. For the inner city my recommendation is definitely SpinStreet House. Recently taken over by SeedSpace, this is a three building co-working space but with a personal feel. Bring your team or work there alone. You’ll meet interesting people at the weekly events, but no pressure if you need to get some work done. Even when the space is full, I hardly had any problems with the internet bandwidth. I met people living in Sea Point and taking the journey to SpinStreet to work there.

Internet on the Go

I used a Vodacom (which is Vodafone in SA) SIM to stay connected on the go. I’ve heard Telkom has cheaper plans and coverage is roughly the same.

Supermarkets

The three main supermarkets are Woolworths, Pick and Pay and Checkers. I went to Pick and Pay for general groceries and Woolworths now and again. Checkers may be the cheapest but there wasn’t one near the places I stayed.

For fruit I paid premium and went to Food Lover’s Market (see below) instead. I’m not sure if it’s just an urban legend, but I got the feeling South Africa exports most of their best fruit.

Food

Cape Town is a foodie town. Hands down the variety is amazing and cost for some exquisite dining experiences is low to reasonable. I can’t possibly name all the places, but some highlights of mine were:

Food Lover’s Market Café

There is one near SpinStreet Coworking so it became my go-to for lunch. A huge selection of fresh food with great ingredients. Salad bar, fruit bowls, fresh baked goods and of course breakfast and lunch buffets. The price is a little above average for Cape Town.

Kloof Street House

Had a great Christmas dinner here in a wonderful ambiente. In summer you can sit outside, but the bar inside is also a good recommendation. This is fine dining at the upper end of the price range, but still no comparison to what you would pay in other cities. Link

Waterfront

There are many places to eat here, but my favorites are Vovo Telo and the Food Market. The former is delicious any time of day but try their breakfast omelette after a Kayaking tour (see below). Drop by the latter for a Smoothie for about 50 Rand (4 EUR) or an expensive but super tasty poke bowl (150 Rand, 12 EUR).

Kauai

You’ll find one around every corner. Food is super tasty, but don’t expect your order to be ready quickly. In general fast food in South Africa is not fast. Use the time to relax and think in what a beautiful city you’re in.

Exploring and Hiking

As stated exploring Cape Town was already overshadowed by safety concerns in that you had to plan how to get back. But nevertheless there are options. Even for solo hikes but I also enjoyed beautiful trails in great company.

Solo to Camps Bay

Starting from the city center, I headed to Sea Point and continued along the coast down to Camps Bay. It’s an easy albeit long walk (about 4 hours) and you can continue even further than Camps Bay. It’s less nature and more an urban hike. You can enjoy a lot of different parts of Cape Town on te hike. From the city center, parts of the Waterfront and Sea Point to the four beaches and luxury villas in Clifton.

Lion’s Head

This is a must-do trail if you’re in Cape Town. It takes just over an hour to get to the summit. You take a winding path around the mountain. At the top you are then rewarded with a 360° view over Sea Point areas, city center and even north to Blouberg. Of course you get a great view of Signal Hill below and table mountain in the back.


Popular at sunset, sunrise and full moon I would recommend not doing this alone, but check for Facebook groups to find other people.

Kirstenbosch

This botanical garden boasts great trails surrounded by flora and fauna (and dinosaurs). In summer you can enjoy concerts by South African and international artists.

Constantia Nek Trail

The path leading from the edge of the Constantia wine area leads up table mountain. You pass Kirstenbosch and on the top you reach some damns. The water is painted red with iron and minerals and very warm. Ideal for swimming.

Table Mountain

If you want a bit of challenge you can hike up the mountain. It takes about 3 hours and you should join an organised tour unless you are well experienced.

I opted to take the cable car, which even if you arrive early morning, you still wait about an hour to get up the hill. But it’s worth it once you reach the top. You can hike for hours across table mountain. For me it resembles a moon surface with minimal invasion by humans to make it safe to walk on.

Signal Hill

Very popular as a sunset destination, but very over crowded too.

Kayaking with Atlantic Ocean

Hands down my favorite activity (I went about 9 times) was Kayaking in Sea Point/Waterfront with Atlantic Outlook. Tucked away in the parking lot in the west of the Waterfront premise (near the Motor Boat Club where they launch). In about two hours you go out onto the ocean in 2-person Kayaks with great fun guides. (Hey Jordan!).  No experience required. Even though the probability of falling into the water is minimal you have a life vest.

On my trips I saw a giant whale up close, dozens of playful dolphins crossing our paths, sun fish, seals and so much more. Do it. You won’t be dissapointed.

Bo Kaap

Probably the most photographed part of the city and cover image of most Cape Town travel books. Beautifully colored houses to explore.

Water Crisis

During the time I was in Cape Town in early 2018 the water crisis was on-going and Day Zero was scheduled for March. I left at the end of February for other reasons, but joined in the efforts to save water which included one 5-minute shower a day, very minimal flushing of toilets and even then only using the drain water from the shower. Thankfully the date has now been moved to after the African Winter and everyone is hoping for a lot of winter rainfall.

But please remember: water is still a scarse resource. Especially in Cape Town. Do your part. Read more by Sander here.

Summary

I understand what drives people to Cape Town. From a digital nomad perspective the same time zone as Europe, the opposite seasons to Europe and modern infrastructure is ideal. It is certainly one of my favorite spots now with lot’s more to explore in future. I’ll be back now now.

As always more pictures on Flickr.

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