Letters to Liona: Hello from Cape Town!

Liona is my 8-year-old niece. She lives in rural Wisconsin where I grew up, and like a lot of starry-eyed country kids, she's fascinated by cities and dreams about traveling and seeing the world. I wanted to find a way to share my journey with Liona and give her a little snapshot of what life is like in different places, so I've decided to write her a letter each month. Thought you might enjoy following along, too.


Dear Liona,

Hello from Cape Town! This month I'm in South Africa, at the very tip of the African continent. And wow — there is so much to see! I'm staying with my friends Hanmarie and Tian and their daughter Liné, and they are so excited to show me (and you!) their beautiful city...as well as the beaches, forests, cliffs, and jungles that surround it.

Ready to explore? Great! First, you can take a look at where Cape Town is on a map, marked by the red dot:

The city is right on the ocean, and has several large harbors and lots of boats.

Cape Town sits under a famous mountain called Table Mountain, which is named for its huge flat top, or plateau. There are lots of other mountains around, too.

The country of South Africa is so diverse that it has eleven(!) official languages: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu.

The main language that Hanmarie and Tian speak is Afrikaans, but they speak English too. Liné is only one and a half, and she's just figuring out how to talk...so she doesn't speak any English yet. (She's teaching me a little Afrikaans, instead!) My Afrikaans vocabulary so far includes useful words like hello, monkey, elephant, dog, sheep, and goodbye.

It's summer here in February, and there are thousands of really beautiful plants and flowers in bloom. The one below is called frangipani, or plumeria. It smells AMAZING.

Here are some others that I thought were especially cool and interesting-looking:

That last one is called a Fireball Lily — each "fireball" is made of up to 200 flowers! And below is fynbos (sounds like "fain-boss"), a type of shrub that grows only in the Western Cape area, and nowhere else in the world. It makes the hillsides in the Cape incredibly green.

Probably my favorite thing about Cape Town, though, is the beaches. It seems like there's a beach around every corner (and sometimes, there's two!).

We went to this beach for my birthday, and had a delicious sushi picnic.

The only tricky thing about the beaches is that the water is C-O-O-O-L-D, so it's not great for swimming. If you do want to swim, though, you'll need to be careful of sharks! (So...I guess sharks are the second tricky thing.) There's a flag system used on the beaches to let people know when a shark has been spotted. 

Along with sandy beaches, I also really love the rocky beaches, where you can sit and hear the waves crashing again and again on the huge rocks. Ocean music.

This road travels right along the edge of the peninsula, so when you're driving on it you're able to look at the ocean on one side...

...and these mountains on the other. (Pretty awesome.)

Here's a restaurant that is built into a cave in the side of a cliff. You can sit in the cave and eat your lunch, right above the water!

Okay, now there's just one last beach I want to show you. I bet you can't guess what animals live at this very special beach...they're hidden just behind the boulders...

Any guesses??


Aren't they cute? Their black-and-white coloring is a kind of protective camouflage: white on their bellies to disguise them from underwater predators looking up, and black on their backs for predators looking down into the water.

Did you know the African Penguin is an endangered species? This colony has about 2,200 penguins, and they live in a cove on the Cape peninsula. It's their nesting season now (from February to August), so a lot of these little guys and gals are right here on the beach, sunning themselves on the rocks or building nests in the sand or bushes.

Here's one of my other favorite things in Cape Town: Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. The pathway goes through a rather magical-looking forest...

...and then becomes a walkway that goes from the forest floor all the way up into the top of the tree canopy.

The walkway is called the Boomslang (which means "tree snake"), and its design was inspired by a snake skeleton. It's made out of curved steel and timber, and it weaves in and out of the trees and bounces a tiny bit when you walk on it. I think this is so cool! 

After a long day of adventuring, let's head home for a late-afternoon snack: red rooibos tea with milk and honey, and rusks (yum). Rusks are hard biscuits that are kind of like biscotti, but more crumbly and less sweet. They're really common in South Africa, and are made to dip in your tea and then pop in your mouth!

The other thing we absolutely must do in Cape Town is have a "braai" for dinner, which is basically a barbecue...but South Africans take this to a whole new level. All kinds of meat and fish, vegetables and sandwiches go on the braai to make a huge grilled feast. People do it so often that they have braai grills built right into their houses!

(Here's Hanmarie's dad cooking a fish called snoek on the braai. And you can see he's pretty excited about it, too.)

Well, that's all for now! Thanks for coming along and exploring Cape Town with me...it's pretty amazing, isn't it? And there's still so many places I haven't seen. Maybe someday we can come back to South Africa together.

But for now...you can find me at the beach. :)