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The Cape Escape: Eco-Adventures in Cape Town

Book a window seat if you’re flying into Cape Town for the first time: the bird’s-eye view of the Mother City’s natural beauty deserves the chorus of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ it elicits from arriving visitors. Accessible and easy to enjoy,  the city’s mountains and beaches are its primary natural attractions, but there are hidden gems on the wilder side of this peninsula. Underwater forests, rugged hiking trails and great white shark enounters all lie within sight of Cape Town.

Once the secret domain of locals, these gems have recently become available to those willing to pull on a pair of hiking shoes or a wetsuit to explore beyond the obvious. Guides and naturalists lead adventurers into the mountains to see rare orchids, or observe seals and penguins as they hunt underwater. Always a destination of great beauty, Cape Town now shows off her untamed side with equal gusto. 

Cape Escape - Hiking the Hoerikwaggo Trail
Table Mountain National Park has many different hiking routes; the Hoerikwaggo Trail takes you all the way from Cape Point to the cable station!

Taking on the Table

Set in the middle of the city, Table Mountain’s magnificence is well established. It’s also an international tourist attraction and sees a million visitors a year ride its cable car. But, away from the famous table top, the 57 sq km mountain opens up into a world of dramatically plunging valleys and flower-dazzled wetlands – with very only a handful of visitors compared to the queues around the cable car. A dozen different routes to the top mean you can choose fresh views going up and coming down.

It’s definitely worth taking a guide. Table Mountain may be a familiar landmark but its wilder parts can get very wild indeed. And aside from the obvious advantage of having a professional leading the way, a guide will point out rare flowers and mountain birds, providing you with a much more intimate portrait of Table Mountain’s unique environment. Chances are you’ll get a cup of tea along the way too!

Hike at any time of year: the best weather is March to May; the wettest and coldest from June to September, and the hottest and driest from November to February.

Cape Escape - Joanne hiking
It's not always an easy stroll, says our Managing Director Joanne's happy grin.
Cape Escape - Hiking Silvermine
Silvermine offers longer stretches of more relaxed hiking.

Floating on Glass

Paddling out of Simons Town harbour on lake-like waters, I turned onto the ocean swell. The kayak rose and fell like a fisherman’s float. Looking back over my shoulder, I saw the quaint naval town, once the British Navy’s greatest southern hemisphere base. Before me lay False Bay, studded with enormous granite boulders hosting colonies of cormorants sunning themselves.

A sea kayak trip is the easiest way to appreciate the ocean viewpoint along the Cape Peninsula’s coast. Rocky islands and tucked-away beaches support great breeding colonies of seabirds and penguins. When the water is clear, you can see all the way to the bottom: flashing fish, spiny sea urchins and purple anemones covering submerged reefs. As you near Boulders Beach, African penguins appear, either whizzing through the water like tiny black and white torpedos or pausing to peer at you with tilted heads as you drift by.

Sea kayaking takes place year round but is at the mercy of the elements. In perfect weather, you can kayak right around Cape Point and from August to October, there is a good chance of seeing southern right whales who come to these waters to calve.

Cape Escape - Sea kayaking
Kayaking around False Bay with a dolphin entourage.
Cape Escape - Penguin at Boulders Beach
A penguin stretches his flippers on Boulders Beach.

A Swim in the Woods

Kelp is a strange plant. It’s seaweed, which is a type of alga related to the stuff that turns your swimming pool green, except that kelp grows to Jack-and-the-Beanstalk proportions. It also likes to hang out in great underwater forests, complete with roots, trunks and a canopy layer. Kelp forests are exactly the right environment to provide a home for much of the Cape’s rich marine life.

Snorkelling or diving in kelp forests is a little nerve-wracking at first. Surrounded by silent, waving trunks of kelp, your eye mistakes shadows for monsters but the only predators you'll see here – if you see any at all – are small, shy sharks likely to flee any human encounter. What you will see plenty of is the Cape fur seal, living in great colonies in these famously fertile waters. The ocean’s acrobats, seals hunt fish and crabs in lazy loops and spiralling turns, seeming to show off for the visiting divers and snorkellers. Boats on both sides of the peninsula will take you to the seal's favourite feeding sites, where you can get into the water to encounter them in their natural habitat. The operators provide wet suits and accommodate both divers and snorkelers. Divers do need Open Water certification and those who choose to snorkel need to be competent swimmers.

While very much dependent on weather conditions, diving with seals is a great summer activity, especially in late March and April when the kelp forests are full of adorable pups learning to hunt. 

Cape Escape - diving in Cape Town
The Cape's waters are very chilly and wild, but its kelp forests and marine life are simply fantastic.

Steel Cage, White Death

Unchanged for at least 16 million years, the great white shark is the undisputed apex predator of the Cape waters. Often measuring over five metres (15 feet) and weighing more than a small car, they patrol the shoreline, feeding off the thriving seal colonies. They occur here in sufficient numbers to put Cape Town on the map as a shark-viewing Mecca. And you can get into the water with them on a shark cage dive.

You’ll have a set of steel bars between you and them, of course, but that doesn’t detract from the bone-chilling tingle you feel when one of these giants swims out of the underwater gloom and fixes you with a dark-eyed stare. If you don’t want to get in the water, the views are often as dramatic from the deck of the boat. Either way, if you want to see one of nature’s most perfect predators, this is the best place to do it.

Shark-cage diving runs from February to September out of locations as close to the city as Simons Town. It peaks during the April to September seal breeding season when the sharks famously breach right out of the water to grab their lighting fast prey. Witnessing the explosive leap of a great white is one of nature's more shocking spectacles of primal power.

Cape Escape - Shark cage diving
Shark cage diving offers close encounters with great white sharks.
Cape Escape - Great white shark
A great white shark surfaces in the chilly Atlantic ocean.

Cape Town’s wild side can be experienced through half and full day trips with professional, registered operators. Transfers, food and drink are usually part of the price and they are easily arranged through your African Safari Expert and added onto your itinerary.

Written by Dominic Chadbon. Connect with him on Google+.

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