With just one look, the bustling city of Cape Town, near the southern tip of South Africa, exhibits a geographic "wow factor" as stunning as Rio de Janeiro set amid mountains and oceans, or the beautiful V-shaped valley that is La Paz, Bolivia.
Cape Town's first view takes in massive Table Mountain looming on one side and the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean on the other.
The city of 3.1 million people also offers the urban pleasures associated with good shopping, interesting culture, bustling nightlife and ethnic restaurants.
It's a city that forces visitors to make choices. This is especially true for those who start or end an African adventure by flying into or out of the city. Many who are in a hurry to view South Africa's wildlife or who have been touring for weeks fail to budget enough time to give Cape Town its due.
That was the dilemma I faced upon finishing an 18-day GAP Adventures tour with my daughter and son-in-law in Cape Town. It was the last day of an exhausting 3,000-mile journey across South Africa. Anticipating that we might want to see more than what was included in the tour, we booked an extra night at the inexpensive Backpackers hotel near the heart of the city.
That wasn't enough time and forced some difficult choices.
The park in the city
We got a chance to dine on Long Street, a colorful nightlife and restaurant district filled with colorful Victorian-era buildings. But there would be no time to visit one of the many Cape Town museums or to take the ferry to Robben Island, home to the prison that housed South African leader Nelson Mandela.
The last part of the organized tour, however, had included a spectacular ride on a cable car to the top of 3,563-foot Table Mountain, the aptly named flat-topped geographic formation that dominates the city's skyline. The mountain is part of Table Mountain National Park, which also includes parts of Cape Point, the Cape of Good Hope and the Boulders Beach penguin colony. It gave us a perspective on how to use our remaining time in the city.
South Africa does a wonderful job of managing its 22 national parks, coming close to getting the right mix of needed commercial facilities, such as restaurants and souvenir shops, with hiking trails and interpretive areas.
We grabbed a quick and inexpensive meal at the cafeteria-style restaurant on the top of the mountain and then took time to explore. Little trails seemed to lead everywhere, offering different viewpoints of Cape Town below as well as the surrounding area.
There were benches near maps that gave us an idea of where we were in relation to the Cape of Good Hope, Robben Island and Cape Town. Wildflowers and native plants mixed with the rocky top of the mountain stopped us with their beauty.
When the formal part of the tour was over, our small group discussed our options on our last day in Africa. We decided to hire a small tour bus and driver recommended by the Backpackers' staff the next day.
Where the oceans meet
Sharing the cost made the fee reasonable, and we pretty much agreed on three priorities.
The first was to see the 3,000 African penguins on the Boulders Beach portion of Table Mountain National Park. The second was a visit to Cape Point near -- but not on -- the southern point of Africa where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet. (That point is Cape Agulhas, about 93 miles from Cape Point.) And, finally, we wanted to make a brief stop at the Cape of Good Hope, one of Africa's most famous landmarks.
It was a lot to do in a day with a flight looming late in the day, but it was worth it.
Tourist facilities at the penguin colony have been constructed to meet two major needs. First and most important was protecting the birds' habitat and nesting area; the second was to provide a small but impressive visitors' center to explain the natural history of the penguins. Boardwalks with viewing areas had been constructed above ground to offer a way for visitors to photograph and see the birds while giving them free access to and from the water.
We continued on to Cape Point, a beautiful area with trails, historic lighthouses and museums with historical perspectives on shipwrecks and the famous sailors who first came to this part of the world. Visitors can either walk to near the top of the point with an elevation gain of about 820 feet or take the slow-moving funicular rail car, affectionately called the Flying Dutchman.
We finally headed down for the quick trip to the beach near the Cape of Good Hope itself, somewhat disappointed that we didn't see any baboons, since there seemed to be warning signs everywhere that the aggressive animals could be dangerous to visitors.
There was time to explore the rocky beach for a few moments and then it was off to the airport.
On the way, our driver explained some of the nuances of South Africa's now officially defunct apartheid system as well as some of the hardships he and his family had faced in the not-so-distant past.
The background of the Khayelitsha Township, a shantytown slum that seemed far larger and much more imposing than the better-known Soweto near Johannesburg, proved to be a fitting place to hear our driver's difficult-to-understand story about racism and segregation.
The township, near the airport, also put an exclamation point on our South African journey, reminding us of the affluence of a country rich in culture and natural resources coupled with the poverty and de facto segregation that still exists.
For more information:
To learn more about Table Mountain and other parks in the South African system, go to www.sanparks.org.