things to do in cape town south africa

There are moments in life when even a photo can’t seem to replace the words to describe what you are actually witnessing. In my career as a photojournalist, my work has taken me to six of the world’s seven continents, and I am awestruck on a regular basis.

I felt this sense of complete wonder as I sat on top of Table Mountain with my friend Sarah as we watched the clouds pour over the top of the mountain like a slow motion waterfall. This phenomenon is what gives Table Mountain its name and signature effect of the clouds as a white tablecloth cascading over the cliffs. It is just part of the dramatic landscape that frames Cape Town, South Africa.

Capetown south africa

Picture flying into a city where an amphitheater of mountains are thrust between buildings and all is surrounded by pristine beaches. It is one of the cleanest cities I have been to, and the only way I can describe Cape Town is to imagine combining San Francisco, Los Angeles, Big Sur and Napa into one peninsula.

It is one of the few places I have been to where I felt like I could live there; that I wanted to live there.  Despite its violent history (and the fact that everyone put the fear of God in us to be careful driving around Cape Town as two single women) Sarah and I had such an incredible and positive experience.

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Everyone we met was so hospitable and eager to ask us Americans anything and everything about our country. It actually struck me as somewhat disheartening to hear the stereotypes South Africans believe about Americans. Unfortunately, from our media they are given the impression most of us are all obese, ignorant, pro-war, and very dismissive of Africa. After learning this, I made it my personal mission to debunk these ideas about my country with everyone Sarah and I met. However, for the first time in my life, I did feel ignorant.

I realized I could not name most of the African countries or locate where they are on a map. I had no idea what currency any of the countries used, what their native languages were, or what kind of political climates governed their nations. I realized, sadly, many of us in America are sheltered from what is really happening in the rest of the world, especially those of us living in Los Angeles. I vowed to learn as much as possible while I was visiting this vast continent.

Capetown south africa safari baboons

I had a specific agenda for this trip. I wanted to experience everything this city had to offer in just five days. Cape Town boasts activities that would make it on to most people’s “bucket lists,” including my own, so it did not take long for me to compile a list. In my line of work, I find I have to travel this way in order to see and experience all that I can, and the more I travel, the longer my lists tend to become.

There are dozens of exciting places to see, foods to try, and things to do in Cape Town, but here are the ones that made my need-to-do list:

  1. Visit the Cape African Penguins
  2. Visit trendy Camps Bay
  3. Trying Biltong (their beef jerky) and other game meat
  4. Stellenbosch Wine Country
  5. Visit the Cheetah Sanctuary
  6. Great White Shark Cage Diving

Capetown south africa colorful beachouses

It was an ambitious list, but we managed to check off everything! Our first step was to rent a car because, similarly to Los Angeles, everything is pretty spread apart. This proved to be my toughest obstacle of the whole trip: driving a stick-shift car on the left side of the road, seated on the right side of the car. After pulling into oncoming traffic and turning on my windshield wipers instead of my blinker a few times, I finally started getting the hang of it.

Our first trip was to drive down to the southernmost point: the Cape of Good Hope. The drive was not unlike driving the gorgeous coastline of Malibu, but instead of driving along the water, I was navigating hairpin turns and hugging steep cliffs with zero guardrail protection. I could barely turn my eyes away from the road to take in the breath-taking views for fear of killing both of us.

Capetown south africa cape of good hope

Finally, I decided I had to find a place to stop and take some photos. This landscape became even more alien to us after a family of massive baboons came barreling out of the bushes right next to us. To say this was a harsh reality check doesn’t quite cut it, and we quickly had to understand—This is Africa. We had seen signs everywhere cautioning us about the baboons, but you do not realize just how huge they really are until face to face with them. That was to be the first of many animal encounters that day.

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We then stopped at Boulders (aptly named because it is a beach with huge boulders resting in shallow green water) which has become famous for its resident population of endangered Cape African Penguins. In my mind penguins only lived on glaciers, so I figured these guys got lost on their way to the South Pole and decided, like the rest of us, that they didn’t want to leave Cape Town.

They are ridiculously adorable and just waddle around the beach like little old men. We even saw them coming out of the sewers further in town, keeping a cautious, yet curious distance from us humans.

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We continued further south on our drive and reached the Cape of Good Hope National Park. Within minutes of entering the park we spotted a massive group of ostriches grazing, and in the span of an hour, we had seen penguins, baboons, and ostriches. It is moments like these when I have to stop and ask myself, “Where am I?” What a strange, yet beautiful landscape, and somehow the people have become accustomed to sharing their backyards with wild game and monkeys.

Capetown south africa ostrich

The hike to the Cape of Good Hope lighthouse isn’t too strenuous, but I will say I was not quite prepared when I left the house that morning in my flip flops. It was yet another reminder of how little I knew about this city, and that I didn’t even realize how mountainous it is. During the hike, Sarah and I could hear so many different languages being spoken, and most of the signs were in Afrikaans (a dialect of Dutch that is native to South Africa). I felt like I was at the edge of the world, and it was wild and gorgeous.

On our drive home, we became extremely excited when we saw the colored beach houses of Muizenburg. As a photographer, I am always searching for color and light, and these houses were a dream backdrop. Since it was just Sarah and I traveling together we had become each other’s “muses” so I quickly pulled over, opened the trunk, got out my yellow bikini and had Sarah put it on to take photos against the houses. A huge sand storm kicked up, but that didn’t stop us from taking some of our favorite photos of the trip. I decided a while back to have a “signature pose” on my travels which has become a self-portrait of me jumping in front of colorful, foreign backdrops, and this was the perfect place to do it.

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That night we decided to have mussels in Hout Bay and drive around to Camps Bay further up on the coast. Sarah and I chatted up a couple at the table next to us and they ended up joining us for dinner and drinks. We learned that she was visiting her friend and that he was somewhat of a renegade artist who put up sculptures in public places without permission or commission. We heard that he had put up a “Floating Heart” in between two palm trees in Camps Bay that lights up at night. It was close to the Caprice Café, and I made a mental to note to remember that as I knew it would be something I would want to see.

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The following morning we decided to see what all the excitement surrounding Camps Bay was about. The weather was perfect, and the beach vibe was similar to California. Everyone was outdoors at the cafes or sprawled across the beach, while others played soccer and jumped through the waves. It was hot, crowded, and full of energy and beautiful people; it seemed like a less pretentious version of South Beach, Miami. We had settled in at an amazing café for brunch when I looked across the street and noticed the Caprice Café.

Capetown south africa culture

Then it clicked—the installation piece! The Floating Heart had to be nearby. Sure enough, hanging above a group of African acrobats we saw the Floating Heart; I ran across the street to grab a photo of it. I actually made one of the acrobats balance on his friend’s head four or five times to get the perfect shot, and thankfully, they were more than happy to oblige.

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It turns out that they were part of the Zulu tribe, and they were pretty excited to meet a few Americans. They had all kinds of questions for us, like if we knew Rihanna or Jay-Z. It is amazing how music can be the common denominator in so many places. We may not speak the same languages but somehow music reaches every nook and cranny of the planet, and serves as a vehicle for conversation. I wonder if pop stars like Rihanna and Jay-Z actually realized the influence they have throughout the world?

Capetown south africa beach

Later that day we went back to our friend Stephen’s house, where we were staying, giving ourselves a pat on the back for not getting lost for the first time in three days. It is a proud moment when you begin to understand navigating a foreign city and can get yourself around GPS-free; for us, we started to feel a bit like locals. That night we had a group of friends over for a braai (the South African word for barbecue). We tried Impala meat, wild boar, ostrich burgers and amazing trout. It occurred to me that I pretty much eat a South African diet already: red meat,

It occurred to me that I pretty much eat a South African diet already: red meat, rice, and hardly any vegetables. The locals exercise their dominance over the food chain on a daily basis and will cook and eat any meat possible. I was loving it! The craziest part about the braai was what happened next.

I was making conversation with one of Stephen’s friends and flipping through photos on my camera to show him our recent excursion to Camps Bay. He stopped me when he saw the photo of the Floating Heart and told me his best friend made that art piece. What are the odds of that? Sarah and I had only met a handful of people during our brief time in Cape Town, but the couple we had befriended two nights prior happened to be close friends with the man I was talking to.

These kind of “Small World Occurrences” happen so frequently to me when I travel that I have coined a term to describe them: Divine Synchronicity—when everything coincidentally relates to something or someone else. For me, these moments mean I am in exactly the place I am supposed to be at that given time, and this instance was no different. I paused, realizing I was sitting in the sun of a foreign world, meeting new people and trying new things, and that I was exactly where I was supposed to be: Africa.

The next day Stephen took Sarah and me on a mini road trip to the Spier Winery in Stellenbosch, kind of the Napa of South Africa. After all of the beauty we had seen in the past four days, we finally saw the “ugly” side of Cape Town.

Despite the fact that Apartheid has been over since the early 1990′s, there is still quite a bit of racial tension and segregation. We drove past massive shanty towns where all of the black citizens live and witnessed a culture that was reminiscent of pre-civil rights America. We saw the huge cement walls lined with barbed wire, created out of fear, that surrounded each house; we learned how the people of these areas all but barricade themselves in their homes as their only means of protection from the continuous crime. (Although Cape Town is considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world, we never witnessed a crime or felt unsafe). It was a somber landscape to drive through that sharply contrasted the afternoon of decadence and luxury we were about to engage in.

To see this level of poverty first-hand was sobering, before I ever had a drop of wine. I asked Stephen so many questions about the political situation in South Africa on the drive and had another moment of feeling ignorant. After observing this section of the city, still trying to heal the wounds of Apartheid and rebuild from decades of segregation, I decided I needed a history lesson at the Apartheid Museum following our time in Stellenbosch.

Capetown south africa stellenbosch

The Stellenbosch Wine lands are only twenty minutes outside of Cape Town and used to be known as the City of Oaks because of the massive Oak trees that populate the area. It has the feel of being in the Mediterranean, and as quickly as we had switched from Cape Town to driving through shanty towns, we reverted back to tree-lined streets, quaint Dutch-styled wineries with rows and rows of grapevines.

Spier Winery was a true experience, not just a winery; it had a diverse collection of activities that included a cheetah and rare bird conservatory and a sophisticated African cuisine restaurant called Moyo (the tables were perched in the tree tops and had outdoor cabana-style lounge areas). Not only could you learn about the animals but you could go into the enclosures with the animals to pet the cheetahs or hold the birds! It was a life experience I will never forget. The wine tasting and gourmet meal of crocodile and impala in the treetops of Moyo were just icing on the cake after the conservatory.

Capetown south africa safari owls

It is amazing to me that there are so many exotic creatures in such a condensed area, and that the locals have grown so accustomed to being around them. However, they are slowly learning how to conserve these great creatures.

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Every day of the trip I had encounters with the most awesome animals like I was living on the Discovery Channel, but nothing could have prepared me for my final experience on our last day in Cape Town. It was in the “Top 5” of my life’s Bucket List, and I refused to leave South Africa without doing it: climbing into a cage (in freezing water) to be surrounded by twenty-foot long great white sharks!

The big morning finally came. Sarah and I got up at four AM, packed our bags, and left on a road trip to Gansbaai which is a small fishing village two hours outside of Cape Town. The drive was breathtaking, and I was completely energized by fear and anticipation of what I was about to do. I kept thinking, “This is crazy! Am I really about to get into the water with Great White Sharks?” I knew I had to, though; this trip had been all about conquering my fears and learning about things I had no previous knowledge of. In fact, I feel that way about all of my trips and about traveling in general. The things you learn and the people you encounter will forever alter your idea of the world and change your perception about what you thought you knew. Traveling teaches what you could never learn in school nor gain from any book. For me, I knew I had to be face-to-face with a shark to finally conquer my fear of them.

During the drive, I saw the newspapers stapled to roadside posts with a headline that read, “Surfer Eaten by Shark in Muizenberg Yesterday.” Muizenberg was where Sarah and I had been just a few days earlier shooting photos of the colored beach houses. It is a grim, yet true, fact that this is a fairly common occurrence in South Africa. Some people feel as though cage diving has made the sharks more aggressive towards humans, but even with this new, terrifying information I still chose to get in a cage and be dipped in the water with great whites.

Capetown south africa shark diving

I will never be able to fully express how it feels to have a shark the size of a Suburban come at you bearing all 3,000 of its teeth, but I could never come to appreciate their sheer power and presence without having done that. One second I saw nothing but a few fish swimming near me, then in a split second a shark was grabbing ahold of the cage just mere inches from my face. It was terrifying, exciting and beautiful in an odd way. The feeling I had was the epitome of being alive, of why I have chosen to become a photographer and document this crazy world we live in, and of why I feel compelled to do what I do every day and love every minute of it. In that moment I felt electric, like every part of me was synched to reality. Moments like this are what ignite my wanderlust.

I know I will come back to this gorgeous, complicated land someday. It was incredible to be able to “disconnect and reset” from my daily existence, and I honestly came back humbled, happy, relaxed and a changed woman.