So long ago it now seems that Danielle came up to me at my desk at Saga Holidays and said to me “Well, Ben, are you still available in June?”
I put my pen down and said “Of course, where are you sending me?” – as I’d put my name into the hat for South Africa, Colombia, and Thailand, not expecting a return on any of them. There are near 200 agents in Sales and Services, and each trip would take only one or two, and I had only been working for the company for a year at that point.
Roll around June, and I’m sat in a taxi with Paula from our Bespoke team, Pej from Marketing, Mikaela from Operations, and Sharon from Publishing, on our way to Heathrow for a flight to Cape Town via Johannesburg. The atmosphere is friendly, at this point none of us really know any of the others, but I’ve already been designated as the guy to shout for if there’s a snake or spider, which I’m absolutely fine with. We met Liz, who travels the north of England dealing with Travel Agents on behalf of Saga, at Heathrow, checked in and relaxed in a bar over a few drinks as we awaited our flight with South African Airways.
Eleven long in-flight entertainment-less hours, several surprisingly enjoyable meals and one bad night’s sleep later and we landed into Johannesburg O R Tambo International Airport.
A few hours later and we were in Cape Town airport staring at a name that everyone in the UK misses dearly, Woolworths.
We were met there by Jeff Davidson, our Tour Manager for the next few days in and around Cape Town, and George, our driver. With a hearty hello, we clambered into the back of the minibus and drove around the outskirts of Cape Town, with Jeff explaining about Table Mountain, Cape Town, and the shanty towns on the city fringes, to the Lagoon Beach Hotel where welcome drinks awaited us.
We were exceptionally hungry and Jeff had suggested a Thai restaurant a little way up the beech, so we slipped our shoes off and walked along the sand. It was only when crossing to a separate sandbank through knee high water that I discovered an interesting piece of geographical information: Cape Town is fed by the Benguela current, which comes directly from Antarctica. Second interesting fact: this makes the water ridiculously cold. We sat down at the Thai restaurant and ate in the sun, feeling slowly returning to my legs. It was incredibly cheap – wine and a full meal for less than £5 (97 Rand), but tasted exceptional.
From the Thai restaurant, we retired to our room for a while, washing off the grime of flying, freshening up and watching the most astonishing sunset off the coast of Cape Town.
Table Mountain is a very unique little micro-climate, and the weather on the mountain is very temperamental. Compare the image at the top of this post, taken early afternoon, with the above photo, taken in the evening. For the traveller headed to Cape Town wishing to scale the mountain, it should be noted that visits to the top cannot be guaranteed; Jeff referred to the mountain as “the millstone around tour guide’s necks“, as naturally everyone wants to visit it, but if it’s windy or too cloudy, the cable car won’t run. As I knelt there in the evening on my balcony, watching the mountain, the little table cloth* of cloud that had perched still atop the peak during the day, was rolling and roiling down the slopes. This wind can reach speeds of up to 130kph, and this is often referred to as “The Cape Doctor” as it clears Cape Town of any smog, which we discovered can build up very quickly if the wind is in the wrong direction. It was an astonishing sight to witness. Eventually, as the sun set and the moon rose, I headed back inside my room to Skype my parents and then fell asleep, for the first time properly for over 48 hours.
* Legend says this is caused by a still-unresolved smoking contest between a local pirate (Van Hunks) and the Devil himself with the pirate’s soul as prize.