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Natural Beauty And Turbulent History In South Africa

Matthew Brumley
"The Tablecloth" shrouds Table Mountain outside Cape Town, South Africa.

South Africa’s history includes apartheid, civil unrest, and political scandals. Just this week, President Jacob Zuma survived an impeachment vote on charges he used public money to upgrade his private home.

But the country is also a favorite among travelers, including our own travel expert Matthew Brumley, who was recently in Cape Town.

"I've been coming here for 10 years," he said, "and I'm going to figure out a way to move here at some point in my life. I'm sitting here looking at Table Mountain with what they call 'the tablecloth' over the top."

The "tablecloth" is a thick layer of clouds that often conceals the top of the mountain.

Robben Island

Of the many sites in Cape Town, few are more famous (or infamous) than the prison on Robben Island. It housed political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, until the end of apartheid in 1994. It's a 30-minute ferry ride from Cape Town, followed by a short trip on a bus.

Brumley and his family stood in the cell that once held Mandela, and heard about what it was like to be imprisoned there, by someone who should know: Their guide was an ex-prisoner.

"It's a pretty powerful experience," Brumley said. "All the guides for the prison served time there."

Credit Courtesy of Matthew Brumley
The Brumley family visits Robben Island, near Cape Town, South Africa.

Their guide had been in prison for four years at Robben Island. He was politically active as a member of the African National Congress, and was also storing weapons in anticipation of an armed struggle.

Brumley asked the guide what it feels like to give a tour of a place that was so horrific and brutal during its time. In his early days leading people, the guide said he would have to leave the room during tours because he'd break down in tears. But Brumley said the guide told them nowadays, it's theraputic.

Getting There

It's not difficult to get to South Africa. Cape Town is well served by major airlines. But expect a long flight. Brumley and his family flew 11 hours to Amsterdam, and another 11 to Cape Town. A long layover is recommended if you have the time, to sleep and recuperate before the next leg of your journey.

We found round trip airfare in July for about $1,600 on Emirates. Other flights were in excess of $2,000 round trip. But Brumley says if you hunt for deals (and set a price alert) you can sometimes get to Cape Town for about what it would cost to fly from Seattle to Hawaii.

On The Ground

Once your there, the value improves. The U.S. dollar (USD) is strong against the South African Rand (ZAR). On Thursday one U.S. dollar would get you about 15 rand. Two years ago, a dollar would get you about 10 rand.

Brumley said it feels like everything is on sale.

"A beer is 2 or 3 dollars. Dinner is $20. A cab ride across town is $4," he said. "One of the great bargains on the planet right now is South Africa."


"Going Places" is KPLU's weekly exploration of travel topics. Matthew Brumley is the co-founder of Earthbound Expeditions on Bainbridge Island, which provides small-group travel to clients including KPLU. He's been traveling to South Africa for about 10 years, and leading group tours worldwide for more than 20.

Ed Ronco came to KNKX in October 2013 as producer and reporter for KNKX’s Morning Edition. Ed started in public radio in 2009 at KCAW in Sitka, Alaska, where he covered everything from city government, to education, crime, science, the arts and more. Prior to public radio, Ed worked in newspapers, including four years at the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune, where he covered business, then politics and government.
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