Urban Wild: Exploring the Great Outdoors in Cape Town

The South African city that loves its mountains and beaches.  
Cape Town South Africa
Cape Town has effortlessly maintained the great outdoors squarely within its metropolitan space. Photo: 4FR/iStock

For 15 years I’d been talking about making a trip to South Africa. To see wildlife of course, but the bigger motivation was to meet an old friend in Cape Town. So when we finally went last month, I had no expectations from the trip. I had no checklist for what I wanted of the city. My family and I just wanted to go with the flow.

On our first morning in Cape Town, as we drove around the city, I was captivated by its stunning location. The magnificent blue ocean in the curve of the bay on one side, Table Mountain sprawled in the city’s backdrop, beaches dotting the coast: It was love at first sight.

I know we’re supposed to be drawn to a city for its people, its architecture, restaurants, nightclubs, and food culture, or because it’s bustling with activity and life. And surely Cape Town has all of these. But the reason I fell in love with the city was a combination of its dramatic location and its quick and easy access to the outdoors. Seeing how nature was woven into the city, made me think of the tremendous potential and missed opportunities of my own city, Mumbai, with its long but unused coastline.

On day one, within ten minutes of leaving downtown Cape Town, we were parked at the base of Lion’s Head peak and had begun our hike up the mountain. On New Year’s Eve, as the city’s fireworks display ended, we turned our attention to this same peak and watched a long line of torch lights and headlamps making their way up. This is clearly a city that loves hiking and the great outdoors, and this particular peak is also a popular spot on full-moon nights.

Cape Town is blessed with great geography. It is a city in the shadow of the magnificent granite and sandstone massif of Table Mountain, which towers above it. One moment Table Mountain can be completely clear and then next it’s covered in a thick blanket of clouds that locals like to call the tablecloth.

The day after Christmas we rode the cable car to the top of Table Mountain, and traversed the flat top to reach MacLear’s Beacon, its highest point. The vistas from on top were breathtaking, and we kept stopping to take in the panoramic views. Along the way we said hello to dassies, rabbit-like creatures that are native to these parts. Interestingly, these tiny mammals are most closely related to elephants.

From the top, our hiking route took us on a strenuous five-hour descent through native flora and Afromontane forest via a ravine called Skeleton Gorge. There were points that were so steep we had to descend down fixed ladders. The hike ended in the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, another spectacular Cape Town green space that’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. My muscles were aching for three days after that walk, but I consider it one of the highlights of my trip.

Another day, and another mere ten minutes from downtown Cape Town, we were hiking in Newlands Forest. Splashing in a stream, walking among tall pines and dark mahogany trees, savouring the scent of the forest and the crisp, fresh air.

I loved every minute of it. To be able to enjoy the outdoors with friends is, for me, one of the greatest joys of travel. In fact when friends travel and visit us in Mumbai, we often take them on a day hike into the Sahyadris nearby, to share the beauty and biodiversity in our backyard. And when the journey’s over, I find, this is what they remember most fondly.

In Cape Town, as the temperature soared, crowds made a beeline for the beaches. I personally found the water of the Atlantic too cold to swim in, but what a gorgeous sight it is! And the fantastic part is how every bit of the outdoors is used and looked after in this city. Its many beaches and trails are supremely clean, even when packed with locals and visitors in peak season. It amazes me that Cape Town’s urban sprawl has not devoured its natural environment. Its mountains, trees, and forest are preserved for its citizens to enjoy. No matter where we went, we saw locals of all ages walking, hiking, swimming. Clearly the outdoors is an integral part of their everyday lives.

Some may think it not quite logical that the reasons I love Cape Town most are precisely its non-urban aspects. There are many other reasons I love the place, but for me the principal magic is that it has embraced its stunning location and maintained the great outdoors squarely within its metropolitan space.

I know so many people who live in big cities who want to escape the concrete jungle and move to the hills or to a rural setting. Travelling to a city like Cape Town opened my eyes to the possibility that cities which offer the perfect blend of the hip and urbane, the natural and wild, can and do exist.

Appeared in the February 2017 issue as “The Outdoors City”.

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    Niloufer Venkatraman ’s idea of unwinding is to put on boots and meander through wilderness or the bylanes of a city, and to instill in her daughter a love for the outdoors. As Editor-In-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India her gig involves more of pummelling stories into shape than actually travelling.

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