MZANSI — CAN’T MISS CAPE TOWN

LANGA

6:30pm — My Uber driver turns off the N2 and into the narrow streets of Langa as Cape Town proper fades in the distance. Squat brick homes, many with iron gates, line each side of Harlem Avenue. Langa is the oldest of the sprawling townships which spread east from Cape Town. I am looking for Mzansi. And I am here for dinner.

6:32pm — I step from the car just as the sun dips below the horizon on a glorious, blue sky Wednesday evening. The faces are friendly, the air is crisp. The streetscape isn’t particularly unique. Children are playing ball while neighbors chat away. A man about my age points me toward the front entrance of Mzansi’s.

Mzansi’s

6:40pm — I walk through the door and am immediately greeted by Miss Nomonde Siyaka, who throws her arms around me like a long-lost friend.

“Welcome home!”

This is my first full day in South Africa and I already feel like more than a visitor. That will be a recurring theme throughout the country. It’s a nice feeling. Nomonde and I chat for several minutes.

6:58pm — The communal dining table is occupied by visitors from seven different countries. A Scottish couple and their 6-year old son, Swiss schoolgirls, an Israeli couple, an Angolan woman. Turns out I’m the lone American — always a plus in my book!

Diners around the table at Mzansi's

Our United Nations supper table

Cape Town’s #1 Dining Experience

7:14pm — Mzansi’s serves up a variety of traditional foods. Among the delicious offerings — squash wrapped in eggplant, spicy creamed spinach and juicy chicken from the braai (that’s South African for barbecue or grill).

The entire operation relies on local suppliers whenever possible, so Mzansi’s benefits extend deep into Langa.

Mixed food plate

Some of the delicious offerings

7:28pm — A handful of neighborhood musicians take up spots in the adjacent room and soon go to town on drums, xylophones and saxophone, Marimba style. The music makes socializing a bit difficult, so I head in for a front row view of the band. I thought they would be kind of “Meh”, but no! These guys rocked out.

Musicians playing at Mzansi's

Time to groove!

8:27pm — Dessert is a luscious Malva pudding with custard. My sweet tooth knows no bounds — I’m a happy camper.

Malva pudding with custard in a white bowl

Malva pudding with custard

8:30pm — For the next ten minutes I feel like an idiot. Why is that? Because we are dancing. But who cares! I will never see any of these people again…

Nomonde’s husband Vukile led the dance session and mixed in some inspiring thoughts on life and friendship. When someone who grew up with nothing speaks about gratitude, you listen…

Red and orange interior decor with art work on walls at Mzansi's

8:40pm — I grew up playing the drums and still consider myself a world-class finger tapper, so I was quite looking forward to the impending jam session. All interested parties got behind an instrument, followed Vukile’s lead and went to town. I can’t say the rest of my fellow diners held up their end of the performance bargain…

8:52pm — When the jam session wrapped, everyone sat down and heard the inspiring story of Mzansi’s from Nomonde.

Conventional Wisdom?

Opening a restaurant in a notorious neighborhood was not easy, to put it mildly. Hurdle number one? Local unemployment runs at sixty percent. Walk-in business simply did not exist. Lack of money was also a problem. Would visitors even come? Neighbors said no way. But if they did, would the international guests enjoy the traditional Xhosa cuisine?

The advice dished out by those in the local hospitality industry didn’t help.

“Don’t go there.”

“It is dangerous!”

“Why go to Cape Flats? There are plenty of fantastic restaurants nearby.”

Some of that true, perhaps, but also narrow-minded and a bit boring. South Africa is eighty percent black; to avoid the townships is to willfully neglect the essence of this country.

For years the verdict was out. Months went by without a single booking. Back in 2015 a group of visiting American students talked Nomonde into marketing her establishment on Trip Advisor.

And that was that!

Positive reviews started to hit, and the rest, as they say, is culinary history. A decade after opening, Mzansi’s is Cape Town’s number one dining experience.

9:35pm — Share an Uber back to Cape Town with the Scots. Our driver is pleasantly surprised at our reason for being out and about in Langa on a weeknight.

10:32pm — Zzzzzzz.


TABLE MOUNTAIN

Blue frothy water looking across to Table Mountain and blue skies

Rather impressive from afar

6:45am — Up early. Breakfast at the Backpackers Inn Greenpoint doesn’t go off until 7am, but I’m allowed to sneak in early. Thanks, guys!

7:38am — My Uber scoots through the rush hour traffic on the lower slopes of Table Mountain and drops me off near the surprisingly busy lower cable car station. Service begins at 8am and plenty of visitors seem to have gotten the memo.

7:43am — Turns out this is not where I wanted to be! The Platteklip Gorge Trail is further up the road, well beyond this zoo. I’m here to walk and hike, so what’s another few kilometers? Off I go.

Next up? A wilderness hike through Kruger National Park

8:06am — October early mornings are sunny, but a bit chilly (45F/7C). The full sun on this exposed road is getting to be a bit much, so I duck off behind some trees and change into shorts.

Platteklip Gorge

8:12am — Here it is! The trail looks like it goes right up and disappears into a split in the giant rock that is Table Mountain. Platteklip Gorge isn’t the most technically difficult route to the summit, in fact it’s usually listed as the easiest. But that’s fine. I’m not looking for exposed cliffs, faint trails or remote territory today.

Green detail trailhead sign for Platteklip Gorge hike

Credit to Flickr user Martyn Smith for the photo

8:44am — Platteklip is a stairmaster hike. Eighteen hundred steps from trailhead to summit, one continuous slog, one step after another. Twenty-three hundred feet up over the course of two rather steep miles. You’ll feel it in your thighs tomorrow.

Lightweight down jacket off, suntan lotion on. Peculiar tan lines would indicate my application neither sufficient nor well executed.

Blue sky morning view from Platteklip Gorge trail

Quiet and pleasant on a weekday morning

8:49am — Full exposure to the morning sunshine makes this route more or less pleasant than the others, depending on your perspective. It also means the views — which seem to improve by the second — are constant. Just turn around!

Cape Town view and blue sky from Platteklip Gorge trail

Halfway

9:08am — An early weekday start means there are very few others on the trail. Success!

Next? How about a hike with armed guards through Kruger National Park?

9:41am — Strategically located large rocks offer tiny bits of shade, just enough for one slender individual to enjoy a drink and soak in the expansive views.

Gorge and misty blue sky view from Table Mountain

The upper part is more gorge than the lower part

10:30am — The trail eases up as the path winds its way up the final stretch to the summit. It’s all a bit anticlimactic. This isn’t like a famous alpine peak where you’re very obviously at the summit. At Table Mountain you’re just kind of on top of a large, relatively flat rock.

Still, my endorphins are flowing.

Cliffs and blue sky Platteklip Gorge view

Just about there

The Plateau

I glance to the right. Immediately, a hundred times as many people as I’ve seen in the past two hours.

School groups.

Women in heels! Gah.

I turn left.

11:15am — I find a spot on a smooth rock, far from the crowds, kick off my boots and lay back.

Table Mountain has a reputation for clear early mornings followed by afternoon clouds and today is no different. Fog rolls up the slopes and dissipates while clouds gather in the distance.

Cape Town foggy coastal view from top of Table Mountain

Solitude on the Summit Trail

Table Mountain’s plateau is criss-crossed by the Summit Trail. Despite the easy nature of the trail, nearly all the visitors hang around the cable car station. Why people always do this, I have no idea.

Wooden boardwalk through the bush and blue sky atop Table Mountain

Part of the Summit Trail

Rocky outcropping and blue sky view over Cape Town from the top of Table Mountain

Summit Trail views

I walked around the entire top and barely encountered another human being. Perhaps ten in all.

Standing on a rock atop Table Mountain

After 2300′, on top

Sure, I’ll take the place to myself!

1:30pm — Queue up for a ticket, stand in line and catch the cable car down. Total damage, 2700′ of elevation change, 16,000 steps and 7 miles (11km).

Girl and telescope overlooking clouds and blue skies off Cape Town

Afternoon clouds rolling in

Cape Town and Signal Hill from the aerial tramway car as it descends

Awesome photo from Wikipedia user Entropy1963


FOOD LOVERS

2:55pm — After five hours of hiking up and around Table Mountain my stomach is grumbling.

Orange, yellow and white house with blue sky in Bo Kaap, Cape Town

Back down in Cape Town

3:50pm — I wander around downtown for a bit before stumbling upon the Food Lovers Market. It turned out to be just what I was looking for. Salad bar, pizza, healthy food, desserts. Perfect for a rather substantial post-hike meal.

3:55pm — I go big. Two large slices of spicy chicken and pineapple pizza, huge salad from the bar plus one for takeaway dinner AND the particularly mouth-watering three-for-25 Rand pastry deal — US$11.

4:13pm — After inhaling my food a woman with two children comes around begging for money. Despite her best efforts, Mom doesn’t seem to have any luck with the mostly businessperson crowd. I don’t like to give cash handouts to the less fortunate, but am otherwise happy to help.

4:14pm — When they come to my table I’m ready — I ask if they’re hungry. Mom nods and says yes as her 8 or 9-year old daughter’s eyes brighten.

I tell them to follow me.

Pizza for Three

It was obvious this woman didn’t — literally could not — shop here. They probably lived in one of the disturbing number of corrugated metal and wood shanty towns on the outskirts of South Africa’s most touristed city. A neighborhood just like Langa.

4:17pm — I ask if they would like some pizza. Nods. And so we walked to the counter. Mom and daughter each chose a slice. The friendly attendant slipped the boards into the oven while I chatted with my new friends. I asked their names and shook the little girl’s hand.

4:20pm — Pizza takeaway boxes in hand, we stop off to grab drinks. The three of us walk to the check out lane together.

4:22pm — I swipe my card; total damage about US$5.

4:23pm — We shake hands as I wish them well. Mom says God will bless me.

4:26pm — I walk into the afternoon sunshine, endorphins flowing, enthusiastic on Cape Town and life in general.


DO IT YOURSELF

Mzansi’s

Dinner served 7pm nightly throughout the year. Cost is R185/pp (US$16). Alcoholic and soft drinks are sold for an additional charge.

Langa is about 15 or 20 minutes drive from the main tourist areas of Cape Town. Taxi or Uber are your best transportation bets. Count on R120-140 (US$10-12) one-way for Uber. Mzansi’s staff will call a taxi upon departure if you opt for the former.

Instead of going solo, save a few Rand by sharing a ride back to town after dinner. Everyone is going in the same direction.

Table Mountain

Hiking the mountain is free! But that’s where the simplicity ends. There are a number of options for hiking to the plateau.

My route, Platteklip Gorge, is relatively straightforward. You won’t be alone, but you probably won’t die either. But accidents happen. It’s the most popular trail to the summit. I loved it on a weekday morning, but 10am on a Saturday? Possibly not so much.

India Venster is another popular route, but involves some scrambling and exposed ledges. It scales the mountain right below the cable car. Skeleton Gorge offers a different experience. Mostly shaded with streams, boulders and plenty of greenery.

Don’t underestimate any of these hikes. Two thousand feet up, blazing sunshine, iffy footing, big drop offs. People die on Table Mountain. Regularly.

My best advice? A few homemade YouTube videos allowed me to visualize the conditions of each route. That’s a good place to start.

Bring water and a snack and prepare for rapid weather changes. Don’t bank on internet or mobile coverage the entire way. Plan accordingly. If you’re hiking solo, tell someone your plans.

The Table Mountain Aerial Cableway hours vary based on the season. Generally the first car up is 8am in summer (Nov-Apr), 830am in winter (May-Oct). Last car down varies between 6pm and 930pm. One-way tickets cost R150 (US$13); round trips R275/290 (US$24/25). All sorts of discounts are on offer. Lines can be altogether crazy. Buy your tickets in advance.

Food Lovers Market

An unexpected, pleasant surprise in the Central Business District. Think cross between an upscale grocer, a bakery and a sit down food court. Sushi, healthy salads, pizza and pastries on offer. Perfect for a casual meal or takeaway.

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