The Bo Kaap region of Cape Town is famous for its rainbow array of brightly-coloured houses, frequently photographed by tourists and locals alike. And while the Dutch and Georgian homes are indeed impressive, the Bo Kaap has so much more to offer, its history stretching all the way back to the first settlements in the Cape.
Keen to learn more about one of the Mother City’s oldest residential areas, I booked a walking tour with Yusuf Tours and met Toufic, my tour guide and Bo Kaap local, to begin our exploration of the national heritage site.
Tana Baru Cemetery
Our tour began at the Tana Baru cemetery – the first recognised Muslim cemetery in South Africa and the final resting place of the earliest and most respected pioneers of the Islam faith in the Western Cape. As we admired the burial sites and shrines of the hallowed Imams, Toufic set the scene and regaled me with vivid stories about the history of the Bo Kaap; an area designated for the Muslim slaves, political exiles and even high-ranking officials who settled there between the 17 th and 18 th centuries, establishing the Islam faith in the Western Cape.
Picking our way down through the cobbled streets (made this way for the horse and carts of bygone days to better grip onto), we passed some of the older Dutch and Georgian style homes, many of which have been carbon dated to the early 1700s and mid 1800s. A couple of blocks later saw us emerge on Dorp Street at Auwal Masjid (the first and oldest mosque in the Southern Hemisphere). The mosque dates all the way back to 1784, and is built on land donated by the freed slave, Coridon van Ceylon. Toufiq invited me inside, where I was privileged to view one of the handwritten Qur’ans, penned by Tuan Guru- the Auwal Masjid’s first Imam, freed political prisoner as well as a former prince of Tidore.
Cape Town’s Most Famous Spice Shop – Atlas Trading Company
We passed through the bustling Wale Street, home to the Bo Kaap museum (the oldest house in the area still in its original form) and up towards the buzzing spice shops and restaurants that line the trendier, lower parts of the area. The alluring waft of heady spices drew me in to the historic Atlas Trading Company where I browsed the shelves of turmeric, saffron, chili, and other exotic concoctions- many of which are used to flavour traditional Cape Malay dishes like samosas, bredies, curries and bobotie. I couldn’t resist leaving without a bag of the ‘Mother In-Law’ Masala spice blend- the hottest one in the store!
As we strolled past the brightly coloured homes, the streets hummed with sights and sounds. Residents lined up outside to watch the Cape Town Carnival competitors practice their march through town, while film crews shot commercials, and models and instagrammers alike posed for impromptu shoots. The sense of community is palpable, and Toufiq was kind enough to introduce me to some of his friends and family members as we passed them on by.
Traditional Cape Malay Indulgences
The tour ended at the home of Toufiq’s sister, Zulfah, where I was invited inside to enjoy some traditional Cape Malay snacks. Famished, I bit into the heavenly homemade samosas and crunchy spring rolls, followed by hertzoggie pastries (a type of shortbread with jam and coconut) and koesisters (a syrupy doughnut usually reserved for Sundays), all generously baked by Zulfah and washed down with some cooling iced tea. As we chatted about their tight-knit community of neighbours and families, many of whom have lived in the same homes for more than four generations, Zulfah’s children ambled in and out again, soccer balls and nibbles in hand, proving just how special this part of Cape Town is.
A walking tour is truly a wonderful way to gain an authentic understanding of and appreciation for the Bo Kaap. Such is the welcoming kindness shown to visitors you’ll be hard-pressed to leave without feeling as though your heart has swelled a few times its size.
Book Your Bo Kaap Walking Tour
Yusuf’s tours are also tailored to his guest’s primary interests, walking ability and available times and can be anywhere from a couple of hours to all day long, depending on preference.
Blog post by: Tarah Darge
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