My stay in Cape Town centred around the agreeably-named Green Elephant Backpackers in Observatory, affectionately shortened to “Obs” by the student masses that live in the area. This was a cheap (R100/£8.79 per night in a dorm) and pleasantly convivial place for me to base myself, although those with an aversion to hearing the buzz of late-night student revellers partying down the road may wish to locate elsewhere.
Arriving fresh out of university, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had landed in a place where a stringent budget could be catered for, and my search for affordable Cape Town restaurants took me a mere few steps down the road to Obz Café. A popular student haunt, the vibe there is relaxed and friendly, and its menu is varied and of a pretty good standard. It also doubles up as a theatre, and on the Sunday night of my stay I sampled its weekly comedy night for R30 (£2.64), which was packed full, despite the indifferent quality of the entertainment.
This was all very well and good, but I went to South Africa to do more than relive my student lifestyle! As I sat watching a lesson in mediocre stand-up, I promptly decided to branch out my Cape Town experience. I decided to whack on my walking boots and, quite literally, ‘take a hike’.
Standing guard over the city, the majestic Table Mountain is an impressive spectacle from the ground. At 1086 metres tall, it’s climbable in an afternoon and supplied me with a free day out. There are many routes to the top- some more challenging than others- and I chose a relatively leisurely route from Constantia Nek on the northern side.
For the less ambitious there is a cable car service that whisks you to the top and back for R120 (roughly £10) but the walk is seriously worth the effort if you’re up for it and have a couple of hours to spare, especially if the sun is shining (which invariably in Cape Town it is). It’s one thing to see it from a distance, but the only way to truly escape from the urban jungle below is to lose yourself in the myriad varieties of wildlife, flora and fauna on the way up. And the views from the top are something else, too. Overlooking most of the city, I took a well-earned rest right in the centre of the mountain’s curved summit, taking in the panoramic display of Table Bay- the convergence of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans away to my left and, to the right, my next port of call: Robben Island.
From the top of the mountain, Robben Island looks a rather unassuming mark on the seascape- as I sat there air-pinching it with my fingers it certainly didn’t look six kilometres from the mainland! The tours run every couple of hours between 09:00 and 15:00 and last around three-and-a-half hours, which include the return trip on ferry from the V&A Waterfront. Once on the island, I was taken on a group tour of the old prison by a former prisoner. It now functions as a museum, but is kept much how it was when it boarded a great number of political prisoners including South Africa’s current President Jacob Zuma, and for twenty-seven years, one Nelson Mandela.
Through grey-painted bars I peered into his cell, which was a small, undecorated concrete box with a blanket on the floor, a small table against the far wall and a small, barred window from which he would have viewed the outside courtyard. The sense of utter isolation living here must have been totally soul destroying. My Robben Island experience was truly sobering after the exhilaration of the hike. It was a vital component of my Cape Town education, and I felt that every penny of the R200/£17.59 it set me back was justified. I found information for the tours at MyDestination.com/CapeTown which is pretty useful site for finding hidden gems or just as a general guide.
So there you go- just a few of the things you can do in Cape Town with a poor man’s pocket. What I loved about my experience was that on such a budget it was still possible to discover that at its very core this is a fascinating city of contrasts. As much as my experiences in Observatory showed me that Cape Town is looking to the future, Robben Island was a stark reminder of a more sombre past; and despite being the second most populous city in South Africa, on its very doorstep is serene natural beauty that acts as a tonic for the hectic urban life. It is these polarities which make Cape Town so attractively unique from other Southern African cities.
Author Bio: Dan Dowler‘s passion for travel has taken him from the scorching savannah of Zambia to the volcanic beauty of Iceland. When he’s not writing about his experiences he’s most likely got his nose in a book or using his guitar to make horrendous noises!
(Text and Photo provided by author)