Tag Archives: Cape Town

The Bo Kaap and the Noon Gun

The Bo Kaap and the Noon Gun

When I was in Cape Town a few weeks ago, I stayed in an area of the city called the “Bo Kaap” which means “Upper Cape.” The area is noted for its colourful houses, cobbled streets and interesting history.  It is located basically on the side of  Signal Hill, which means there are steep climbs and lots of terraced houses.

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The area is also sometimes known (somewhat erroneously) as “The Malaysian Quarter” as this is the place where the former slaves (some from Malaysia, but many from elsewhere) settled after slavery was abolished.  Because they were required to wear and live drab circumstances when enslaved, after they gained their freedom, they made sure  their houses and clothing were brightly coloured.

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The Bo Kaap is the centre of Cape Town’s Muslim community, with no less than nine mosques in this one small area (less than 6,000 people.)  Some of the mosques were tiny, but there were two or three with the capacity to broadcast the call to prayer over loudspeakers.  Although there are (I think) 5 daily “calls” only the ones at dawn, noon and sundown seemed to be broadcast.  My B & B was at the top of the Bo Kaap so I heard the calls loud and clear.  The prayers are done live – first there would be one, breaking the silence – an ancient, eerie kind of music, sung with great passion and vigour.  And then, as that one died out, another mosque would broadcast their call – with the singer doing his best to show at least as much “prayerfulness” as the first.  And then, a couple of mornings, I heard a third singer get into the act.

Since, theoretically, all the calls should be happening simultaneously, I could only assume that some kind of friendly competition was going on.  Sort of an “anything you can pray, I can pray louder” type of thing.

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The people of the Bo Kaap were incredibly friendly and welcoming.  It is not (yet) a big tourist area…and although there is some worry about gentrification, the area still retains much of its 19th century charm.  I was very happy to have stayed there – as the proprietor of my B & B said when I commented on how lovely the area was, “It’s a special place, isn’t it?”

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This is the hill I had to walk up to get to the B & B.  It was even steeper than it looks.



But THIS is the view I had from the terrace:

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On the far edge of the Bo Kaap, about halfway up Signal Hill, you can find the “Noon Gun.”  This is a very old tradition in Cape Town – they shoot a cannon off precisely at noon every day but Sunday.  They’ve been doing this since 1806.  It is somewhat of a tourist attraction. I walked around the side of the hill and up a path and some  stairs to where the armoury was.  The stairs were very much dis-used, apparently most people come up the road.  But I managed to find my way.  There were many old cannons and cannon-related items up there and the view was terrific.

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A sign informed me that this was to be the 65346th firing.  Other signs warned people to “cover their ears” and stay well
away from the firing zone.

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At about 11:30, they began to prepare to shoot the cannon.  A few people drove up in cars and there was a small tour bus.  An officer came out and gave us a bit of background history.  These are the oldest cannons still being fired in existence.  The timing is done with absolute precision – through an electrical charge that is connected to a facility in Greenwich, England!  And though they only shoot one cannon, there is a “back-up cannon” loaded that can be set off manually, in case the first cannon doesn’t work.  He raised a flag and showed us how he put the charge into the cannon.  It is a bag filled with gunpowder, tamped down into the barrel of the cannon with a wooden plunger that looked as though it may well have been in use in 1806!

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When the cannon went off, it was deafening…and pretty cool.  No doubt that everyone in Cape Town knew that it was noon!

I had planned to have lunch at this cafe called “The Noon Gun Cafe” at the bottom of the hill, but found that it had been closed for the past 8 months!  I passed another little restaurant on the way down and found it booked to capacity with a tour bus!  So, I made my way down the Bo Kaap and ended up having a wonderful lunch in a little corner Indian cafe…excellent lamb Biryani and naan.  Then I climbed back up to my B & B for a swim and a nap!

I do think that when I return to Cape Town, I will stay in the Bo Kaap once again. It felt like home.IMG_0394







Lion’s Head and Table Mountain

Lion’s Head and Table Mountain

Cape Town is a beautiful city with the ocean on one side, mountains on the other and arts, culture and excellent food in the middle.  This makes it the “best of all possible worlds” in many respects.  The biggest, and most famous of the mountains is called “Table Mountain” – so named because of the flat top.  The extensive clouds that cover it are sometimes referred to as the “tablecloth” although there is also a legend about a pirate smoking his pipe up there. IMG_0129

Lion’s Head is a monadnock, and a very popular hike.  It is right next to “Signal Hill” which is sometimes called “Lion’s Rump” and when seen from the water, you can how the two hills resemble a resting lion – his head to the right and the rest of him stretched out behind.


I had decided that I wanted to climb Lion’s Head – supposedly not that difficult.  I had been advised not to hike alone, so I engaged a guide – a very nice young woman named Jo, who had lived in Cape Town all her life.  We started out at about 8:00am…it was a beautifully sunny day.

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The path was not hard, but much steeper than I had anticipated….and I realised that it had been well over a year since I had done any real climbing.  It was frustrating realising how out-of-shape I had become.  But I kept going, anyway!

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The trail wound around the mountain, so you could get views from all sides.  It was really spectacular.

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About two-thirds of the way up, as the trail became a little more rocky and a lot steeper, I began to feel queasy…not like myself at all.  At first I thought it was just because I was hot, tired and out of shape.  And then I realised, with mounting dismay, that the burrito I had had for supper last night (at a somewhat dodgy Mexican place in town) was – shall we say – making itself known.

Oh, dear.

I mentioned this to Jo and she said she knew exactly which Mexican place it was and shook her head  in sympathy!  By this time, I was frantically looking for a bush…and praying that I did not disgrace myself on my first visit to Lion’s Head!

Meantime, we were coming up to the last part of the hike – which involves chains and ladders bolted into the side of the rock.  (These are from another website, but they give you a general idea…)

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I (wisely) decided to forgo the summit this time.  We sat and rested on a bench near the turn to the ladders.  Jo produced a banana, some energy gels and then – miraculously – a couple of Imodium A-D.   And we headed back down…slowly and carefully.


(My ever-patient guide, Jo)

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I was sorry not to get to the top, but it was still a great hike – and after some more fluids and rest, I felt more like myself again and ready for the rest of my time in Cape Town!

I had been tempted to hike Table Mountain…but that would have been a full-day hike.  So I decided to take the cable car up, instead.  This was one of the stops on the “hop-on, hop-off” bus tour. The cable car ride is very quick – less than 5 minutes – and the interior of the car rotates so everyone gets a view.  One of the hiking trails goes directly under the cable car.

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The top of Table Mountain had a gift shop, a pretty decent cafe, and many trails and walks going off in all directions.  The tables in the cafe had descriptive tops, with facts about Table Mountain.

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There was also wildlife…including birds that were bold as brass as they tried to sample your lunch…


And “dassies” – which look like kind of a cross between a hedgehog and a hamster.  They are known as the “rock hyrax” and their closest living relative is the elephant!  They were very friendly and not afraid of humans at all.  They hung out on the rocks, foraging for food and waiting to see if any of the tourists dropped a morsel.

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The views were amazing.  You could see Lion’s Head and Signal Hill, of course and the entire city spread out in front of you.  In addition, you could see the range of mountains behind Table Mountain, stretching all the way to Cape Point.  Part of this range is known as “The 12 Apostles” and they are very popular with hikers.  (No one knows why they are called “The 12 Apostles” and it is even stranger since there are actually 17 of them!)

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This is a view of “The 12 Apostles” from the bottom


Lots of beautiful flowers and other flora in the rocks.  And locks…padlocks on the view-point fences.  Apparently this is a tradition on the tops of other mountains, too.

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I loved the mountains of Cape Town and really hope to return to do some serious hiking in the not-too-distant future!


Jo’burg to Cape Town via the Premiere Classe Train

Jo’burg to Cape Town via the Premiere Classe Train

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I love train travel.  It seems to me a much more civilised mode of transportation than a plane, where you are jammed into a seat with no legroom and no way to move around, stretch, chat, grab a bite to eat and maybe meet your fellow passengers.

There is a wonderful website called “The Man in Seat 61” which details how to travel all over the world without ever setting foot in an airplane.   It is a terrific resource for anyone who likes train travel…I used it when I traveled from Amsterdam to London.  (Passenger train ride, over-night ferry to another waiting train and right into St Pancreas Station!)  It also describes how to take “great train journeys world wide” including the Trans-Siberian Railway, the Orient Express and the “Blue Train” from Jo’burg to Cape Town, which is the journey I took.

Well, I didn’t take the actual “Blue Train” (it costs almost $1,000 one way!) but I took that same journey – same scenery, same size train cars, same full-meal service – but less than a quarter of the price.  There is also an even cheaper option, called the “Tourist Class” train.  However, I decided to treat myself a little and go with the “Premier Classe.”   I was not disappointed.

For overnight train travel, the important thing to remember is that the journey is the thing…as much as the “getting there.”  The Premier Classe train is like a little hotel on wheels, with all expenses paid.  No traffic, no hassles, plenty of room to stretch your legs, a fully-stocked bar car, delicious meals and big windows in the lounge to look at the scenery.

We started out in the Premiere Classe Lounge, with complementary coffee and tea and a light lunch.  I got there early and was welcomed warmly, my bag tagged and my boarding pass issued.  It was fun talking with the other passengers as they arrived.  There were people from all over the world and some locals who had lived in Jo’burg or Cape Town all their lives and simply decided to take a train ride.

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The porters took our bags and delivered them to our private “rooms” on the train and then we were allowed to board.  The train was bright purple on the outside…which pleased me.



All Premier Classe passengers get a private sleeper. Solo travellers get a “coupé” with one lower berth and couples get a compartment with two lower berths. Each compartment has a washbasin, towels, soap, shampoo, shower gel, mineral water and slippers!  There was a toilet at the end of each car and a shower just along the corridor.  The windows opened for plenty of fresh air.  I found my compartment, with my bag placed neatly inside.




We were all invited to the dining car for complimentary champagne and an assortment of snacks.

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As we were all chatting, we suddenly realised that the train had started to move.  We were pulling out of Jo’burg, passing some of the other (less classy) trains and leaving the city behind.

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There was a full kitchen in between the dining car and my car, and the chefs were already working to prepare dinner.  After about an hour, formal “tea” was served, with delicious chocolate cake.



The city scenes gave way to shanty-towns, fields and farms.

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I was asked if I would mind having dinner at the “second seating” and of course that was fine.  I made my way to the lounge for a glass of wine and discovered that I had to purchase it by the bottle.  Somehow, I made do.  (There was an excellent wine list – South Africa is known for its fine wine!)


I chatted with the other passengers who were also “second seating” and watched the sun set.


Finally we were called to dinner – a five-course gourmet meal.

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There was some kind of butternut soup, a fish course, a salad, roasted vegetables, steak and tira misu for dessert…which I usually don’t like, but this was delicious.  And then they came around with a cheese tray.  By the time I was finished, it was close to 10:00pm and I was ready for bed. When I got back to my compartment, it had all been made up into a lovely bed, with a comfy duvet and fluffy pillows.  You can see the little sink in the corner, with the night-table folded up.



I washed up and hit the hay, the train rumbling through the night.  I had no trouble falling asleep, but I did have a funny moment when I woke in the middle of the night.  I wanted to go use the toilet and went to open the door; but it wouldn’t open!  It seemed like it was locked!  I jiggled the handle and pushed harder, but it was stuck tight!  Maybe they locked us in our compartments at night?  Maybe there was a call button or something!  How could I get out of this room?

Of course, when I woke up all the way, I realised that the door was meant to SLIDE open…as I had slid it closed to go to bed.

In the morning, the sun streamed through the window and the scenery had changed.  Now there were mountains in the distance.

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I went to get coffee in the dining car and here experienced my only disappointment with the trip.

Instant coffee.  

Alas.  I made do with tea, and resolved to write the owner of the train and suggest that he serve bona-fide brew.  (I did write him and got a very nice response back!)

Breakfast was eggs, bacon, sausage, beans toast, juice and grilled tomatoes.  A proper “English breakfast” in other words.

Now we began to see some of the vineyards of the area and smaller towns on the outskirts.

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At lunch, I was seated with another solo passenger, and we split a bottle of very nice white wine.  He was an older gentleman who had lived in South Africa all his life and it was very interesting to talk to him about the changes over the past 30 years.

Finally, we began to see the outskirts of Cape Town.  We passed several little buildings that looked like tiny forts – I was told that they had been built by the British, to protect their lands.



And then we could see Table Mountain and Lion’s Head – Cape Town’s famous mountains…all covered in clouds.

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It was wonderful hearing the train slow down and finally stop…after 27 hours.  The porters came and got our bags and brought them into the lounge area at the station.  One of the staff at the station called me a taxi and I was whisked to my B & B up on the side of “Signal Hill” t0 start my adventure in Cape Town.