It’s the beginning of a six week trip through southern Africa; a trip that will end two weeks early with a bout of malaria and an emergency flight home from Nairobi, but we don’t know that yet. For now, we are in Cape Town, and as we get the bus to our hostel from the airport I just keep turning to him with wide eyes and saying I’m in Africa, I’m in AFRICA.
I have never visited Africa before, not even northern Africa on a budget flight for a cheap getaway. This is undiscovered territory, my first trip south of the equator. We’re 20, and travelling like you do when you are a Traveller with a capital T; no money, huge rucksacks, a vague plan, and a copy of Lonely Planet’s guide to Africa. We are delirious with excitement and completely naïve, and that is exactly how it’s supposed to be.
We have just one full day in Cape Town because we only have six weeks and we want to see the entirety of Africa, and we have the cheap seats on a 26 hour train to Johannesburg in 26 hours’ time.
We can’t explore it all, so instead we are going to see it all, and we book a guided hike up to the top of Table Mountain. It is spectacular. It is beautiful. It is fascinating. Our guide tells us about the ecosystem of Table Mountain; the ‘Cape Floral’, and fynbos that grows there. We learn how the wildfires help the plant life, how they need it to reproduce. We climb up Porcupine Gully and learn about the 12 Apostles. We see the reservoirs stained red from the plant growth on the mountain. We see the Mountain Huts, one for Whites and one for Blacks, still left over from the Apartheid. We talk about the history of Cape Town, the many signs of Apartheid that remain in the city down below. We see the British built machinery that was used to construct the cable car, rusted over, with word Liverpool still visible through the dirt.
And then we are at the top. We can’t explore it all, but suddenly we can see it all. We eat chocolate croissants and drink fynbos tea, and we see the sea and we see the city and we see the sky.
That night we go to a jazz bar with Brazilians we meet in the hostel, and American dentists on their way home from doing volunteering work in Uganda. We drink free shots and South African beer, and we wobble in at 4am, narrowly avoiding getting mugged. The next day we are hungover and on our way to the train station with a McDonald’s breakfast because we are 20 and we are Travelling, and Johannesburg is calling. We have a day safari in the Kruger National Park booked in a day’s time, and then we’re done with South Africa and onto Zimbabwe.
And then, exhausted, happy, grubby, poor, we are on the Shosholoza Meyl long distance train, already leaving Cape Town behind us (along with, as it turned out, our itinerary, passport photos and my yellow fever certificate, but we don’t discover that until later either.)
I am 26 now, and no-one is travelling anywhere. But if I could go back anywhere it would be to South Africa, but specifically to Cape Town. With a lot more money, a lot more time, and that precious knowledge that you can’t experience a whole city in a day (or a whole continent in six weeks for that matter). I can’t explore it all, and I can’t even see it all, but I can explore much much more. There are penguins to be seen, wineries to be visited, museums and galleries, culture, art, music and people.
I kept a diary during that trip, sporadically, entries dwindling as we packed more and more into our schedule. But the end of my first entry, written on that train winding north through South Africa I scribbled this: ‘I have loved loved loved Cape Town, and I WISH we were staying longer. There is so much to do here and it’s such an amazing place. I WILL be back’. Hardly a profound statement, but one I hold onto to this day. I’d love to go back.