The Western Cape (Afrikaans: Wes-Kaap, Xhosa: iNtshona Koloni) is a province of South Africa, situated in the south-western part of the country. The Western Cape is exceptionally topographically diverse. Most of the province falls within the Cape Fold Belt, a range of sandstone folded mountains of Permian to Carboniferous age that range in height from 1000m to 2300m
The Western Cape – the province that has everything plus that little bit more. Just when you think you have seen it all, another surprise awaits you around the corner. In this province, white sandy beaches, indigenous forests of ancient trees, meandering coastal paths, mountain walks and nature reserves provide the scenic backdrop to craft markets, art festivals and historic buildings. Of course, one should not forget to visit the wine farms, watch whales and dolphins frolic, swim with the penguins, ride the ostriches and take the cableway to the top of Table Mountain.
The Western Cape has inspired many names and descriptions. Sir Francis Drake called it the Fairest Cape, the Portuguese seamen called it the “Cape of Storms” and it has also been known to different people as the “Cape of Good Hope” and the “Tavern of the Seas”.
The heart of the province is home to one of the six floral kingdoms of the world, the Fynbos Floral Region. The Western Cape floral kingdom has more than 8 600 indigenous species of plants -more species than are found in the whole of Europe – some 5 800 of which are found nowhere else in the world. The diversity of the beautiful scenery of the Western Cape has always attracted nature lovers, mountain climbers and hiking trail enthusiasts, who have a wide range of nature and forest reserves, hiking trails and botanical gardens from which to choose.
The Cape is one of the best places in the world for shore-based whale-watching. The South African coast plays host to 29 species of toothed whale, including the killer whale and eight species of baleen whale. The most commonly spotted whales are the southern right whales, pods of which seek out sheltered bays along the Cape coastline for breeding. The months from June to November are best for spotting them all the way around the Cape Peninsula. Humpback whales visit the Cape’s shores from May to December. Bryde’s whales are found off shore all year round. The cliffs of Hermanus offer the best shore-based viewing of whales and the best place for boat-viewing of whales is False Bay.
Winemaking is a long revered tradition and way of life in the Western Cape. The wine routes offer visitors the chance to sample the best wines in superlative natural surroundings, while also allowing them to visit the homesteads and other places of interest that are intimately connected with the wine industry.
The fishing villages of the West Coast bask quietly in the sun while the waters of the many seaside resorts along the coast play host to the southern right whale.
The popular Garden Route is rich with indigenous forests, colourful bird and plant life, enchanting freshwater lakes, pristine beaches and towering mountains. In complete contrast are the semi-desert vistas of the Little Karoo Kannaland and the vast plains of the prehistoric Central Karoo.
The Western Cape’s fertile soil, Mediterranean climate and sunshine combine to produce exceptional fruit that is superior in quality and taste. This fruit, which includes deciduous and citrus fruit, finds its way to many destinations worldwide. By following any of the numerous fruit routes you will be transported to a wonderful world of awe-inspiring mountain passes and lush valleys.
Perhaps it is the lovely surroundings that inspire people to create their wonderful art and craft works, which can be bought at a wide range of upmarket shops, craft markets and even at pavement stalls. These may be traditional wood or soapstone carvings of animals, reed baskets and beads or may be more contemporary adaptations of tin cans, plastic bags, wire and string transformed into modern works of art. Craft markets are also good sources of “home-made” clothing, jewellery, furniture and other household items.
Architecturally, the Cape is unique because of its Cape Dutch architecture. Throughout the wine-lands one finds a great number of buildings in the Cape Dutch style. Although originally based on European building styles and meant for a much colder climate, they were later adapted to suit our climate. The walls of the buildings were made thicker to protect the inhabitants against the summer heat but the design of the roofs in Europe, steeply pitched so as to shed snow, was never changed. In earlier times people travelled long distances and the countryside houses were thus equipped with large kitchens and reception rooms to entertain visitors. As the owners became more prosperous, the plain centre gables were replaced by round, more decorative gables which reflected their new status.
Some of the oldest churches in the country, beautiful kramats (Muslim shrines) and sandstone chapels are found in the Western Cape. Victorian bungalows decorated with “broekielace” ironwork, the large houses of the ostrich feather barons and the fishermen’s cottages of the West Coast are also typical of the Western Cape.
The tombs of holy Muslim men, some of whom were deported from Dutch colonies in the East because of their opposition to Dutch rule, are dotted around the Cape Peninsula. Muslims believe that these kramats act as a protective spiritual barrier against natural disasters. Local believers visit each of the tombs before making the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca.
Museums and cultural sites abound in the Western Cape. Many of these are the restored homes of people who played a prominent role in South Africa’s past and now allow a glimpse into the lifestyles of the past. Others display the natural history of the Cape and works of art. The oldest displays are those of the San people, who depicted their now almost extinct hunter-gatherer way of life on the walls of caves.
The meshing of culture, religion and tradition in the Western Cape has given rise to a kaleidoscope of lifestyles and rich cultural heritage. The cultural diversity of the Western Cape is one of its most dynamic features. True to its historical name “the Tavern of the Seas”, Western Cape cuisine ranges from Malay curries to fish or crayfish cooked over an open fire, leg of lamb and ostrich steak, as East, West and African tastes meet. Seafood dishes, such as crayfish, prawns, calamari and smoked snoek, are plentiful and are best enjoyed right on the beach. In the Karoo, Afrikaans farm fare consists of tender Karoo lamb. The numerous wine estates offer a wide selection of fine table wines, port, sherry, muscadel and brandy.
For those interested in fynbos vegetation, vineyards and whale-watching, spring (September and October) and autumn (April and May) are the best times to visit the. These periods usually have balmy in-between weather.
Typically Mediterranean in climate, with warm, dry summers and cool wet winters, the summer temperatures at the coast range from 15 to 27 degrees Celsius in summer and from 7 to 18 degrees Celsius in winter. Winter often produces comfortable days or even weeks at a stretch and, when it is not raining; temperatures are sometimes as high as 26 degrees Celsius. During the period May to September, Cape Town has an average of seven hours of sunshine per day. Inland temperatures are generally about three degrees higher than those at the coast. Exceptions to this are the arid semi-desert Karoo, which has dry winters and a low summer rainfall; the West Coast, which is relatively dry and windy, and the Garden Route along the Southern Cape coast, which is renowned for its mild climate with year-round rainfall.
Spring is heralded in August by the blooming of wild flowers. The hottest months are usually December and January. In summer, the sun rises before six o’clock and only sets just before eight o’clock at night, making for long, lazy, summer days. The windiest period is from October to December and, when the south-easterly winds blow, a tablecloth of clouds is draped over Table Mountain. Locals affectionately refer to this wind as the “Cape Doctor” as it breathes fresh life into the Cape. Midwinter occurs in the months of June and July. Even then, however, the sun is never far away.
Capetonians themselves consider the months of March, April and May as the best times of the year to be in Cape Town.
Throughout the ages, people have been quick to recognise the benefits of settling in such a richly blessed area as the Western Cape. By the beginning of the Christian era, Khoisan communities had been living in the Cape area for thousands of years, hunting, fishing and collecting edible plants. Indigenous cattle herders had been living in the southern tip of Africa for a thousand years before the arrival of European seafarers on their quest for an alternative trade route to the East.
From the time of the first European discovery of the Cape by the Portuguese navigator, Bartholomeu Dias in 1488, seafarers have looked forward to the sight of Table Mountain, which can be seen by approaching ships from over 150 km away. This was the part of South Africa in which Europeans first settled and Cape Town is the oldest city in South Africa, thus deserving the affectionate title of “Mother City”.
In 1652 Jan van Riebeeck was sent by the Dutch to establish a halfway station on the shores of Table Bay. The Dutch created gardens at the Cape to supply the Dutch East India Company’s ships sailing around Africa to the Far East with fresh food. The first fort that Van Riebeeck built, later replaced by the existing Castle of Good Hope, was Cape Town’s first building.
At this time, the Khoikhoi were still living in the mountains and harvesting food from tidal pools but, after clashes with the settlers, many moved away, died from unknown diseases or were integrated into the new culture at the lowest levels of the social order. The first Asians arrived in the Cape in 1654 and the first slaves were imported from Madagascar and Java in 1657. At first, Malay slaves were imported but the settlers later enslaved the indigenous Khoikhoi people and a new distinct race group emerged: the “coloureds”, who are of mixed racial descent.
The large coloured community lives mainly in the Western Cape and their lively culture adds significantly to the uniqueness of the area.
In 1688, the French Huguenots arrived in the Cape and were quickly integrated into the Dutch settlement. Both the Dutch and French farmers gradually expanded into the surrounding areas, leading to the founding of the towns of Stellenbosch (1680) and Swellendam (1745), the second and third oldest towns in South Africa. Simon van der Stel, who arrived as the Dutch Governor in 1679, exerted a marked influence on the Colony. The British arrived at the end of the eighteenth century and ended a period of relative isolation. Although the Colony was eventually formally ceded to Britain in 1814 after several battles and changes of ownership, Dutch vessels were still entitled to call at the Cape of Good Hope for refreshment and repairs. These early settlers left many structures and artefacts of architectural and cultural significance for us. Many Dutch farmers found the new style of British government to be too interfering and restrictive, choosing rather to retain their independence and to venture into the largely unexplored interior on a “Great Trek”.
The Western Cape is divided into eight regions, namely the Breede River Valley, the Cape Metropole, the Central Karoo, the Garden Route, the Klein (Little) Karoo, Overberg, the West Coast and the Wine lands.