What Cape City — South Africa’s prime vacationer spot — appears like throughout Covid-19

(CNN) – With its vast mountain ranges, sandy beaches and towering forests, Cape Town is a place where nature dominates and calls on visitors to stop and take in everything.

The southernmost city in Africa has an unofficial motto: “Slow down Cape Town.” But those words took on new meanings during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Everything came to a standstill in March when the long winter period began to combat the first wave of coronavirus in the country.

Take back the city

Cape Town residents have quickly adapted to the new measures taken during the pandemic.

Dwayne Senior / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Instead of the usual crowd of foreigners in khaki shorts and sensible sandals flocking to Camps Bay and Table Mountain, only South Africans come abroad who have taken the risk of returning home.

I was one of those homesick Cape Town dwellers who rediscovered my city during the Christmas season.

On a night flight from Paris in December, I had a row of seats for myself and two securely attached masks. Upon arrival, the staff checked my temperature and my real ticket to the country – a negative PCR test.

It has always been a pleasure to travel from Europe to South Africa for a second dose of sunshine at the end of the year.

The festive season falls in midsummer in South Africa and the city is full of light and laughter.

Schools are on vacation, families gather for a braais – South African barbecue – in the backyards and everyone is starting to relax and shake off the year.

Everything is alive and well, the only memories of the pandemic are masked citizens, endless splashes of disinfectant and temperature controls, and a 9pm curfew.

Before the New Year celebrations, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa held a so-called “family reunion” announcing the closure of many of the country’s beaches and a ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol.

Bars and restaurants quickly adapted, offering non-alcoholic beers and mocktails. A prohibition-type black market emerged when locals began selling their alcohol to the highest bidder.

Subdued atmosphere

Empty tables on a restaurant terrace in the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town.

Empty tables on a restaurant terrace in the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town.

Dwayne Senior / Bloomberg / Getty Images

But the new restrictions have not dampened the spirit in the city. Residents have simply adapted and many are choosing to spend more time outdoors exploring the mountain playground on their doorstep.

South African Lara Kerswill, who returned home from London over the holidays, says she found the atmosphere a little subdued.

“Usually December has so much energy – everyone has made it through the year and wants to have fun,” she told CNN.

“The sun is shining, you go from one plan to the next, catch up with friends you haven’t seen in a while, and meet new people.

“This year feels very subdued. Things need to be arranged and checked in advance to make sure everyone is healthy and comfortable. And even then, plans have to change at the last minute due to isolation requirements or new guidelines.”

This time around, Kerswill has switched parties, festivals, and bustling restaurants for walks, hikes, and swimming.

But the realities of life during the pandemic are hard to ignore, even during a seemingly simple activity like visiting the popular tide pool on the False Bay coastline.

“We got ready to … take off shoes, take off shorts,” says Kerswill. “Then we stood in swimming costumes with masks on and weren’t sure when the best time to remove them was.”

“Everyone feels safer outdoors”

Image of Cape Town by Katy Scott

The popular Boulders Beach location in Simon’s Town is now closed, but locals can enjoy the boardwalks.

Katy Scott / CNN

For Joi Benjamin, a South African currently living in Paris, returning home was also an opportunity to finally spend some time outdoors.

“I come from a wintry, secluded Paris and really appreciate the sea air, the parks and mountains in the immediate vicinity,” says Benjamin.

“The pandemic makes me appreciate this so much more than ever.”

Sarah Carden, another South African returning home from the UK, was fortunate enough to still be able to do all the things she enjoys while visiting the city.

“I love cycling, so I’ve ridden my bike along the coast a few times and the streets are full of cyclists and hikers,” she tells CNN. “I think everyone feels safer outdoors.”

While locals have reclaimed their city during this uncertain time, there are constant reminders of those who have been much harder hit by the pandemic – Cape Town’s homeless.

At full capacity, the homeless had no choice but to pitch tents in grassy areas and abandoned parking lots across town.

While I was concerned that my return flight to France would be canceled, thousands worry about having a makeshift roof over their heads.

As with any trip to Cape Town, it is clear that the magic of the city is reserved for the rich and will always be reserved as you venture beyond the waterfront bars, wine farms and glamor.

And as the virus rages on, the gap between those who want nothing and those who have nothing seems to be widening.

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