Packing for Cape Town

Travel Tips — By iminglin on July 19, 2010 at 10:22 am

In the build up for the World Cup, Nando’s, a local fast food chain, put together a helpful commercial for visitors.  In true Nando’s form (the company likely holds the record for the highest number of advertisements pulled from circulation), the ad showcased an African “chief” dispelling myths that Westerners may have about the country- lion walking in the streets, strange cultural practices, polygamy, warrior tribes, etc., while bare-breasted women strolled around him.  If I were ever to consider purchasing a television to experience the 4 channels of mediocre South African TV, Nando’s ads would be the primary reason.

While you, the knowledgeable Nile traveler, may not need a guide to tell you that lion don’t roam the streets of Cape  Town and that you are unlikely to encounter tribal warriors on the beachfront, these packing tips may help you through some of the unexpected features of the southern cape.

Necessary items

A raincoat.  Unless you are visiting in mid summer (December) but, even then, it can serve as useful protection from the wind.  The combination of pouring rain and Cape Town’s infamous winds make umbrellas impractical rain protection.  A true Cape Tonian storm will render umbrellas useless pieces of broken metal and fabric within minutes.

A windbreaker.  Although you can reduce your packing by just making sure you bring the raincoat.  In summers, Cape Town is characterized by a strong south-easterly wind that seems to blow all season long.  The south-easter brings about the “tablecloth” on Table Mountain (see pic below).  Fall brings a brief respite though the winter north-westerly is never far behind.  On a recent trip back to the Bay Area, I was amused to hear “strong wind” warnings for what I thought was a mild breeze.  Cape Town’s wind recently blew my large wooden driveway gate into the road, launched a 6 seater wooden table 20 meters across a garden, and took out a neighbors fence.  It gets windy here.

photo courtesy of Iming Lin

A hat.  In summer, the Cape sun is intense.  While I’ve seen many a sun-starved tourist roasting on the beach, I’d generally advise against trying to get your years worth of sun in one go.  A good brim will at least protect your face from a solid burning.  In winter, Cape Town gets surprisingly cold.  While it doesn’t actually reach freezing, the lack of insulation, double-paned glass, and other standard American and European building practices make for very chilly days.  A nice beanie and scarf definitely come in useful in winter.

Totally unnecessary

A medicine chest.  Despite the wind, rain, and cold warnings above, Cape Town has a pretty Mediterranean climate.  While Italy may have had malaria a few centuries back, Cape Town is malaria free.  Oh, and the tap water is safe to drink (well, at least as safe as in the USA).  In fact, unlike most areas of North America, the mountain run-off is also safe to drink.  So feel free to leave the malaria meds, mozzie nets, water purification drops, and filters back home.

photo courtesy of creative commons

Your old boy scouts uniform or any other matching khaki outfit with an excessive number of pockets.  While Cape Town may not compare in size, noise, buildings, or traffic to cities such as New York, Chicago, or London, it’s still a city.  The safari gear is a bit out of place here.  Trade it in for some swimwear, a wine glass, and some running shoes (this city replaces skyscrapers with wine farms, white beaches, and mountains).

Earplugs.  The World Cup is over.  Unless your travel partner snores like a train (or vuvuzela).

Things you might not think to pack….but come in pretty handy

A reusable shopping bag.  A few years back, the South African government decided to try to crack down on litter and excessive plastic by charging for shopping bags.  It has taken awhile but it seems that there’s less shredded plastic along the highways and more locals wandering around with reusable fabric bags.  You might as well join the trend and have a useful bag for packing picnics, gifts, and beach gear.

A kikoi.  Kikois are endlessly useful.  When you’re caught off guard by the cold, they can serve as an extra layer, when a glorious day greets you, it provides the perfect beach throw or picnic blanket, when you’ve forgotten your hat, they can protect from the sun.  I’m sure you could even fold it origami style and substitute it for your reusable bag.  While originally from Kenya, you can also find kikois for sale at a number of markets in Cape Town.  So perhaps it makes more sense to purchase your first souvenir at the start of your trip and break it in on the beaches of Cape Town.

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