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Faced with a magic combination of mountain, beach, history and good looks, it would be easy to spend two weeks in Cape Town ticking off a list of highlights. But as David Whitley discovers, dig a little deeper and you’ve got one of the quirkiest, most intriguing cities on the planet - here's just a few ideas to get you started.
The tea bag painters of Imizamo Yethu
Coming round the side of Table Mountain, Cape Town looks like a middle class paradise of scenic views, leafy suburbs, cricket grounds and Botanical Gardens. And then comes Imizamo Yethu, a township which many of its neighbours would prefer to ignore.
Yet every night inside Imizamo Yethu, a small band of artists is busy painting old tea bags in an unusual attempt to find a way out of poverty. The tea bags are sent from across the world and painted with individual, traditional patterns. They’re then varnished and put on cards, coasters, candleholders and trinket boxes before being sold.
It’s a remarkable success story, and one that has allowed some of the township artists to buy their own houses. The main engine room of Original T-Bag Designs is just down the road, and visitors are welcomed in for an informal tour. The finished products are sold at their stores in Hout Bay and on the V&A Waterfront, as well as being exported worldwide. For more information, an inspirational ten-minute film on YouTube tells Original T-Bag Design's story.
The ponies with million dollar views
Essentially a hippy enclave in the middle of the city, the Oude Molen Eco-Village is a series of gardens, micro-farms and stables with a sustainable living ethos.
Old rubbish dumps have been transformed into little allotments tended with pride by disadvantaged kids from nearby, while artists have turned old hospital wards into studios. A lot of the produce grown here is sold in the Millstone Farm Stall and Café, while regular ‘talent markets’ are held where food is traded for services.
Oude Molen shouldn’t really be here, but it has survived. Every city needs a slightly ramshackle oasis where the ponies and goats have million dollar views and men with long white beards shamble around in a highly relaxed manner. Follow their progress on the Oude Molen Facebook page.
The suburban reggae historian and the township Rastafarian enclave
And speaking of the whitebeards, Alan Grant is a fully signed-up member. He was born in the United States but spent much of his life living in Jamaica, and is now Cape Town’s resident reggae expert. He is also the cornerstone of Coffeebeans Routes' rather unusual Friday night adventure.
The tour kicks off with dinner at Alan’s house, where billowing multi-tiered gardens accost you as soon as you open the French doors. Alan makes for a fascinating dinner host: his stories should perhaps be taken with a degree of scepticism, but he seems to have known all the major players in reggae. He talks about living across the road from Toots Hibbert (of Toots and the Maytals) and of a smartly-dressed Bob Marley in his pre-Rastafarian days.
It’s a fascinating, laid-back history lesson, but as the clock hits midnight, it’s time to go out and discover what all of this has to do with Cape Town. To most people, heading out to the townships of the Cape Flats late on a Friday night would be a seriously bad idea. But the Coffeebeans ethos is to expose the cultural vibrancy of areas that most visitors wouldn’t go near.
Inside the Phillipi township is the semi-autonomous community of Marcus Garvey, inhabited by and run by Rastafarians. The residents have been offered housing elsewhere but they want to keep the community together. It is largely self-policed and overseen by a council of elders.
It is also the location of one of Cape Town’s most extraordinary scenes – Friday night at the Marcus Garvey dance hall. It looks like a third world market with all the stalls cleared out and the music, increasingly frenetic as time passes, booms out from a rudimentary DJ booth. Hundreds jerk and jump around to the seemingly arbitrary internal rhythm of their choosing.
It’s a bizarre scene, and a completely unthreatening one despite the gritty township setting. No one touches a drop of alcohol, and the One Love vibe fills a floor saturated with the juice of discarded plums. In a city where people paint tea bags and plant organic vegetables in ex-hospital gardens, it seems to make delicious sense.
An alternative Cape Town checklist
Stay: The Daddy Long Legs art hotel on Long Street has had each room designed by a different artist. Emergency Room has faux blood-splattered blinds and an X-ray cabinet, while Please Do Not Disturb has an Astroturf floor and karaoke microphones springing from every nook and cranny.
Shop: The Bromwell Boutique Mall in Woodstock is an extraordinary, unashamedly flamboyant take on a shopping centre. Every item sold is unique, whether it’s restored furniture with a twist, a chicken wire sculpture of Nelson Mandela or jewellery being modelled by rotating mannequins. Touch screens in each room explain the artworks and the artist’s background.
Getting around: Cape Sidecar Adventures personalises itineraries for anyone who fancies getting around in a vintage motorbike sidecar.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.