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African Adventures Part One: Cape Town

African Adventures Part One: Cape Town

I embarked on this ‘African Adventure’ research trip in August, supported by Arts Council England, with the aim of researching ancient rock art, exploring visual inspiration and developing collaborations in South Africa. Having made contact with some leading local experts before travelling, my first stop was stunning Cape Town. On the coast of the Western Cape, and overlooked by dramatic Table Mountain, this city in beautiful natural surroundings was an inspiring starting point and base for the first week of my trip.

The view from the Waterfront in Cape Town, facing Table Mountain


With a packed schedule, I wasted no time in heading to Cheetah outreach, the non-profit organisation promoting the survival of the African Cheetah, which we support with 20% of the sales from our Cheetah tote. It was fantastic to meet the staff and volunteers first hand, not to mention the four-legged animal ambassadors, including this sleeping beauty, Ebony.

Meeting Ebony, one of the ambassador cats at non-profit conservation organisation Cheetah Outreach, with my Cheetah tote

Cheetah Outreach work with these ambassador cats to promote the survival of these creatures and to educate the community; the cats are from breeding programmes that work to preserve and diversify the species (never from the wild). Cheetah Outreach is also involved in environmental education in local schools, and, crucially, breeding Turkish Anatolian Shepherd dogs and placing them on South African farms to guard livestock, in an effort to reduce conflict between farmers and predators.

A suitable number plate! At Cheetah Outreach


The second important stop in Cape Town was the Iziko South Africa Museum; a national museum housing more than one and a half million specimens of scientific importance.

The Iziko South Africa Museum in Cape Town

I was lucky enough to be treated to a private tour of the museum and archive by former director Lalou Meltzer, and curator of archaeology, Dr Wendy Black. Gleaning first hand insights from these leading experts was invaluable, not to mention the feeling of wonder as they unboxed and unwrapped delicate, ancient artefacts in the archive. This was my first proper introduction to San rock art, artefacts and history, which I would go on to explore in more depth later in the trip. The San are the oldest inhabitants of Southern Africa, and comprise a diverse group of hunter-gatherers who share historical and linguistic connections. Highlights from the museum visit included the Linton panel; one of the most famous pieces of rock art made by the San, and a piece of engraved ochre which is the oldest piece of art ever discovered, at 77,000 years old.

A 100,000 year-old ochre processing kit from Blombos Cave, South Africa. Middle Stone Age chemists produced a liquified pigment-rich mixture and stored it in this abalone shell - the world's oldest palette?

The oldest art ever discovered: this engraved ochre is the oldest clear evidence that people were making an image to represent an idea or concept, with no practical use.

The famous Linton Panel, painted by the San in the 18th or 19th century, was discovered in the eastern Cape and now resides in the Iziko South Africa Museum.

Eland, the largest antelope in Southern Africa, are the most common animal in San paintings, and had special significance to the San people.

 Ostrich egg shells were decorated and used by the San as water flasks

Beautiful Zulu beadwork in the archive

There were drawers and drawers full of artefacts in the Iziko Museum archive


A quick wander from the museum through beautiful Company’s Garden brought me to the Iziko National Gallery. Containing South Africa's premier collection of South African, African, British, French, Dutch and Flemish art, it was another must-see.

Company's garden; the setting of both the Iziko National Museum and National Gallery

The incredible permanent collection includes a broad range of paintings, sculptures, textiles, photography and more, including striking beadwork and paintings by South African Ndebele artists. 

Irari / Marriage blanket, in glass beads on woolen blanket, by an unknown Ndebele artist, circa 1960

Marriage aprons by unknown Ndebele artists, in glass beads on hide

I also loved a painting by Congolese artist Pili Pili, inspired by his childhood in the lush tropical regions around Lubumbashi. Jane Alexander’s Butcher Boys is the most famous piece in the collection, as makes an eerie impact, placed centrally in one of the large gallery spaces. The sculpture, of three life size, oil painted plaster figures with animal horn and bone details, was made by Alexander in 1986, and was a response to the state of emergency in South Africa at the time.

Lumbubashi by Mulongoy Pili Pili (1914-2007), oil on canvas


Having taken in some historical and artistic inspiration, it was time to explore some of nature’s beauty which is abundant in Cape Town. Kirstenbosch botanical gardens was founded in 1913 to preserve the country's unique flora, and was the first botanical garden in the world with this ethos.

Colours of Kirstenbosch; set against Table Mountain

Set against the eastern side of Table Mountain, the garden is often said to be the most beautiful in the world. Kirstenbosch displays a wide variety of the unique plant life of the Cape Flora, also known as fynbos, including sugarbushes (Protea), pincushions (Leucospermum) and heaths (Erica). Plants from all the diverse regions and biomes of southern Africa are also grown at Kirstenbosch, including an impressive collection of cycads.

Some of the cycads at Kirstenbosch

There are many different varieties of protea in the gardens

The view from the treetop 'Boomslang' walk at Kirstenbosch

Ferns silhouetted against the sky

Not to be outdone by plant life, the wildlife present is equally impressive. Birds are abundant, with more than 125 species recorded. I saw (and heard) plenty of sugarbirds, with their distinctive long tail, and sunbirds with their colourful plumage, although they were often too quick for my camera! Also resident are steppe buzzards, eagle owls, guinea fowls and Cape francolin. I was also told that more elusive night-time visitors to Kirstenbosch include caracal cats, the small spotted genet and the Cape fox.

A beautifully iridescent sugarbird

A bee or a beetle...?

A sunbird perched for long enough for me to capture its majestic teal and red plumage


A trip to Cape Town wouldn’t be complete without a Table Mountain visit. Distinctive for its 2 mile long level plateau, it forms a dramatic backdrop to the city, and is just as impressive up close.

Taking the cablecar to the top of Table Mountain

Home to a large array of flora and fauna, it was the perfect setting for a picturesque hike at the top. I was excited to spot dassies (also know as the rock hyrax), which incredibly, and despite their size, are the closest living relative to elephants!

A dassie or rock hyrax on top of Table Mountain

Two black eagles completed the breathtaking view from the top along with beautiful flora and smaller bird life.

The breathtaking view from the top. You can spot one of the black eagles circling below

A closer view of the two eagles

Enjoying the view in my Kruger scarf


Surely proof of the diversity of nature in this area of Southern Africa, the next birds I visited were these African penguins, the only type of this animal on the continent!

African penguins at Boulders Beach

Boulders Beach, a short drive from Cape Town, has become a tourist hotspot thanks to its charming inhabitants. Reminding me of my previous design ‘Expedition’ (albeit in a warmer setting), the beach and sea was full of penguins and chicks. It’s easy to anthropomorphise these creatures, with their expressive faces and upright waddling posture; although diving into the sea and speeding, streamlined through the water is when they’re at their most impressive. I loved their colouring; a tiny area of pale pink above their eyes a beautiful contrast to their bold black and white patches.

Left: a penguin making its way to the sea. Right: before developing their distinctive markings, the chicks are grey and fluffy

A perfect end to a busy and inspiring week in Cape Town! Next stop: the Cederberg mountains on the trail of San rock art... 

The sun sets on Cape Town

To discover more about the Rock art in Cederberg, read on to Part 2...

Emma x