A squeal of confused excitement goes up among the other surfers treading water offshore. What looks like a fin edges above the surface, snaking between my friends and I. My imagination kicks into overdrive.
“This is it,” I say to myself, expecting my life to flash before my eyes. But before I know what’s happening, I’m screaming to my friends, pointing at the blackish-brown object slipping through the water.
“Look,” I yell, just as a tiny pup leaps out of the water. “A baby sea lion.” The excitement reaches fever-pitch as the bug-eyed scamp swims within a whisker’s length of us, flippers twirling, lapping up the attention. “Only in Cape Town,” I tell people afterwards – a cheesey sentiment, but the so-called LA of Africa is one of those rare places that actually lives up to the gushing travel reviews.
Long and late
The Mediterranean climate, exhilarating mix of cultures, laid-back pace, and some of the best waves in the southern hemisphere have me coming back year after year. My friends, on the other hand, are drawn by the hair-raising activities the Cape has to offer – I quickly discover this when they start producing pamphlet after pamphlet as we settle down for lunch at one the smart bistros that line the historic V&A Waterfront.
Thankfully, the troupes of fire-breathers, jugglers and traditional African dancers battling it out on the quayside offer a welcome distraction, and the conversation soon moves on. But it’s not long before talk turns to climbing Table Mountain, the soaring flat-topped mountain that looms above the city, and I soon find myself on a three-hour slog up this 3,500ft (1000m) Everest. Just thinking about it makes my legs ache.
Cock-a-hoop at conquering such a mammoth challenge, my friends and I catch a cab to Long Street, in the heart of the city centre, for a few well-deserved drinks. Packed bars and clubs overflow onto mezzanine verandas, and people huddle around tables to watch the comings and goings in the street below. Leaning against the wrought-iron balustrades, with live music and laughter ringing in my ears, I feel like I’m in New Orleans’ French Quarter during Mardi Gras, rather than Africa on a weeknight. As the band starts to hit its stride, however, I decide to call it a night, and head back to my digs for some much-needed shut-eye.
I’m staying a short taxi-ride away in Observatory – a bohemian suburb packed with buzzing hole-in-the-wall bars, shabby-chic cafes and restaurants where you can enjoy anything from a quiet coffee over a book or a sumptuous three-course meal for less than a tenner to a rowdy night dancing Coyote Ugly-style on the bar, depending on what takes your fancy.
Up close and personal
The next morning, I wake up at the crack of dawn itching to hit the beach. From Observatory, it’s a 30-minute drive to the premier wind- and kite- surfing hotspots at Kalk Bay and nearby Muizenberg – scene of my nose-to-nose encounter with the Cape seal pup. After a few hours of pounding Muizenberg’s waves, we decide to head down the coast to Kalk, and grab lunch at the Brass Bell – an open-sided restaurant-cum-bar that I drift back to whenever I’m here.
Bikini-clad beauties and bronzed gods sit at rustic picnic tables exchanging stories of their day’s exploits over some of the best – and most reasonably priced – grub in the city. Gentle waves lap against the restaurant walls, sending a refreshingly cool spray into the air, and I ponder chilling out here for the rest of the day – but the promise of seeing the pint-sized Jackass penguins further down the coast at Boulders Beach proves too alluring.
The waters in this part of the Cape, known as False Bay, may be home to animals more typically associated with Antarctica than Africa, but this stretch of coast is actually the warmest in Cape Town. However, if you don’t mind your surf bracing, the Atlantic coast has some of the best waves. In the South African summer, Kommetjie’s Sunset Reef even boasts some of the biggest waves in the world, which on good days can reach a bone-crushing eight metres.
The sight of the comical penguins waddling on the beach and swimming among the bathers has me in hysterics. My pals, on the other hand, are preoccupied with thoughts of the seabirds’ mortal enemies – the waters off Cape Town are home to one of the largest populations of great white sharks in the world and, unbeknownst to me, we’ve scheduled a cage-dive with these toothy predators.
I manage to give this excursion a wide berth – I’ve seen Jaws too many times to be dangled over the side of a boat like giant bait – although I end up cursing myself when I see my friends still have all their limbs intact.
“The sharks come so close to the cage,” my friend Frank enthuses, adding salt to the wound. “They just appear out of nowhere and start circling around the boat, before swimming right up to the bars for a closer look. It’s such a weird experience. There is literally just a few inches of metal separating you from all those teeth.”
Later that week, a private transfer whisks my friends away to an airstrip half an hour north of the city. While I thumb my way through one of Desmond Tutu’s biographies by the pool, they are climbing 9,000ft above the peninsular, preparing for a petrifying skydive.
“It’s the most fantastic way to see the city,” my friend says. “We could see Robben Island and the ocean dotted with boats, and Table Mountain towering over the city on the other side of the bay.“And the jump itself was unforgettable. After freefalling for 30 seconds, the instructor pulled the shoot and we slowly drifted back down to Earth. It was so quiet.”
With the adrenaline now well and truly pumping, all sights are set on the world’s highest commercial bungee jump – a gravity defying 216-metre drop – a few hours’ drive from the city along the tourist-clogged Garden Route.
My friends and I decide to hire a car and set out along this spectacular drive, and it’s not long before I discover why South Africa’s answer to Route 66 is so popular: it’s the sheer number of sights and activities on offer, including dune boarding at De Hoop, black-water tubing down Storms River, zip-wiring though the forests of Tsitsikamma, ostrich-racing in Oudtshoorn and whale-watching at Hermanus.
My trip along the coast takes me as far as Addo Elephant National Park – home to the largest concentration of elephants on the planet – where I book a guided night-safari to witness Africa’s big game in their eerie nocturnal world.
Driving through the bush, the driver scans the darkness with his industrial-strength torch, wisely ignoring the incandescent eye-shine of the antelope and kudu standing agape by the side of the road. Suddenly, he cuts the engine. After a tense few minutes a pride of lions emerges from the shadows, encircling our Jeep. As the rest of the passengers and I watch in awe, gripped as though watching a scary movie in a darkened cinema, a crackled message comes over the radio. Before I understand what’s happening, we’re off in hot pursuit of something else. After a few twists and turns, the driver slams on the brakes once more and out of the darkness appears a herd of more than 60 elephants marching trunk-to-tail.
Back in Cape Town, I spend my last few days flitting between Long Street and the beach, before deciding it’s only polite to drop by some vineyards – “when in Rome”. I make a beeline for the Boschendal estate near the picturesque town of Franschhoek and while away a blissful couple of hours sipping wine under a sprawling oak tree, before continuing the “vineyard crawl” with a visit to Spier, near the historic town of Stellenbosch.
My friends and I stock up on vino and head back into the city to watch the sunset from Lion’s Head, the sphinx-shaped hill that flanks Table Mountain. After an hour-or-so climb, we finally make it to the top and crack open a bottle of Boschendal just as the setting African sun dips into the Atlantic. The others reminisce about the best part of their adrenaline-fuelled holiday, while I slip into my own little world and start planning my next visit. I just hope I’ve discovered my inner daredevil by this time next year.