Monday, June 17, 2013

South Africa - Cape Town (2013)

We departed Knysna on the morning of January 6th for the 290 mile sail to Cape Town.  This part of the coastline also has its fair share of hazards, so we were hopeful that our two-day weather window would hold.  Conditions in the harbor entrance were calm as we motored through the Knysna Heads and pointed west for our last leg in the Indian Ocean.  Winds were light on the first day, and we motor-sailed for a while to maintain speed in order to make it to port before the next big blow. 

We had an uneventful first day, as the winds remained light and the swell continued to diminish further offshore.  The next morning the winds filled in at 15 knots from the SSE, and we sailed along at six knots toward our first important landmark on the passage.  From 10 miles offshore, we could see Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point on the African continent.   Cape Agulhas is an unspectacular rocky headland and the lesser known of the two South African capes, but this is the point where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic Ocean.

As we sailed into the Atlantic, we reflected over the last four months and 6,000 miles of sailing from Indonesia to South Africa.  We had always considered the Indian Ocean a big scary body of water with storms and pirates and other challenges to test our relatively new sailing skills.  Although the winds were a bit stronger here, our heavy displacement boat is in her element in a fresh breeze.  We actually enjoyed this brisk sailing much better than that of the Pacific, which was plagued with unstable weather systems bringing squalls and inconsistent winds.  In fact, we were lucky to have winds over 30 knots on only a few brief occasions in the Indian Ocean.  Hopefully the Atlantic will treat us as well. 

On our first night in the Atlantic and the second of this passage, the winds held steady and slowly shifted more to the south.  By midnight, we could see the flash off our beam from the distant lighthouses near the Cape of Good Hope.  Sailing on a beam reach in 15 knots of wind and four foot seas on a cloudless night can be an amazing experience, but it was especially rewarding going around what was originally named the Cape of Storms.  Many ships have been lost in these waters, and we were happy to have made it around the cape before the next low pressure system arrived.

In the early morning hours, we could tell that it wasn’t just a new ocean we were in, but a new current.  At Cape Agulhas, the warm Agulhas Current meets the icy Benguela Current going north from Antarctica and continuing up the west coast of the African continent.   The two currents collide and mix in the 90 mile area between Cape Agulhas and the Cape of Good Hope, and the water temperature starts to decrease. 

Water temperatures can vary greatly where the currents are coming together between the two capes, but by the time you get west of the Cape of Good Hope, the cold Benguela Current dominates.  Every hour the air temperature dropped a little, and by the time the sun rose and the Cape Peninsula came into view, we had to dig out our sweaters and heavy jackets again. 

Ideal sailing conditions continued as we made the last 25 miles north into Cape Town.  As the southern suburb of Green Point was just off our beam, we hailed port control on VHF to get permission to enter the harbor.  As we rounded the corner, Cape Town came into view.  This has to be one of the most picturesque cities in the world.  It sits at the bottom of a natural amphitheater called the City Bowl and is bordered by the mountains of Signal Hill, Lion’s Head, Devil’s Peak and the most prominent, Table Mountain, with its near vertical cliffs and flat-topped summit over 3,300 ft tall. 

suburb of Green Point and the outer harbor Port of Cape Town
Passing through the outer harbor, we noticed the first of two pedestrian bridges that needed to be raised so we could reach the inner harbor.  The bridge operators didn’t respond to our calls on the VHF, so we just nosed up to the first bridge.  They apparently knew what we wanted and opened it as we approached.  The tourists along the water’s edge lined up and watched us go through, and the second bridge opened a few minutes later. 

By noon on January 8th, Saviah was moored at the Victoria and Alfred (V & A) Waterfront Marina right in the heart of Cape Town.   The marina is part of a big development and is surrounded by high-end condominiums, hotels and restaurants, with Table Mountain looming in the background.  We were surprised to find dozens of rambunctious sea lions that also call the marina home.  They provide hours of entertainment for tourists but are sometimes a nuisance for boaters.  Their barks/growls/hisses can be heard day and night.  They like to lounge on the docks, and if they pick one near your boat, unpleasant smells often waft through the cabin.

V&A Waterfront Marina
Cape Town is a beautiful cosmopolitan city, and the second most populated in South Africa with 3.75 million people.   The biggest tourist attraction is the V&A Waterfront, which was right at our doorstep.  This development was built on a portion of the original Port of Cape Town docks.  It is a working harbor where you can watch fishing boats and cargo ships come and go as well as recreational boats.  There are also tour boats that visit nearby Robben Island, which is the location of the maximum security prison that held Nelson Mandela and other political activists years ago. 

It is also one of the city's most popular shopping venues, with several hundred shops and restaurants.  There are many local vendors selling crafts and food, as well as some very entertaining street performers.   We were happy to find a huge grocery store a short walk from the marina where we could provision without needing a cab or bus. 

V&A Waterfront
For exercise, it was nice to run on the waterfront trail from the V&A to the suburb of Green Point.  We also spent some time walking around downtown to visit the park on Government Avenue and the oldest structure in Cape Town, which is the Iziko Castle of Good Hope, built by the Dutch in the 17th century.  This pentagon shaped fort surrounded by a moat sits amid the high rise buildings in Cape Town’s business district.

Iziko Castle of Good Hope and Mouille Point Lighthouse
Table Mountain towers over the city and is another big tourist attraction that we had to see up close.  The summit is easily reached via a cable car that carries passengers up and down all day.  We opted for the more challenging ascent and hiked up with some other cruisers, Lars and Allison on s/v Twister.  We hit the trail at 6 am, before it got too hot, and climbed up the very steep terrain.  An hour and a half later, legs burning and out of breath, we were at the summit (3,570 ft) looking down on the city and beyond.  There were also great views of the Cape of Good Hope and False Bay as well as the two peaks, Devil's Peak and Lion's Head on either side.  We spent a couple hours hiking around on the trails on top of the plateau and then took the cable car back down.

views from the top of Table Mountain
After spending a week in the city, we wanted to explore some of the surrounding area.  We rented a car and headed south to spend the day on the Cape Peninsula, the mountainous spine that goes 25 miles south from Cape Town to the Cape of Good Hope and is part of the South African National Park system.   The trip took us along Chapman’s Peak Drive.  This is a very scenic route where much of the road was cut right into the cliff face at dizzying heights over the Atlantic Ocean.  The views over the coastline on this stretch were incredible.   

Slangkop Lighthouse and Cape of Good Hope National Park
Once in the park, we did the short hike to the lighthouses at Cape Point.  There are actually two capes at the end of this peninsula.  On the southwest side is the famous Cape of Good Hope, which is more well-known because it sticks out a little further south, but it is low lying and not very exciting.  The other point on the southeast side of the peninsula is Cape Point, the more dramatic of the two.  This narrow piece of land juts out into the water with very steep cliffs rising to over 800 feet.

Cape Point is also where the lighthouses on the peninsula are located, as it is a much higher platform.  The original was built on the top at 817 feet, but it was not as effective because it was often shrouded in fog due to its higher elevation.  Later after the shipwreck of the Lusitania in 1911, they built the new and more powerful one, lower down on the cliff wall at 285 feet. 

Cape Point
We then did the one and a half mile hike from Cape Point to the Cape of Good Hope.  This point was originally named the Cape of Storms, but was later changed to the more optimistic name as it opened up trading to the Far East.  The cape itself wasn’t very exciting, but it was a really nice walk over there, much of which was on a boardwalk with a beautiful beach below. 

Cape of Good Hope
After the cape, we drove back north following the eastern side of the peninsula and stopped near Simon’s Town to see the colony of African Penguins that live in the area.  These penguins are on the endangered species list, but there are over 2,000 of them in False Bay, living off mainly squid and other shoal fish that flourish in these waters.  The beach where we first spotted them was also a popular swimming area, and it was surprising to see people sunbathing and wading in the water alongside these animals.  A little further north there was another viewing area with a boardwalk to keep people off the beach.  There must have been hundreds of penguins here walking around and sitting in their shallow pits in the sand.  Since these birds can’t fly, they have to dig their nests in the ground, which makes their eggs easy prey for other animals.

African Penguins

After our tour of the Cape Peninsula, we headed about 30 miles east of Cape Town to spend a couple days in the Stellenbosch area.   This town lies at the foot of the Cape Fold mountain range.  The well-drained, hilly terrain and the regional climate are ideal for viticulture, and there are hundreds of wineries in the area.   With vineyards and orchards dotting the slopes of the mountains and lots of old Cape Dutch manor houses, this was another beautiful spot.

We also visited nearby Franschhoek (Dutch for “French corner”), which is one of the oldest settlements in South Africa, founded by a group French Huguenots that fled to this area in the 17th century.  There is still a very big French influence here and many wineries and great restaurants as well.   

Stellenbosch and Franschhoek
After a few days of inland travel, it was time to get back to Saviah and start looking for a good weather window to head north.  Originally, our plan was to sail 750 miles up the coast to Walvis Bay, Namibia to see the Namib Desert.  It wouldn’t be a long stop, as we had recently learned that our friends were coming to visit us in Barbados in early April, and we had a lot of ground to cover before then. 

Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate with us this time, and we ended up waiting a week for a good weather window.  This gave us time to do some more projects, like replacing our macerator pump, installing some cabin fans and building a mount for the new outboard engine that we recently bought.  We also installed the burglar bars that we had fabricated for our three hatches in anticipation of spending time in the Caribbean and South/Central America.  It was nice to get some of these projects done, but the delay meant that we would need to skip Namibia, or we would really be pushing it to make it to Barbados by early April. 
During our week of waiting, we had typical Cape Town weather with several days of sustained 30 – 40 knot winds, gusting to 50 knots at times.  Finally, on January 31st, the winds settled down some.  We cleared out with customs and immigration and said farewell to South Africa.  We had a wonderful three months exploring this diverse country.  Our next stop is Saint Helena, the small British island in the South Atlantic, 1,700 miles to the northwest.