Friday, January 19, 2007
Cape Travels: Good Hope, Stinky Penguins, Sauvignon Blanc
On our first rainy day in Cape Town, Megan and I headed out on a tour of the Cape. The tour began as a means to an end: we wanted to avoid renting a car, but we needed transportation to many of the places we wanted to see. The tour ended up providing much more as we learned interesting facts in a very peculiar application of the English language.
Initially, the driver acquainted us with the general geography of the area. The Cape is bordered to the west, south, and east by the Atlantic Ocean. The waters on the west coast are fed by a very cold current running up from Antarctica. Because of the cold water temperatures, most people on the western beaches tend to sit around "exposing their bodies," to quote our guide. The eastern coast is warmer due to a current coming in from the Indian Ocean, so people are more likely to swim on that coast (though, presumably, they "expose their bodies" over there as well).
With that in mind, we headed south down the Cape on a beautiful highway. The highway dropped off to the ocean, and, while fog shrouded our view for a while, the scene was beautiful.
Eventually, we arrived in Hout Bay, pictured below, to take a boat to a colony of seals. We were told we would take a quick ferry ride on smooth seas out to an island where the seals like to play and then return to the dock. What the guide omitted was the fact that the "smooth seas" were actually rough seas that day. In fact, neither of us had ever experienced rougher waters. The boat tossed and turned as our captain threaded the craft through a maze of massive boulders. The pitch of the ship was shocking, and the motion meant that the seals slid in and out of view. I concentrated on holding on while Megan concentrated on not getting sick. Apparently we captured video of the experience, but I can only imagine the nausea that video would invoke in the viewer.
Oh yeah, we saw seals.
Anyway, then it was off to the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point. The Cape of Good Hope received that name after it revealed a nautical route from Portugal to the spices of India. I imagine the name relates the fact that anyone who rounded the turn from the East and pointed the ship north stood to make a vast fortune. The photos below show us happily posed at these baboon-riddled landmarks.
The history of the area is closely linked to the history of the spice trade. Cape Town was created as a refreshment station: a place where ships could stop for a resupply of food and drink before rounding the turn toward the Indian Ocean.
Given the traffic and heavy winds, the area also became a perfect place for ships to wreck. In an interesting quirk of geography, the bay to the east of Cape Point became known as "False Bay." Imagine the southwestern coast of the African continent as a coastline with two long fingers jutting out. The western finger consists of Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. Upon seeing this, a ship could turn north and head toward Europe. Further east another finger sticks out, this one known as Cape Hangklip. This is more easily pictured through the map below. While unlabeled, the right, or east, side of the image features Cape Hangklip. The west side features Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. The central bay is known as False Bay.
Ships, headed from India, would frequently mistake Cape Hangklip for the Cape of Good Hope. They would then head north at Cape Hangklip and find themselves in a bay. Unfortunately for these sailors, the prevailing winds in that particular part of the world blow, and blow very hard, from the south. The currents also work their mischief and effectively would hold ships in False Bay beyond hope of extrication. The ships would eventually wreck, and thus, the name "False Bay," while probably an understatement, seemed appropriate.
After our history lesson at the southwest corner of the African continent, we made our way back north along more scenic highway to the colony of African penguins at Boulder's Beach near Simon's Town. Previously known as "jackass penguins" due to their call (which closely resembles the noise of a donkey), the African penguin smells really bad. I know the reader probably expected more scientific information, but, aside from a quick and repulsive observation of the mating rituals of the African penguin, we learned little more than the fact that they smell awful. Really awful. The whole beach smelled bad. The wind, which changed directions, constantly filled our nostrils with stench, and, frankly, we came, saw, and departed before bothering to read any of the labels. Below you'll at least find deceptively cute pictures of the malodorous creatures.
Cecil Rhodes, diamond mogul and namesake of the Rhodes Scholarship, once owned a large part of the land around Cape Town. When he died in 1902, he left a large portion of his land for the public benefit. His land provided the grounds for a major hospital, a hospital which became the site of the first heart transplant. Another part of his property became the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, an amazing set of gardens along Table Mountain.
The gardens are separated into themes from endangered plants to medicinal plants, desert environment to forest environment, plants that smell great to plants that smell nasty (but not as nasty as the penguins). We enjoyed our hour walking through the vast property where we often found ourselves completely alone.
Finally, we get to our last morning in Cape Town, a trip to the vineyards. We left early on Sunday morning toward Zevenwacht, a vineyard whose name means the "Seven Expectations." I have no clue what "Seven Expectations" refers to because we were told this fact as we concentrated our sensory efforts on teasing out the subtleties of a pinotage, a wine created from a breeding of two different grape varieties in a South African laboratory. We swirled our glass, smelled, and paid close attention as the wine touched various portions of the tongue. Then we waited to tease out the subtle aftertastes. Megan determined the wine was "tasty," and I decided it was "very tasty" with slight hints of "red wine goodness." We have a gift for this sort of thing.
Through our time at Zevenwacht, we learned a bit about the South African wine industry. Pinotage is the only purely South African grape, but the bulk of wine production in the area consists of sauvignon blanc. Probably because the sauvignon blanc is really, really delicious (more technical wine-tasting vocabulary).
The wine industry in the area was initiated by the Dutch. Later, French Huguenots, who immigrated to the Cape in search of religious freedom, contributed to the growth of the wine industry. They brought with them a great deal of wine knowledge. They also brought oak trees for creating oak barrels for aging wine. In a climactic misjudgment, the oak tended to grow far too fast. While it never became a pest that crowded out other species, the oak grew so quickly that the wood is porous and ineffective for aging wine. Thus, most vineyards use either French or American oak depending on the preferred flavor (so apparently French oak trees and American oak trees taste differently . . . having never done a taste test myself, I had no idea).
After receiving all of this knowledge, we simply had to try more wine. We ended up at Neethlingshof Vineyard, home of the tastiest white wine I've ever tried, the Neethlingshof sauvignon blanc. Neethlingshof stood in a beautiful setting with nearby mountains and lush plant life.
After leaving the vineyard, we made a quick drive through the town of Stellenbosch on our way back to Cape Town. Stellenbosch is a beautiful place with more examples of the Cape Dutch architecture visible in the photos above. The photo below features a Dutch Reform church in Stellenbosch.
To the Airport
We left Stellenbosch reluctantly. While anyone would be reluctant to leave a vineyard in the middle of beautiful landscape, we were more reluctant since our departure meant time for a very, very long flight.
We had an amazing time in Cape Town. While the flight is brutal, we look forward to returning someday . . . but we might visit the great white sharks instead of the penguins next time around.