Friday, March 13, 2009

Day 7 - Stellenbosch & Koelbaai

Today was a chill day. I met up with a fellow Couch Surfer, Erica, who is Italian but studying in Ireland. She is in Stellenbosch for 10 weeks for a sports therapy practical.

We walked around town, visiting the student commons of the university, the church and the Village Museum. Since I was intrigued at how a student center at an SA university was like, we lunched at the food court there. Almost every vendor sold the same items-- sandwiches, pizzas and burgers. There was one vendor that sold some Asian fare--mainly Chinese and Japanese.

Being the sociologist at heart that I am, I observed that there were limited cases of racial mixing visible at the food court. I guess the situation is similar in the U.S., with our form of "cafeteria self-segregation" present at all university campuses.

After lunch, Richard took us to the winery that his girlfriend Liezl works at. She took us on a cellar tour. One notable fact that I learned is that an oak barrel costs R9,000 (U.S.$900) and is only used a few times. Geez, it does cost a fortune to establish a winery! We also tasted this sweet viral-infected wine.

One observation that I have to comment on is that South Africans like to walk barefoot in public. It is the "African way". I cannot comprehend why they would want to put their feet at risk from getting blisters, tape worms, cuts and gashes. I guess one's feet can adjust to hot concrete after a few exposures.

After bidding farewell to Richard and Liezl, I went off camping with another CSer, Kobus and his friends. The campsite was at a beach called Koelbaai, on the opposite side of Cape Town on False Bay. The drive there was stunning, as the road hugs along the coast. We were able to witness the spectacular sunset with the Cape Peninsula in the background. As usual, the sky turned pinkish after sunset. The beach was picturesque and unspoilt, surrounded by mountains and littered with rocks.

Dinner was a delicious pasta with tomatoes, olives and feta, cooked over a camp fire. I also got a taste of boerwoors, the South African spiral-shaped sausage cooked on braais.

We all slept without tents and directly under the numerous stars on the beach. This was my first time doing this and it felt great! Not only did I admire the stars, but also enjoyed hearing the waves crashing.

Day 6 - Wine Tasting

Lacking a car, and thus unable to visit the surrounding wineries, I decided to join the "Easy Rider Tour", an inexpensive backpacker wine tour. This tour took us to four wineries in Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek (dubbed the "culinary capital of South Africa" due to its establishment by French immigrants).

The first winery we visited was Simonsig. We went on a cellar tour, observing humongous vats and barrels that were used to separate, store and ferment. When it came to wine tasting, our guide used a sword to chop off the head of a bottle of Cap Classique (as the sparkling wine in this region is called).

Next, we headed to Fairview. We noticed the herd of zebras and springbok across the vineyard upon entering. The front of this winery had a few goats on a tower, apparently symbolising their label "Goats of Roam" (a pun on the French varietal Cotes du Rhone). The highlight of Fairview was its cheese bar, with scrumptuous selections such as cheese with tomatoes and herbs.

We then stopped at another winery for lunch. While dining on another round of bobotie and sipping red wine, I was savoring the view overlooking the vineyards.

I admit that after lunch, I wasn't able to discern between different wines as it was just too much. The last two wineres, Dieu Donne and Boschendal, had gorgeous views and Cape Dutch architecture.

I was somewhat surprised when I got back to Richard's that he and his girlfriend Liezl wanted to take me to another winery (!) - Asama. This place had the best views, with lake, mountain and vineyards all together in a portrait.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Day 5 - Stellenbosch

Today was a sweltering 35 degrees C! I wanted to laze around Richard's place but decided to get out and explore Stellenbosch. Stellenbosch is the second oldest town in South Africa and is renowed for its wine and university.

I strolled around town with the intention of observing the quaint Cape Dutch architecture that is supposedly ubiquitous in Stellenbosch. However, Cape Dutch architecture wasn't as prevelent as I believed it to be and the buildings that exhibited this style were rather bland and stoic (e.g., black & white). I was also disappointed at the lack of trees (and shade) as I felt that I was being braaied (South African word for barbeque).

Since today is a Sunday, most museums and stores were closed. In fact, South African store hours are similar to those in Europe. Most places close by 6pm on weekdays and early (or not open at all) on the weekends. This extends to supermarkets, wineries, museums and even the tourist offices! I guess the people who work at these establishments want a life too!

While wandering around town, the first place I arrived was De Braak, or the town green. This square had a few Dutch-style churches on its periphery. Another notable landmark was the Village Museum, which has several Cape Dutch structures. I also wandered around the University of Stellenbosch, which had some colorful Cape Dutch buildings, such as the Theology Building. My highlight was strolling down Victoria St., as it has oak trees lining the sidewalks, thus providing ample shade. The last place of my tour was the Jan Marais Nature Reserve, which has some stunning mountain views.

I was lucky that the German-brand Spar supermarket closes at 7pm on Sunday, because I got in around 6-ish. I bought two chicken and mushroom pies (which, similar in Australia and New Zealand, were imported from the British) for dinner (or supper as they say in SA).

Overall, comparing Savannah, Georgia (another quaint town) to Stellenbosch, I would actually favor the former town for its variety of historic architecture and for more trees.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Day 4 - Robertson Wine Valley

Today was spent touring the Robertson Wine Valley, about 2 hours northeast of Cape Town. The area was having a wine harvest festival.

I drove up with Hannes, the Couch Surfer I was staying with in Cape Town, and his friend. Before leaving the southern suburbs of Cape Town, we stopped to get petrol (as they call gasoline in South Africa). Similar to Hong Kong and some parts of the U.S., there were attendants who filled up the cars. It was interesting to note that the government regulates the price of petrol monthly for each geographic area, so comparison shopping is pointless (unless you're filling up with diesel, which isn't regulated).

Another interesting observation was the diversity in the southern suburbs. These suburbs were formerly whites-only during apartheid. It was amazing to see all races mingling with each other today.

The drive along the N1 freeway to the Roberston Valley was somewhat scenic. We drove past lush fields with cows grazing. The area is also fairly mountainous. The route also took us through the longest tunnel in South Africa, where we spotted a few baboons trying to get some shade! In front of us, on a distant mountain, was the pointy Afrikaans language monument in Paarl.

Our first stop in Roberston was the farmers' market. This was a small market, but with friendly sellers. They were curious as to where I was from and what brought me to their town. I ended up buying a chicken pie and a few muffins (extremely healthy, with bran and dates in them).

We stopped at three wineries in the area. Similar to Napa, Sonoma, Santa Ynez and Temecula valleys (basically all the wine regions I've been to), the area was picturesque, with rolling hills and lush valleys. The odd thing about South African wineries is that many are closed or close early on the weekends (such as 1pm), which doesn't make sense since that is when most people have time off.

I went grape stomping for the first time at Ashton Kelder winery. It felt like trampling on mud. I hope that they aren't going to process our stomped grapes into wine!

The second winery we visited, McGregor was interesting in that it had this unfermented grape juice called 'musk'. It was quite tasty. There was this worker who was mixing the grape juice while allowing the water to be evaportated so that only musk remained.

The third and last winery we visited was Springfield Estate, winner of several awards, according to Platter's Guide to South African Wines and others. This winery had an excellent view of the Brede River.

An interesting observation that I noted while driving through the freeways is that townships even exist in the rural areas. I thought they only existed near cities. Also, there were plenty of people (mainly black) who were walking and hitchhiking on the freeways. It was sad to see a man on a wheelchair trying to get transport.

We drove back on the N2 freeway, passing through the Overberg region with flat, rolling hills. I encountered my first "road works" (construction) in South Africa. Basically, since there is only one lane in each direction, the cars have to stop in front of a temporary 'stop' sign, which the attendant will flip to the other side ('go') after a few minutes. This definitely reminded me of Hong Kong. One unique observation I noted is that South Africans will get out of their cars and stretch at a long road works site (ironic given the paranoia surrounding safety in SA). This would be unthinkable in the U.S.!

I was dropped off at Couch Surfer Richard's place in Stellenbosch. On the way, we had to drive through smog due to forest fires and heavy winds. Unfortunately, the fires have been causing destruction for almost one month now.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Day 3 - Cape Town

It's been a while since I last updated this blog. I've come to the realization that it's impossible to update a travel blog daily, unless I want to spend hours a day in front of a computer!

So to pick up where I left off, after my wonderful tour of the Cape Point and the southern part of the peninsula, I decided to check out Cape Town's city centre on day 3. I took the Metrorail for the first time (which stops running at 7pm), one of Cape Town's few public transportation infrastructures (though with the 2010 Soccer World Cup approaching, this should improve). I was sold a first class ticket without being asked what I wanted (I guess there is no way to hide the fact that I'm not a tourist, given the few East Asians in SA). Other than the fact that the train arrived 10 minutes late, the trip into Cape Town was smooth. It was safe and the train was a melting pot of races. Exiting the train station in Cape Town was quite an adventure as everyone was funneled through ONE turnstile where one person collected tickets!

Upon exiting the train station, I saw the majestic mountains surrounding the city. It was gorgeous! There really is not a bad view in Cape Town-- it's either the mountains or the water. I then strolled down the pedestrian shopping throughfare of St. George's Mall. I also saw the few unfinished elevated highways. Parts of Cape Town remind me of San Francisco, with its sloping, hill-like streets. Cape Town is really the best of all worlds-- San Francisco's culture and San Diego's climate.

I then strolled down the Victoria & Alfred (V&A) Waterfront, a touristy marina similar to Fisherman's Wharf. The highlight here were the excellent views of Table Mountain, Devil's Peak and Lion's Head. The V&A also hosted various performing acts, such as people performing jazz, African drumming, or swallowing fire. But the most popular attraction at the V&A are the tours to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent years imprisoned.

Afterwards, I strolled along the coast through the neighborhoods of Mouille Point and then Green Point, all the way to the lighthouse. One intriguing sight along the way was the construction of the nearly completed Green Point Stadium, to be used for next year's soccer World Cup.

The last neighborhood on my tour was the Waterkant. This area is located on a hill and had views of Table Bay. The architecture was Victorian. Overall, this area reminded me of San Francisco.

The absolute highlight of the day was the hike up Lion's Head for the sunset. Hannes and I hiked up for 1 hour to the summit, scaling several ladders and chains. The views at the top were some of the most phenomenal I've seen through all my travels-- 360 degree views of Cape Town (Table Mountain, Devil's Peak, Atlantic coast, City Bowl). My favorite view was that of the mountains (Twelve Apostles) and coves along the Atlantic coast. At around sunset, a layer of cloud, the famous "tablecloth" rolled in on top of Table Mountain. Also, the sky turned into a beautiful purple and pink display. It was completely dark by the time was finished descending the mountain. Luckily the crescent moon and numerous stars guided us safely.

The hike up Lion's Head has convinced me that Cape Town is the most beautiful city in the world! There are so few cities with mountains, beaches and ocean within the city limits. Furthermore, the quaint architecture, electic culture, diverse food and mild weather make Cape Town one of the world's most desirable places to live. I must confess that I now want to relocate to the Mother City!