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Conservation starters: Cape Town

Cape Town's climate, heritage and terrain may feel familiar to a visitor from Hong Kong, but there is a big difference in how the two cities care for those assets. Words and pictures by Martin Williams

 

Wow! Across the bay lie green hills and a headland topped by a craggy summit, below which is a fishing town, all under a blue sky dotted withwispy clouds - and not a hint of pollution. In the foreground, Atlantic waves roll in to a rocky shore.

And I've only just got out of bed.

It's a great start to a visit to Cape Town, South Africa. But there's far more to do than stare at the view from my Chapman's Peak Drive hotel as gulls swoop after fish and African black oystercatchers - shorebirds that do, indeed, feed on molluscs - dart by, piping shrilly.

Ecotourism is among the significant benefits Cape Town derives from its natural environment. As there are some parallels between the city and Hong Kong, such as warm climate, coastal location and urban areas nestling below hills, there may be some lessons to be learnt here.

The finer points of seal watching, of course, are not among them.

Hout Bay Harbour, a collection of low houses set below green slopes that sweep up to craggy hilltops, is 20km or so to the south of Cape Town. From the small harbour, our boat passes fishing and pleasure vessels as it carries spotters the short ride out to a low, rocky islet packed with Cape fur seals.

It looks as though a few large waves could sweep them all into the sea but at least 6,000 breed here. Seals mass above the tideline; some plunge into the water, joining others that appear to be resting on the surface. Heads constantly dip underwater, the seals looking for fish to eat and great white sharks that could eat them.

The coastal suburbs on the way back to Cape Town sit in bays at the foot of hills and are reminiscent of those on the south side of Hong Kong Island, although a few of the low-rise apartment blocks in crowded Clifton are on land so steep that some residents use mini funiculars to get home. Sweeping Camps Bay has an expansive beach and brings to mind Repulse Bay minus the tower blocks.

Downtown, past the gleaming office towers, the old city has retained its vibrancy. The magnificent City Hall - on the steps of which Nelson Mandela made his first speech after being released from prison in 1990 - dates from British colonial days yet remains very much part of modern South Africa. It is built of honey-coloured limestone imported from southern England, Greek-style columns adorn the entrance and the roof is topped by a clock tower modelled on London's Big Ben.

Historic buildings close by include the Victorian-era Drill Hall; the General Post Office, which dates from 1940; and the Old Mutual Building, which, I later learn, is the best example of African-inspired art-deco architecture in South Africa. The area's open-air market, coffee shops and restaurants look enticing, but the wild side beckons.

The top of Table Mountain, centrepiece of a national park inscribed as a Unesco Natural World Heritage site, is not flat like a billiard table but undulating, with paths winding across it to vantages looking over the city and the hills and coastline of Cape Peninsula. Past the cable-car station and a small restaurant, with its begging pigeons and rock hyrax (which resembles a rabbit-sized hamster), the hilltop is covered in knee-high, white and purple flower-tipped shrubs. The paths dip into gullies and then plunge to the lowlands almost a kilometre below.

Kirstenbosch, at the foot of Table Mountain, is dedicated to the unique flora of this corner of Africa. Within the botanical garden are sections focused on plants such as cycads, arrays of gorgeous blooms, a patch of wild-looking woodland and a gently sloping lawn on which outdoor concerts are held on summer evenings.

The sun is setting and two spotted eagle owls, a male and a female, stand beside a path, sleepily monitoring the humans watching them, while two downy nestlings wait by a flowerbed, surely hoping to be fed.

About two-thirds of the way down the Cape Peninsula, from Cape Town bound for the Cape of Good Hope (a legendary place in seafaring history), is Simon's Town, which is reminiscent of an English seaside resort, its main road curling past a row of two- and three-storey buildings facing a harbour complete with yacht club. The image is reinforced by the town's British Hotel Apartments building and the Lord Nelson Inn.

Simon's Town is one of Cape Town's heritage areas and here - Hong Kong, take note - regulations protect buildings and gardens.

In common with many English resorts, there's a seabird colony nearby - but the birds here are African penguins. A boardwalk 2km out of town leads close to several nests on a protected stretch of sand and, at a nearby beach, penguins waddle past bathing children.

There are more seabirds at the Cape of Good Hope. Hundreds of terns and cormorants are perched on rocks, shifting positions as the tide rises and surf pounds in. The cape is, in truth, no more than a low, stubby headland, but its surroundings are sublime: to either side are white sand beaches, the more precipitous and taller Cape Point rises to the east and, inland, is a rolling landscape carpeted by flowering shrubs.

A stone's throw from the cape, a flock of ostriches strolls alongside the narrow coast road while, close by, an antelope rests on a grassy patch. But there's no sign of the Cape zebras, which have, sadly, become rare. Lions and elephants are among the mammals that have become extinct locally but, even so, the peninsula is a natural treasure trove within the Cape Floristic Region.

This is the smallest of the world's six "floral kingdoms" - areas with broad similarities in their plant life - and includes more than 9,000 species of plant. The vegetation here is known as fynbos and includes primeval-looking shrubs called proteas as well as geraniums that would be familiar to gardeners worldwide.

Continuing the English seaside theme is Scarborough - the namesake of a coastal town in North Yorkshire (this writer's home town) - which is on the opposite side of the peninsula to Simon's Town. Scarborough's residents have developed it into a conservation village and it proves to be a beautiful place, with beach and rocky coastline backed by cottages and gardens spilling over with native plants.

Imagine a New Territories village transformed into homes and holiday houses designed and set amid gardens that complement rather than clash with the surroundings. That may sound like an idea that would be laughed out of Tai Po or Yuen Long, but it is one of the many aspects to Cape Town that show what's possible.

The city has been named World Design Capital 2014 by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, it has two World Heritage sites and the local council has established the Cape Town Heritage Trust, which restores historic buildings. The city is in the process of developing 30 heritage areas and has won awards for sustainable-tourism initiatives.

As reward for its strategies, and responsible tourism, Cape Town was recently ranked first in a New York Times list of 52 places to visit in 2014.

Hong Kong, alas, didn't make the list.

 

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