Known for its ritzy beaches and effervescent party culture, fitness-obsessed Cape Town also hosts some of the world’s once-in-a-lifetime sporting challenges, and is ground zero for a number of water-based activities that are worth travelling for.
The 109km Cape Argus Pick ‘n’ Pay Cycle Tour is the largest timed cycle race on earth, and happens in early March (in 2014, it’s on March 9th – it’ll be the 37th time the race is being held), drawing upward of 35,000 cyclists of every imaginable level of fitness. The field is packed with super-serious biking heroes as well as complete novices. Many people dress up (or down) and do it for charity or for a cause, or for the sheer hell of it. In 2013, Richard Branson did it (as part of a fun ride to raise funds for charity) – so did Matt Damon and five-time Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain. Starting and ending in the city, the route traverses the Cape Peninsula, taking in some of the most beautiful scenery on earth.
Cycling in Cape Town has reached pretty obsessive proportions, even outside of the biggest race on earth. The mountains that stretch through the city are filled with extraordinary trails for mountain bikers; at weekends, you’ll see crowds of spandex-clad cyclists packing out coffees shops as they wrap up their morning spin session. A drive in virtually any direction out of the city will take you to another scenic location fit for a good uphill-downhill, or cross-country pedalling session. The Winelands’ towns are particularly popular for active getaways – Elgin (60 minutes from Cape Town) is a beautiful wine- and apple-growing valley with some challenging MTB routes and wonderful, unusual accommodations at Old Mac Daddy, a designer trailer park with bedrooms fashioned out of vintage Airstream caravans.
You’ll see joggers in droves along the Sea Point Promenade at dawn and dusk throughout the summer. Many of them are training for the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon, dubbed “the World’s Most Beautiful Marathon”. The 56km ultra-marathon accommodates some 11,000 runners, while there’s a more manageable half-marathon that happens concurrently. It all goes down annually over the Easter weekend.
In the last few years, the Two Oceans has also seen the introduction of two trail running events (22km and 10km), indicating the rise in popularity of what has become South Africa’s fastest-growing sport. Much of this may have to do with the fact that Cape Town is home turf for Ryan Sandes, one of the top trail runners on the planet, renowned for being the only human being to have won an ultra-marathon trail race on every continent.
Thanks to the immediacy of mountains, the city hosts several challenging trail races, including the TableMountain Challenge, a 37km toughie that can be tackled solo or as a three-person team (Sandes, of course, won in 2013). It happens in September. A new event in 2014, the Lions Head Challenge, covers 20km and takes runners on a high-intensity tour of Lions Head and Signal Hill.
Another event to look out for is the Red Bull Lionheart, a trail sprint challenge invented by Ryan Sandes in 2012. It happens in November and is a good way to meet loads of active Capetonians, since the time trial format makes it very sociable at the start.
Of course, much of Cape Town’s athleticism happens out on the water, and while the chilly Atlantic isn’t the most tempting place to develop a love affair with prolonged dips in the sea, the city is a global hub for long distance open water swimming and cold water swimming in particular. The 7.4km Robben Island to Blouberg open water swim is vaunted as one of the most challenging, and there’s a team that will help you sort out the logistics for such a swim. So deep is the obsession with ocean swimming, in fact, that the International Ice Swimming Association was founded here by a bunch of maverick swimmers (chairman Ram Barkai has even been on Stan Lee’s “superheroes” TV show), formalising one of the world’s most challenging and potentially dangerous sports.
You can join some of these unsung heroes who have done ice miles (that’s 1,625m in water 5 degrees Celsius or colder) in places like Siberia, the Arctic Circle and Antarctica, every Sunday morning at Camps Bay beach for a social swim in water that can go as low as 9 or 10 degrees Celsius in winter (first timers usually wear wetsuits—although it’s anywhere between 11 and 20 degrees in summer, it still gets you shivering). There’s also the Olympic-size pool at Sea Point Pavillion, if you prefer water that’s a fraction warmer, and without interference from currents and waves and creatures with fins—although it can get crowded on busier days.
Cape Town is also touted as amongst the world’s best kitesurfing destinations; the wind blows with alarming regularity throughout the summer, and Bloubergstrand is often brimming with kiters. Here, Big Bay is now the regular location for the annual Red Bull King of the Air competition, considered the event (first held in Hawaii in the late-1990s) that launched kitesurfing into mainstream consciousness. It happens towards the end of January, with actual flying days dependent on prevailing winds.
A short drive from the city, Langebaan is another centre for the sport, with the country’s only dedicated kitesurfing resort, Windtown, where professional instructors promise to get you flying with 20 hours of training.
Of course, where there’s surf, there are surfers, and Cape Town has various tribes gracing the waves at beaches all around the Peninsula. The most popular place to learn to surf is Muizenberg, where a number of surf schools are located. Learn2surf is a reliable network of trainers, and the cost of instruction includes the use of boards and wetsuits. Gary’s Surf School has been operating here since 1989. Many newbies are able to get up and surf within an hour. It’s worth knowing that Cape Town’s surf scene is best in winter when waves are better and give good swell. For advanced surfers top spots include Long Beach, Llandudno, and Glen Beach. Bigger wave action is found at Dungeons, Sunset Reef, and a spot known as Crayfish Factory.
Other water-based sports popular in Cape Town, include SUP (stand-up paddleboarding), which gives some sensation of standing on water and gives the core a good work out. Cape Town is home to Chris Bertish, one of the world’s record-setting pioneers of the sport.
Surfskiing (sea-kayaking) has also produced a few local heroes. Former world champion, Dawid Mocke, has a surfski school (mockepaddling.com) based in Fish Hoek on the Southern Peninsula. Fitness aside, kayaking is a great way to sea the Cape’s coastline from a different angle, with the chance of spotting seals, dolphins and even whales from an exhilarating proximity; Kaskazi Kayaks offers guided kayaking trips and also rents kayaks from its shop in Three Anchor Bay.
Finally, staying fit and active in Cape Town needn’t involve any special equipment or instruction. Mountain hiking trails are free and fabulous and offer miraculous views. Don’t put yourself in danger, though: Wear adequate footgear, take water and suncream, and never hike solo or stray from the paths. And, if you’re heading uphill, be prepared for sudden and dramatic shifts in temperature. Always inform someone of your intentions, and do have a look at Hike Cape Town.
Have you practiced any sports in Cape Town? Which is your favourite outdoor activity? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Written by Keith Bain
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About the author: KeithBainKeith Bain
Cape Town-based writer Keith Bain has co-authored guidebooks to India, South Africa, Eastern Europe, Kenya & Tanzania, Ireland, and Italy. He also co-wrote A Hedonist's guide to Cape Town, and is the co-founder of Best Kept (www.bestkeptshhh.com), a bespoke trip-planning company that tailors holidays in India and Africa.