By Adam Edwards
A squeal of confused excitement goes up among the other surfers treading water offshore. What looks like a fin edges above the surface, snaking between my friends and I. My over-active imagination kicks into overdrive: "This is it," I say to myself, expecting my life to flash before my eyes. But before I know what's happening, I'm screaming excitedly to my friends, pointing at the blackish-brown object slipping through the water.
"Look," I yell, just as a tiny pup leaps out of the water, "a baby sea lion."
The excitement reaches fever pitch as the bug-eyed scamp swims within a whisker's length of us, flippers twirling, lapping up the attention.
"Only in Cape Town," I tell people afterwards – a cheesy sentiment, but the so-called "L.A. of Africa" is one of those rare places that actually live up to the gushing travel reviews.
Mediterranean climate, exhilarating mix of cultures, laid-back pace, and some of the best waves in the southern hemisphere are just a few of the reasons which have me coming back year after year.
My friends, on the other hand, are drawn by the hair-raising activities the Cape region has to offer – as I quickly discover when they start producing pamphlet after pamphlet, as we settle down for lunch at one the smart bistros that line the historic V&A Waterfront.
Thankfully, the troupes of fire-breathers, jugglers and traditional African dancers battling it out on the quayside offer a welcome distraction, and the conversation soon moves on.
But it's not long before talk turns to climbing Table Mountain, the soaring flat-topped mountain that looms above the city, and before I know what's happening, I find myself on a three-hour slog up this 3,500ft (1,000m) Everest. (Just thinking about it makes my legs ache.)
Cock-a-hoop at conquering such a mammoth, my friends and I catch a cab to Long Street, in the heart of the city centre, for a few well-deserved drinks. Packed bars and clubs overflow onto mezzanine verandas, and people huddle around tables to watch the comings and goings in the street below. Leaning against the wrought-iron balustrades with live music and laughter ringing in my ears, I feel like I'm in New Orleans' French Quarter during Mardi Gras, rather than Africa on a weeknight.
As the late-night band starts to hit its stride, however, I decide to call it a night, and head back to my digs for some much-needed shuteye.
I'm staying a short taxi-ride away in Observatory – a bohemian suburb packed with buzzing hole-in-the-wall bars, and shabby-chic cafes and restaurants where you can enjoy anything from a quiet coffee over a book or a sumptuous three-course meal for less than a tenner – to a rowdy night dancing Coyote Ugly-style on the bar, depending on what takes your fancy.
The next morning, I wake up at the crack of dawn itching to hit the beach. From Observatory it's a 30-minute drive to the premier wind- kite- and surfing hotspots at Kalk Bay and nearby Muizenberg – scene of my nose-to-nose encounter with the Cape Fur Seal pup. (Apparently, they just look like sea lions.)
After a few hours pounding Muizenberg's waves, my friends and I decide to head down the coast to Kalk, and grab lunch at the Brass Bell – an open-sided restaurant-cum-bar that I manage to drift back to every time I'm in the city.
Bikini-clad beauties and bronzed-gods sit at rustic picnic tables exchanging stories of their day's exploits over some of the best (and most reasonably priced) grub in the city.
Gentle waves lap against the restaurant walls, sending a refreshingly cool spray into the air, and I ponder chilling out here for the rest of the day – but the promise of seeing the pint-sized Jackass penguins further down the coast at Boulders Beach proves just too alluring.
The waters in this part of the Cape, known as False Bay, may be home to animals more typically associated with Antarctica than Africa, but this stretch of coast is actually the warmest in Cape Town.
However, if you don't mind your surf bracing, the Atlantic coast has some of the best waves. In the South African summer (November-March) Kommetjie's Sunset Reef even boasts some of the biggest waves in the world, which on good days can reach a bone-crushing 25ft (eight metres).
The sight of the comical penguins waddling on the beach and swimming among the bathers has me in hysterics. My pals, on the other hand, are preoccupied with thoughts of the seabirds' mortal enemies – the waters off Cape Town are home to one of the largest populations of Great White sharks in the world and, unbeknown to me, they're planning a cage-dive with these toothy predators.
I manage to give this excursion a wide birth – I've seen Jaws too many times to be dangled over the side of a boat like giant bait.
Buoyed up by their shark-dive, my friends book themselves onto an array of death-defying excursions: skydiving, paragliding, abseiling down the back of Table Mountain – just the thought of it sends my legs to jelly.
Their ultimate sights, though, are set firmly on the world's highest commercial bungee jump, a few hours drive from the city along the tourist-clogged Garden Route.
I decide to hire a car and set out along this spectacular drive (suffice to say, I've no plans to take the 216m plunge), and it's not long before I discover why South Africa's answer to Route 66 is so popular: it's the sheer number of sights and activities on offer.
I feel like the proverbial kid in a sweet shop, unable to settle on just one treat. "Should I go dune boarding at De Hoop or black-water tubing down Storms River? But I also fancy zip-wiring though the forests of Tsitsikamma, ostrich racing in Oudtshoorn and whale-watching at Hermanus… ooh, and I really want to ride an African elephant."
Unfortunately, I end up wussing out of most the activities (or running out of time).
I do, however, manage to summon up the courage to go zip-wiring, and spend an unforgettable afternoon whizzing through the forest canopy like a crack-SAS soldier. But my cowardly streak comes to the fore, once more, when I'm offered the chance to ride an ostrich – I've never seen an animal run so fast.
My trip along the coast takes me as far as Addo Elephant National Park – home to the largest concentration of ellies on the planet – where I book on to a guided night-safari to witness Africa's big game in their eerie nocturnal world.
Driving through the bush, the driver scans the darkness with his industrial-strength torch, wisely ignoring the incandescent eye-shine of the antelope and kudu standing agape by the side of the road.
Suddenly, he cuts the engine, and after a tense few minutes a pride of lions emerges from the shadows, encircling our jeep. As the rest of the passengers and I watch in awe, gripped by the same rush of adrenaline and fear as a scary movie in a blackened cinema, a crackled message comes over the radio, and before I know what's happening, we're off in hot pursuit of something else.
After a few twists an turns, the driver slams on the brakes once more and out of the darkness appear a herd of more than sixty elephant marching trunk to tail.
It is the perfect end to my jaunt up country.
Back in Cape Town, I spend my last few days flitting between Long Street and the beach, before deciding that it's only polite to drop by a couple of vineyards. ("When in Rome," as they say.)
I make a beeline for the Boschendal estate near the picturesque town of Franschhoek and while away a blissful couple of hours sipping wine under a spanning oak tree, before continuing the "vineyard crawl" with a visit to Spier, near the historic town of Stellenbosch.
Boschendal may ooze character, but the sprawling Spier estate is my hands down favourite. Its swanky restaurant set among the trees, and cheetah outreach programme (where you can play with the cubs or stroke fully-grown adults) has me like a rabbit in its glitzy commercial headlights.
My friends and I stock up on vino and head back into the city to watch the sunset from Lion's Head, the sphinx-shaped hill that flanks Table Mountain.
After an hour-or-so climb, we finally make it to the top and crack open a bottle of Boschendal just as the setting African sun dips into the Atlantic. The others start reminiscing about the best part of their adrenaline-fuelled holiday, while I slip into my own little world and start planning my next (action-packed) visit. I just hope I'll have discovered my inner daredevil come this time next year!
Myrna van Pinxteren, a freelance writer and master's student based in Cape Town, reveals her favourite hangouts.
Q: Where do you go to chill out?
"I usually meet my friends for half-price cocktails in the city centre. We tend to head to Kloof Street – there are fewer tourists here and the drinks are a lot cheaper than they are on Long Street or the Waterfront. Buzz Cafe is one of my particular favourites, it's really chilled out and serves delicious food and cocktails. Plus, it has great views of Table Mountain. Then, we tend to go to this old cinema nearby called Labia. It's a really odd little place – it used to be the ballroom of the Italian Embassy and doubles up as a café too – but I love the nostalgic feel of the place. They usually show art films rather than mainstream movies, but a lot of local people prefer it as you can take your own drinks and it's a lot more relaxed.
Q: What are some of Cape Town's other little-known gems?
"One of the best things about the city is the range and quality of food on offer. For instance, Cape Town has some great sushi joints. Beluga on Waterkant Street is one of my favourites, while I love the Asian-fusion menu at Asoka – a swish cocktail lounge-cum-bistro on Kloof Street.
The Royale Eatery on Long Street is great for fancy burgers, and there's a rustic restaurant in Observatory called Café Ganesh that's serves hearty South African dishes like "pap and veg" and springbok fillets.
Q: Where's good for an adventure?
"The area around Paternoster and Langebaan, 90 minutes north of Cape Town, is a great place to spend a few days with friends. When I was up there last, my friend and I camped right next to the sea at Tietiesbaai where we could hear whales frolicking in the surf from our tent at night.
This stretch of coast is also great for wind- and kite-surfing, not to mention kayaking, sailing, mountain biking, horse riding and hiking. Plus, at Langebaan you can go scuba diving with seals or explore the shipwrecks off the coast."
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