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Outdoor Travel Journal: Cape Town = play town

Posted: April 18, 2013 - 11:01pm
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At Boulders Beach, near Cape Town, South Africa, a colony of penguins have taken up residence and are an entertaining bunch to watch.    Courtesy of Susan Sloss
Courtesy of Susan Sloss
At Boulders Beach, near Cape Town, South Africa, a colony of penguins have taken up residence and are an entertaining bunch to watch.

For those looking for blue-skied, fresh-aired outdoor time, then Cape Town, South Africa, is one place to find it. Hard up against Table Mountain and sweeping from the Atlantic seaboard to False Bay on the Indian Ocean, Cape Town is a scenic gem of a city, steeped in colonial and maritime history.

Given that we only had five days before returning to an Alaskan winter, we opted for fun in the sun over museums and history tours.

The 3,558-foot, flat-topped, Table Mountain begs to be climbed by visitors and locals alike, even when whipped by winds or shrouded in rolling fog locals call the Tablecloth. The flat top of Table Mountain seems to entice the wanderer to stay longer and walk further to take in the 360-degree views of blue sky, turquoise waters and Cape Town spread out below. Picture-taking easily took up half of our hiking time the day we climbed to the top.

From the mountaintop we could see a bumpy intermittent line of peaks and sweeping valleys that run from Table Mountain down to Cape Point.

There it was, our next day’s adventure was laid out in front of us — road trip — to the cape and back again.

The next morning dawned perfectly clear and still, and beckoned an early start. Our first stop landed us at Boulders Beach, a place of huge granite boulders interspersed with pockets of soft yellow sand that create perfect beach nooks for sunbathers and penguins alike. The main attraction at the beach is a breeding colony of African penguins. Their common name is [filtered word] penguin for their call that sounds like the braying of a donkey.

The first breeding pair of penguins came to this mainland beach from offshore islands in 1983. As the colony became established, the penguins started burrowing in neighbors’ gardens, crossing roads and becoming playthings for dogs.

The penguins are now protected and the beach is a National Park, complete with rangers and entrance fees. The penguins roam freely in and out of the water, and getting close to them is just a matter of sitting still or slowly inching closer.

Having more to explore, we left the penguins and headed toward Cape Point. Wind blown, low, scrubby bush, reminiscent of tundra, covers the cape, so our vistas were excellent. One sign informed us that the cape had the clearest air on the whole continent of Africa. I believed it as I took in the vivid colors of sky and sea.

Numerous walking trails crisscross the cape, but the most popular for day-trippers is the trail leading to lighthouses at the tip. As the cape narrows, tall cliffs drop dramatically into the ocean, and the trail disappears amongst crumbling rocks. It’s easy to spend hours sitting on the rocky outcrops watching the cormorants soaring below, but the ripe smell of bird guano moved us along quickly, even though it’s the cleanest air in all of Africa.

The day wouldn’t have been complete without a swim, and late afternoon found us on one of the nearby pristine beaches bathing in the cool turquoise waters. We were told the water is warmer on the Indian Ocean side of the Cape than the Atlantic waters on the western side. Despite this, our dip was still brisk. The hot African sun countered our chilly swim as we meandered and played on the beach.

On our return drive to Cape Town, we took the scenic western route that is lauded as one of the most spectacular marine drives in the world. We found ourselves driving this very narrow windy road right before sunset, and with pullouts and viewpoints strategically placed along the way we stopped at a prime spot to watch the dramatic setting sun. A dinner of fish and chips in quaint Hout Bay left us satiated and satisfied with our full day, well spent in the out-of-doors.

Plenty more outdoor adventures await the visitor in Cape Town. Kite surfing is popular along the northern beaches, and it’s fun to watch the boarders’ leaps, thrilling speed and spills. Or how about a quick paraglide off Lion’s Head peak during lunch hour? On a Thursday around noon we watched paragliders lift off. Once the flight master checked the winds and location of other fliers he gave the OK nod, and with a brief lift of the handle straps and a few steps downhill the rider was airborne. It looked so easy. What a way to spend a lunch break — floating, twisting and turning for minutes or even hours on end. The sky became colorfully decorated with the yellow, red, blue and white canopies.

There was much to do, but certainly not enough time to experience it all. For the wine connoisseur, days could be spent visiting wineries, gardens and the attractive rolling countryside in South Africa’s premier wine growing area, Stellenbosh. Wine tasting for us would have to wait for that next trip to Africa.

You know how a place can get under your skin? Well, our time in the expansive, diverse, first world-third world juxtaposed Africa, got under mine.

Next time, I want to see lions and cheetahs racing across the plains, or sit quietly contemplating a sinking red sun with a glass of fine wine, or stand around a fire with a cup of bush tea listening to the sounds of the evening veld.

For me, Africa has it all, and more.

• Susan Sloss is a Juneau resident.

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