Meeting the Past and Present South Africa in Johannesburg

Johannesburg is one of the most important cities in Africa (Cairo, Lagos and Nairobi come to mind as competitors for the top spot…).  It is a city of contrasts and, for me, a place where the past and the current South Africa came together – I ended up with a much better understanding of the challenges of the past and present with this short visit.

I went to Joburg to attend 2 conferences for work.  I preceded that with a weekend in the Cape region center on Cape Town (read about visiting Cape Town  here, the Cape of Good Hope region  here and of visiting Stellenbosch wine country here!).

The conferences I went to were internal gatherings of the organization I was a part of and it was neat to meet so many colleagues from around the world.  And, in the second conference, Archbishop Desmond Tutu addressed us and I got to shake his hand!  It was a great speech and a once in a lifetime opportunity to shake his hand – a man of courage and principles!  We also were addressed by other important figures in the humanitarian sector and it was all a call for action and uplifting at the same time.

My Short and Limited View of Joburg…

For the first conference, I stayed in the Rosebank area, a very nice area of town.  We were even able to walk outside at night (as long as we were not on our own).  The Rosebank Mall was nearby which was very convenient as there were restaurants there as well as a market for African arts and crafts.  The second conference took us to a hotel by the airport.  And I mean, BY the airport… planes would fly over us as they were landing and they were at most 300 ft above the street next to the hotel grounds.  Incredible!


We did manage to squeeze in some important short trips in between conferences and after the second conference.  The first place we visited was Soweto (SOuth WEstern TOwnship, ), the township which was the epicenter of a series of riots that perhaps was the beginning of the end of the apartheid regime starting in 1976 and through the 1980s.  We started at a shantytown in Soweto and that matched, I suppose, what I expected to see.  A shantytown in Soweto, South Africa is not different in some ways than one in Chinandega, Nicaragua.

One of the poorest streets in Soweto, South Africa

One of the poorest streets in Soweto

But the moment we left the shantytown we started seeing middle class and upper class neighborhoods leading us to ask if we had left Soweto (which has slightly less than a million residents).  Well, we had not.  It is incredible to see the mix of levels of income in such a small area.  Winnie Mandela’s house is in a very nice neighborhood close to the street where Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela had lived when younger.

Kids in the streets of Soweto, South Africa

Kids being kids in Soweto

Learning about Apartheid

We also visited the Regina Mundi Catholic Church that shielded protesters from the police during demonstrations in the apartheid era; the choir was practicing when we went which made the visit much more colorful.  Finally, we visited the Hector Pieterson Museum which tells the story of how this boy was killed; the image of this boy’s dead or dying body being carried by a stranger as Hector’s teenage sister ran along crying is a famous image of the period.

Picture of Hector Pieterson's body being carried by a stranger

Picture of Hector’s body being carried by a stranger

The museum is small enough to be easily visited.  It is an eye opener for someone like me who knew only superficially the struggle against apartheid (I only remember the sanctions and images of riots as I was growing up).

The Hector Pieterson Museum was a good start to learn about the history of the country but it was the Apartheid Museum that really taught me what it was all about and how South Africa was able to come out of such a horrible regime without becoming a ground of ashes from vented anger.  It is a testament to the contributions of ANC leaders of the kind that Nelson Mandela represented that prevented violence as revenge and the pragmatism of others such as DeKlerk who understood things had to change whether they wanted the change or not.  That may be oversimplifying (for example, not all ANC leaders would have proceeded as Mandela did) but I am only describing what I took away – not trying to write a dissertation!  I highly recommend this as the most important stop for anyone visiting Joburg.  It is not only a record of the history of modern South Africa but a testament to the human spirit.


Finally, we did not have time to go out to Kruger National Park but did manage to visit a nearby park at Pilanesberg.  We enjoyed the drive from Joburg (about 3 hours each way) and got to see most animals except that we did not see any felines (bummer).  We did have a near hit by an adult male rhino but our experienced driver knew how to read the rhino and know by when we really needed to get going as the rhino was getting testy with our presence.

Rhino about to charge our van in Pilanesberg, South Africa

Rhino about to charge our van!

(Photos taken by Canon EOS Rebel)

Sampling South African Wine in Stellenbosch

Ready to hit a new wine region? How about Stellenbosch in South Africa, a short drive east of Cape Town?

The Wineries

So, we finally hit the road east from our hotel to get to Stellenbosch.  We made a few stops in the wine region hitting some wineries pretty much randomly.

Vine against a perfect blue sky in Stellenbosch, South Africa

The vine of happiness!

We did apply enough intelligence to the itinerary to make sure the first one we hit was one that had a place to eat since we were getting there around lunch time.  The winery we chose (Vergelegen) had very large fields and gardens and a café where you could eat lunch in the shade of trees overlooking a rose garden.  We then proceeded to the wine tasting area where for a fee (on top of the R10 we paid to enter the property…), we could sample 6 wines.  Not getting into details, the wines generally were refreshing and quite drinkable.  It was a blue-sky day and we faced a mountain range so the setting was perfect to sit back and enjoy life.

View of the gardens and backdrop of the Vergelegen winery in Stellenbosch, South Africa near Cape Town

View from the Vergelegen winery garden

After the initial winery, since wineries began closing after 4 PM, we chose a road where there were a few wineries back to back to minimize driving time (did I say we both studied engineering??).  The first winery was in an old building and the wine was quite nice.  In this winery, the person who served us stood there by us and happily answered our questions but the conversation was nothing special.  In a later winery (Peter Falke, not to be confused with the actor; the owner, if I remember correctly, was a German who owned a socks company in Germany) that seemed a little bigger (but not as big as the first one we went to), the only employee in that afternoon was the winemaker himself who was quite willing to sit outside with us and sample the wine on the backyard as we overlooked the fields and the nearby mountains.  You can tell this winery is new but the setting is perfect to be rented out for events as it has the right lay out in the patio, has great outdoor furniture, etc.  He was quite willing to discuss winemaking and generally answer our questions so I think this winery was my favorite .  The wine was also quite nice.

In Stellenbosch Town

As the wineries closed, we headed into town to check in and have dinner.  Our hotel was a local small hotel (the Eendracht) right in town.  The architecture of the town as in much of the Cape region, is Cape Dutch.  I, not being a student of architecture, have to admit I was clueless about it.  I really found it quite charming.  I will make a note to someday google it and learn something about it…

Typical construction in Cape Dutch architecture style in the Stellenbosch wine region of South Africa

Example of the Cape Dutch architecture

The town was very nice and we quickly ran into the shops and restaurant area of the town.  We also hit a wine store where we were given samples of wine without any pressure to buy.  The store had a long wooden table that indicated frequent wine tastings took place.  If I lived there, I would likely frequent it :).  That night we decided we were done with seafood so we smelled our way around the various restaurants until we found one that seemed right for a good meal.  I don’t have the name handy but I think we did well.  The place was full of locals and the meal was great.  I ate springbok (a type of deer) in a brown sauce – it was delicious!So with that ended my weekend escape to the Cape region and I proceeded to the less magnificent Johannesburg area (but with interesting history) (read about it here).  I also learned quickly in my trip to South Africa how cheap things are given the exchange rate!

Big thumbs up for the Cape region and here is to hoping to go back!

Does anyone have any recommendations for other wineries in Stellenbosch?

(Photos taken with Canon EOS Rebel)

Reaching the End of Africa…

We started the day by going to the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town as the Ocean Volvo Race was expecting its first arrivals on the first leg of this round-the-world regatta that morning.  They were expecting the Ericsson team to be the first to arrive from Europe and, sure enough, when we got there, the crew was already packing up sails, etc.  It was neat to see them getting with their families after however long they had been in the ocean.  It was then time to leave to go see the famous Cape of Good Hope which is NOT the southernmost tip of the continent (I felt taken in!).

Leaving Cape Town and heading south passes through beach areas that I only wish I could have enjoyed!

Heading out Cape Town on our way south to the Cape of Good Hope

Heading out Cape Town on our way south to the Cape of Good Hope

Driving from Cape Town to Cape of Good Hope is a neat drive.  The peninsula is rather small so the distances are short.  There seem to be 2 main roads going down, one along the west coast and another further east.  We decided to go down one and come up another.  As we trekked down the beach towns south of Cape Town, we greatly enjoyed the views of the bays, mountains and beaches along the way.  The drive around Chapman’s Peak has to rank up there among the most beautiful coastal drives in the world (  Unfortunately, the final part of the drive for us, south of Hout Bay was closed to traffic (not sure why but maybe rock slides?) but the views were breathtaking and we even got to see whales pretty much near the rocks at the bottom of the cliff we were standing at.  It was a beautiful day to be driving around (early November).  Due to the crossing we had to back track up to Hout Bay but that allowed us to drive by Constantia which seems a neat area to visit some time.

Coastline south of Cape Town (near Hout's Bay and Chapman's Peak)

We decided to head straight to Simon’s Town and stop there for lunch.

Simon's Town on the way of the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa

Making a stop in Simon’s Town on the way of the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa to see the penguins

We also realized it was known for the penguins so we decided to take a look at them too.  We had lunch at a great hole in the wall called the Salty Sea Dog [good eats] where we had fantastic fish and chips.  There were many choices on the fish and it was all very fresh.  The penguins were, as promised, perched on the rocks but I felt, as the tourist restricted to a wooden pathway, as the wildlife under observation!

Penguins in Simon's Town, South Africa near the Cape of Good Hope

Penguins in Simon’s Town

The landscape south of Simon’s Town got more beautiful the more we drove.  We saw different types of wildlife along the way.  We entered the park and soon found ourselves at the Cape of Good Hope.  At first, it seemed just a big old pile of rocks.  However, soon the colors from the late afternoon soon, the wild waves, and the hike up that pile of rocks began to yield truly magnificent views.  We hiked up and set up our own rock pile atop the Cape where others had done the same.  As soon as we began walking further at the top, it started raining so we had to make a run back down in the rain.  Too late, we were drenched.  Fortunately, it wasn’t too cold!

We then drove over to Cape Point, right next door and probably a walk over had it not been raining, and STILL not the southernmost point of the continent (Cape Argulhas is) though you are informed it is the southwesternmost point on the continent (I wondered about whether such a distinction is necessary; what is the southeasternmost point?  maybe Port Elizabeth?).  We hiked up Cape Point and then all the way down as far as you are allowed above the lighthouse.  Cape Point was far more spectacular than its more famous neighbor in terms of the views.  You can look north and see the peninsula with the Atlantic Ocean on the west and False Bay on the east.

Cape Point near the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa

Reaching Cape Point

Cape of Good Hope in South Africa

Looking at the Cape of Good Hope from Cape Point

More info on the capes at

As we drove back up the west coast after nightfall, one of my favorite views was a lighthouse that we looked down upon from the road we were driving on.  It was between Kommetjie and Scarborough, I think.  Due to a road accident that killed 5 in Kommetjie, we had to backtrack a good way and ended up driving up the east coast (got to see the lighthouse again!).After a few misses in small towns north of Simon’s Town, we finally found a town that looked like it had places to eat (it was Sunday night so maybe many places were closed, hence those towns looked like there were no eateries…).  In Kalk Bay we found an eatery called the Brass Bell right by the train station on the water.  It was a pub/seafood place – it was great!  Basic as it was, the food was quite good, the setting pretty cool, and the beer nice and cold!  Maybe we were just too hungry??

After dinner we just went due north past Muizenberg to our hotel to get ready for our visit to wine country in Stellenbosch.

Does anyone know of interesting towns in the peninsula or good places to eat in that area?

Visiting the Phenomenal City of Cape Town, South Africa

I headed to South Africa to attend some work conferences in Johannesburg.  But I decided, being my first time in South Africa, that I just had to see Cape Town and the surroundings, including the Cape of Good Hope and Stellenbosch.  A college roommate was also going to be there for business so we decided to meet up and see the Cape region together.

Our Accommodations

We stayed at a nice hotel, The Courtyard, near the Liesbeck River and the Observatory.  It had an awesome setting, kind of looking to the back of Table Mountain.  The hotel had the nicest happy hour I have seen in any hotel – local beers and wines and a good amount of appetizers.  In the morning you had a nice buffet breakfast and you could take it outside looking at the grounds and the mountain.

Enjoying breakfast at The Courtyard outside of Cape Town, South Africa

Enjoying breakfast outdoors at The Courtyard

In the City

We visited the V&A Waterfront which was nice but we could have been in any major city by the water.  The seafood we had was very fresh.  But other than that, not sure I would be making this a priority stop in any future trip there…

V&A Waterfront in Cape Town with Table Mountain on the background

V&A Waterfront with Table Mountain on the background

Slightly Out of the City

Robben Island was closed when I was in CT for some animal control project that was to last 2 weeks.  I imagine it is an interesting place but I can’t comment.  The beach towns south of the city center were teeming with life and seemed a nice play to stay an hang out for meals, etc.  We mainly drove past them as we only had 2 days to cover a lot of places we wanted to see.  But, in a future visit, I can see myself relaxing in these towns…

Driving through the beach towns south of Cape Town, South Africa

Driving through the beach towns south of Cape Town

The Masterpiece of Cape Town – A Natural Wonder!

The traveler freezing at the top of Table Mountain

The traveler freezing at the top of Table Mountain


Rio de Janeiro has the Pao de Azucar.  Cape Town has Table Mountain.  Table Mountain, at first thought, seemed maybe too touristy to visit but it was well worth the time and ride up.  The views up there were simply fantastic.  You could see the city, the port, Robben Island, the beach towns, etc.  But the height from which you see them really blows you away.  The clouds would come in and out of the mountaintop adding to an already-amazing setting.

View from Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa

View towards the beach towns from Table Mountain

View from Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa with Robben Island

View towards the city in the foreground and Robben Island in the background

While Cape Town as a city was not something spectacular (I’m comparing it to the likes of Paris, Istanbul, Rome), the setting of the city most definitely is quite spectacular and the neighboring areas (more on those later) are as well.

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