From Devil’s Peak, the site of the legendary smoke-off between the devil and the Dutch colonial, you can see forever. Van Hunks, as the story goes, unwisely accepted a pipe smoking challenge from a cloven-hoof stranger, puffed up an enormous cloud of smoke and was never seen again.
Looking out from the peak, just to the left, you’ll notice the harbor, the sea a sheet of blue made stern by the industrial gray of ships and cranes. The city bowl, its center a neat grid, lies between the harbor and the mountain. Straight ahead, as far as the eye can see, you may trace the beginnings of the Winelands, the outline of a distant mountain range.
You probably won’t dwell on the dull bit to the far right—a muddle of buildings that appear to be the size of Monopoly houses on a vast expanse of sandy land: the notorious Cape Flats, where gangs carve up the streets. And tucked beneath the mountain, the leafy suburbs—deep green in an otherwise yellow-brown picture—attest to Cape Town’s microclimates: the weather may be fine in town, drizzling in the suburbs, howling with wind on the fringes of the city bowl.
I know Cape Town best when I come back to it. It’s not an easy place to know. Like a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t quite fit, the pieces together form something incongruous; a city that is more than the sum of its parts. Returning, which always recasts the familiar in a different light, seems an illusion: the mountains, the sea, the almost embarrassing prettiness of it all. Table Mountain—the city’s iconic symbol—no longer blends into the background: It demands to be admired; the great stony mountain face, the impressive regularity of the tabletop flanked by peaks on either side.
But Cape Town’s beauty is pockmarked. Sunsets seen from the white sands of Clifton are underscored by the iron sheeted shacks that line the road from the airport. Lush forests are punctuated by buildings with peeling paint in the Main Road, or by the laundry suspended from the wire fences along the highway where homeless people sleep beneath a bridge.
Living in Cape Town entails a tacit knowledge of an environment that doesn’t quite make sense. It’s like seeing your face as a Picasso painting, or being inside a Buñuel film. It’s a temperamental city; there’s always something different around each corner, a sense of never being entirely certain. Always color, always light. This changing landscape—geographical and cultural—combined with an extraordinary natural beauty that even the locals never tire of, makes Cape Town an unusual destination. In Cape Town, you’re always somewhere between the mountain and the deep blue sea.
MARY WATSON is a Caine Prize-winning author who lives in Cape Town and teaches at the University of Cape Town.
2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest
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