Why You Should Hire a Tour Guide When You Travel: Part One

“Is it okay if I take a few minutes and give you a little background about South African history? It’s not something most American schools teach.” That’s how Garth introduced himself and I bristled a bit. South Africa. I know about South Africa. There’s apartheid, Oscar Pistorius, the Sugar Man, and the Lion King. Heck. I participated in a sit-in during the 80’s to protest my college’s investments in South Africa, an effort that was abandoned after a few hours because I needed to get back to my apartment to host a party.


I know nothing about South Africa.

But I hoped my guided tour of Cape Town would change that sad fact.

hire a local tour guide to see sights in Cape Town like the Bo Kaap neighborhood
Cape Town’s colorful Bo Kaap neighborhood is a must-see when touring the city. Photo: Cathy Bennett Kopf/The Open Suitcase

Hire a Tour Guide or Go it Alone?

When my travel agent, Yvette De Vries of African Portfolio, included 2 days’ with a private guide in my Cape Town itinerary, I was hesitant. After all, I’m a resourceful and adventurous traveler. My approach to a new city is to wander around on foot and by car, based on what I’ve read in guidebooks, online, or in the local newspaper. On this trip, though, I was willing to cede control. I was traveling a very long distance and had precious little time to explore. And, once I saw that they drive British-style – on the wrong (left) side of the road – I was relieved to leave the driving to someone else.

Day One in Cape Town, South Africa

Upon arrival at the Cape Heritage Hotel, the manager gave us an emailed itinerary for the next two days from Garth Angus, our guide and owner of Footsteps to Freedom. And, as promised, he arrived at 9 a.m. the next morning and delivered some bad news. One of the signature activities in Cape Town is ascending to the top of Table Mountain via rotating cable car and was our first scheduled event for the day. But the cable car was closed, and had been for days, because of high winds, with no relief in sight, according to the weather forecasts.

Hire a local tour guide for special experiences like riding the cable car to the top of Table Mountain
Bucket list alert! Check the operating schedule for the Table Mountain cable car during your stay in Cape Town. Photo: Cathy Bennett Kopf

So, we regrouped and began with a walkabout in the Bo-Kaap, a neighborhood of brightly painted homes in the shadow of the mountain. Settled over 300 years ago by freed slaves from Southeast Asia, this is the heart of the city’s Muslim community. We popped into Atlas Trading to sniff out some of the spices, like turmeric and coriander, used to season the rich dishes associated with the neighborhood’s Cape Malay cuisine. As we walked, Garth filled us in the timeline of South African history after its discovery by European explorers: from a corporate state operated by the Dutch East India Company, through the wars between the Brits, Boers, and Zulus, to apartheid and the current political unrest as the nation continues to try to find its way.

Hiring a tour guide will help you see sights from different vantage points like this view of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa
The summit of Table Mountain is home to unique flora and offers dramatic views of Cape Town. Photo: Cathy Bennett Kopf/The Open Suitcase

Touring the Summit: Table Mountain

Next, we drove sadly past the “Closed” sign at the entrance to Table Mountain and up to Signal Hill to check out two stunning vistas: the mountain and the view of the city down below. I moped in the backseat and listened as Garth told us more about the British Boer Wars. The wounds from this conflict were borne personally by his family. During the war years, the British placed Boer and black women and children in concentration camps, where thousands died. Animosity existed for decades after the wars and the formation of the Republic of South Africa in 1910. Personally, Garth’s grandmother was thrown out of her house by her Boer family when she announced her decision to marry a Scotsman.

A local tour guide will tell you about different things like the unique plants on Table Mountain
The views! Cape Town is a beautiful city in many different ways. Photo: Cathy Bennett Kopf/The Open Suitcase

As we drove back down, I noticed that the Table Mountain sign had changed. “It’s OPEN!” I shrieked. Garth swerved right and my husband muttered “Welcome to my world.” The winds must have died down and we were able to ride the cable car and take a meandering stroll across the tabletop as Garth explained the geology of the mountain and its distinctive groups of flora:  protea, ericas, bulbs, and grasses. Botanists only recognize 6 floral kingdoms in the world, and the one on the Cape Peninsula is the smallest. It reminded me of the heath found on the moors in England.

Hire a local tour guide to learn about native animals like this dassie in South Africa
“Please don’t feed the dassies.” These small mammals live on Table Mountain and pester tourists for snacks. Photo: Cathy Bennett Kopf/The Open Suitcase

Cape Town’s Complicated Past

Garth mentioned lunch and I realized that my stomach had been growling since I sniffed those spices earlier in the day. He suggested the Mint restaurant in the Taj Hotel in downtown and I asked him to join us. We continued to listen attentively as he relayed the rise, fall, rise, and fall of Cecil Rhodes. I’d first heard about Rhodes during the Rovos Rail train stop in Kimberley. Rhodes had made his fortune in diamonds as a very young man. He went on to serve as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and led a disastrous raid against the Boers that resulted in his expulsion from South Africa. During his exile, he whipped up war fervor and motivated the second Anglo Boer War that raged from 1899-1902, the year that Rhodes died.

He passed away at his Cape beach cottage in Muizenberg and left no heirs as he never married; he did have a series of live-in male friends, so it’s assumed he was gay.  Rhodes left a significant legacy: the land he bequeathed to South Africa is home to the University of Cape Town and Kirstenbosch, the magnificent botanical gardens, and nearly 8,000 students have received prestigious Rhodes scholarships. His remains are buried in Zimbabwe, formerly Southern Rhodesia (neighboring Zambia was Northern Rhodesia).

Hire a local tour guide to learn about the history of your destination like the controversy associated with South Africa's Cecil Rhodes
Cecil Rhodes statue in the Company’s Garden. His grand dream was to build a continuous rail line from Cape Town to Cairo.

More than a hundred years after his death, Rhodes remains a controversial figure.  A recent campaign – #RhodesMustFall – led to the removal of his statue from the grounds of the University of Cape Town, although efforts to remove the one at Oxford in England have failed. Garth drew parallels between this movement and the controversy in the U.S. over the Confederate flag. It was an intriguing and thoughtful conversation about the power of symbols that we continued as we walked around downtown as Garth pointed out additional sights, including bustling Greenmarket Square (former slave market turned flea market) and St. George’s Cathedral (many anti-apartheid marches began from the front steps, often led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu). The Cathedral has a particularly unique feature; the Crypt, located inside, is a full-service restaurant and jazz club.

A professional, local tour guide can be your best friend when touring a complex destination like Cape Town, South Africa. Here's why. #bucketlist #likealocal #traveltips

One Man’s Struggle: Nelson Mandela

I cut our tour short at this point in the afternoon. With limited days in Cape Town, I really wanted to visit Mandela’s cell on Robben Island and I’d purchased ferry tickets for the 3 p.m. tour. Garth took it in stride, gave us a tremendous restaurant recommendation for dinner, dropped us at the waterfront, and confirmed a 9 a.m. pickup for the following morning.

Set adrift in Cape Town, I felt a bit lost, even though I usually travel unaccompanied. I already missed Garth’s entertaining narration. It was much better than many of the mumbled dialogues I’ve strained to understand during hop-on, hop-off bus tours in other cities. And he answered my questions. I usually have a few…hundred.

I decided to reserve judgement about whether it’s better to guide or not to guide until after Day Two and our tour of the Cape Peninsula because I really didn’t want to believe that maybe, just maybe, I’d been traveling all wrong until now.

Why You Should Hire a Tour Guide Part Two….

Sundial in Cape Town South Africa
Loved this classic sundial in Cape Town’s Company Gardens. Photo: Cathy Bennett Kopf/The Open Suitcase