The Great Cape Town Hunt

The sweat dripped from my brow, and my knees trembled with the pain of exhaustion as the last dusty box hit the tiled floor. Looking around at the towers of luggage, and piles of bags its hard to remember how all of this fit into the back of a VW Golf just a few months ago however, the feeling of having all of it back in one room is an overwhelming relief. It has been 2 months since we set off on our Cape Town bound adventure- yet we have lived in 3 houses. Our bodies are tired from packing, lifting, stairs, and narrow corridors, unpacking and loading. Our brains our running on fumes, from the nerve racking, and never ending house search.

When we arrived in Cape Town, it seemed fate that we were able to arrange a short-term apartment through a friend of a friend. A small studio apartment, converted from a garage, on the end of a cute little suburban house. The two other tenants were welcoming, friendly and extremely hospitable; we couldn’t believe our luck! As a Virgo, our plan was to use December as time to get to know the many areas of Cape Town. Much like Chicago, CT is comprised of a variety of little suburbs surrounding the down town area. Some areas are primarily students attending one of the many universities; others are beach-bound surfer communities, while others are entirely young families who all push their expensive strollers down the same leafy streets at the same time every day. We spent most of December narrowing down the areas we would potentially live in. The options were so vast, but we somehow still felt the need to fit ourselves into a tidy little box: Who did we want to be? Where was the best local pub? Who had restaurants we could afford to dine in. Was it close enough to friends? Work (oh wait we don’t have jobs yet…)? We spend countless nights discussing and debating where and how to pick our ideal spot to begin our new lives.

January rolled in, bringing in a few twists and turns into the plot. George was fortunate enough to receive a job offer after his 2nd interview, working as a real estate agent with Century 21. The office was stones throw from our current little studio retreat. The overall radius of our search became just a tad smaller as we focused our search on the overall area of the “southern suburbs” of CT.

It was just a few days into the New Year when our car was broken into (*to read more about this go to the footnotes J). One of the first pieces of advice we received from the locals was not to leave ANYTHING in your car; not a bag, not a hoodie, not chopstick- it will be gone by morning. We were not surprised when our car was broken into; in fact we considered it a kind of right of passage- a way to earn our Captonian badges. Coming from our tiny little Kingdom of Swaziland, where we slept with our gate wide open, and the keys in the ignition, it was only a matter of time before habit got the best of us, and something (like an empty backpack) was left laying on the backseat.

That same day we received a phone call from a friend informing us that the one other person we knew in CT had been in a terrible car accident over the weekend. His job keeps him extremely busy and always on the go, which was what he was doing while winding down one of the narrow, crowded, and always busy costal roads in the Beverly Hills area of CT known as Camps Bay, when he was knocked off his scouter by a sedan backing out of his drive way. He spent a week in IUC, in and out of surgeries to repair his crush aorta. It was a miracle that he survived and is expected to have a full recovery with a few months of rest.

Never the less, our house hunt continued. The second week in January, George began meeting landlords wishing to rent out their apartments through Century 21. One of which was charming, lofty little apartment, complete with subway tiled accents, on the 5th floor of a building just down the road from us. We wanted it! And she wanted us to have it! “Sweet”, we thought to our naive little selves… “The house hunt over”. The one loop hole in this arrangement, was the timing, as in she was not expecting to find tenants so quickly, so before she could move out, she would have to find a place to move to. So the hunt was back on, this time I rummaged through the internet for apartments fitting her requirements, setting up viewings, emailing agents – the search was going well, and her budget allowed for many suitable choices.

It was mid January when our current landlord asked us if we would be staying for the following month. I had already started decorating the new elevated apartment in my head, and once again started to pack boxes, so I said with 100% conviction “ nope, we found a place.” And viewings for our first apartment were advertised.

On the same day people were coming to check out our little studio, the landlord for the new house phoned informing us she was going to stay in her apartment a little longer, and wouldn’t be needing tenants.

It was like the climax of an action film, when the unlikely heroine leaps up, in slow motion to block the bullet from her love, screaming “nooooooooo” in that low, distorted voice. We rushed back to our studio, hoping to find our landlord standing in the driveway waving off the last of the potential new tenants. The words I wanted to hear were being whispered on the wind, “no, I just didn’t like anyone…” and then I would eagerly jump in, but not too eagerly as to look over zealous, “well… we could stay a little longer”. And then we would all drink wine, and laugh into the evening in the back garden. But, alas… this is not what happened.

We had less than 7 days to find a new apartment; back to the Internet. Staring at the same pages I had memorized by heart in the last month. Searching the listings, each day checking fewer and fewer “amenities” boxes to limit the search. I sent thousands of emails the first day. The second day I started to include a short Bio about George and Me. The third day I included a picture. As the days past, I was no longer checking any boxes of preference, including the area. We applied to studio apartments over garages. We applied to Wendy Houses in people’s back yards. We applied to suburbs I’ve never heard of before. Suburbs we knew were a bit dodgy. We applied for apartments, where the only furniture in the pictures was a plastic garden chair in the living room.

On the fourth day I started to receive a few responses for viewings, and one house was absolutely dreamy. 2 bedrooms, with a yard, open plan kitchen, dog friendly, in our budget and desired area—be still my beating heart! I knew this would be the place; it had to be (we had no choice)! We arrived at the viewing 15 minutes early- but could barely find parking. On the walk to the front door, my nerves were on edge, and when I noticed the line of people filing outside the door, waiting to get in, my heart sunk. We proceeded to the back of the line, and following the mass of people inside, 2 by 2, through the first bedroom, around the lounge, into the second bedroom, a small circle around the backyard, arriving back at the kitchen counter 2 minutes later. The landlord met us there, were she was repeating “name…. email… next” over and over again, breaking off the front of the line like chomping off the top of a slim Jim. I tried to get a few more words out of her when it was my turn, trying my best to be one of the people remembered from the massive crowd of applicants, but didn’t have much luck.

On the way home, feeling a bit glum, my email notification sounded, with an application of the house we had just seen. I was so excited and went home straight away to fill it out. After only an hour, my email notification sounded again- the apartment had been taken.

Day 5 we were getting desperate, and decided this email business was as efficient as sending the landlords a postcard. We began phoning the adverts. Newest first, some adverts less than a minute old. “Hello, I’m calling about your apartment for rent?” “Sorry” was the response, “it was just rented”. Rinse repeat.

We were running out of time, the new tenant was moving in in 2 days, and we had NOTHING. Then a friend of a friend called and said he had an open apartment, but it was a little shady. We didn’t care, anything with 4 walls would be safer then the old refrigerator box I had been eyeing in the alley. He said, he wouldn’t be able to go with us to view it, but gave us the security guards cell phone number… strange we thought. We arrived in the up-and-coming area of Woodstock-, which still has some “up” to do. For the first time since arriving to Cape Town, I felt like I was in Africa. It smelled like the busy markets of Nairobi, fish, fried chips and BO all mixed together, impregnating what should have been the fresh sea breeze not far away. There were so many people sitting on the sidewalk, I couldn’t tell who was homeless, and who was selling something, or if the homeless people were selling something. As we got out of the car, I wished our windows were more tinted, thought we should’ve invested in one of those gorilla locks for the steering wheels.

We found the security guard, and with Congolese French accent, we were able to explain to him our situation, and he agreed to show us the apartment. The climb up the stairs was long, mostly because I was trying to decipher the graphti on the walls. Was it the hipster urban art that is common in up and coming areas? Or was it the territory markings of a drug lord? As we stepped off the top step, we were left on a large shared balcony on the second story, directly over the road. Not the yard we were hoping for, but maybe a few pot plants could help? The security guard knocked on the front door, and it slowly creaked open- that’s when we noticed there wasn’t a door handle. They spook for a few moments, and then he waved us inside. My first impression was of the old Chicago apartments I use to rent, creaky wooden floors, and small rooms divided oddly, but with a certain old world charm. As we entered the long hallway to the back of the apartment, we stopped at a door that was slightly ajar. One small push, and it opened enough to see 7 pairs of dirty feet laying on a mattress on the floor, all in a row. “Ah yes, the bedroom.” I thought to myself, “must have a nice closet for all those people.” I pondered trying to make myself feel better. The hallway was long, and every so often someone would come from the shadows and pass by, making me feel like I was in some crowded back alley bar. The end of the hall was the bathroom, which I assumed at some point had white tiles, floor to ceiling, but have not become a marbleized brown/grey. I leaned in to get a better look, but the security guard reached out his hand to stop me, and then pointed down, “mind the hole,” He mumbled. I failed to notice the gaping hole in the floor, which had been filled with rubbish- I couldn’t think of a positive spin on that amenity. The kitchen was the last room, but George made such a quick turn out of the room, and past me I barely saw anything past the corner of the door. Only a long enough glimpse to get an overwhelming sense of brown, in colour and smell, leaving us with a heavy sensation of cooking oil lingering on our skin and sinking into our pours. I hastily followed George and the security guard out of the apartment, squeezing past crowds of people as we went. I’m not sure if we said anything as we crossed the balcony, or went down the stairs, and dashed across the road to the car. As the doors slammed shut, I had an overwhelming desire to dip myself into a mixture of hand sanitizer and bleach, but I was still trying to find a positive—this was our only option.

We went home in silence, slept on it and woke up to our last day with an apartment to sleep in. I decided to reach out to the few remaining contacts we had met during our stay in Cape Town, most of which were our friend Matthews work mates. It is remarkable to me the kindness complete strangers can show others, within my first email we were offered to share a studio apartment with a friend of a friend we had only met once. By the next day, we were moving in.

Our stay with Tamara was amazing, even though we were sharing extremely close quarters. We continued our house hunt, and had a few plan b’s for the end of the month. But our sprits were lowered by the experiences our last few promising options had bestowed upon us.

Then out of nowhere I received an email. At some point during this mad hunt, I created an advertisement for a “young married couple, seeking apartment”. I had completely forgotten about it, but here, on this random day I received an email offering an apartment. I nearly fell out of my chair, jumped up and down and screamed at the same time. The pictures were amazing; the landlords sounded just like us! By the next day we were on our way to view the flat. After a short tour, the landlord turned to us and asked “where would you like us to fit these cupboards?” I about fell on my back! No other questions were asked, no applications, no lines of people, we were going to get this apartment! And 2 days later we were moving again, to our new little house.

It’s been a month in the new apartment, and for the first time in Cape Town we are completely unpacked. The new apartment is just big enough for the two of us, and the little personal effects we were able to pack into the Golf when we left Swaziland. We have even started a small garden in our tiny front courtyard. It has been an adventure of note, but through it all, we have made life long friends and with their help have found our way home.

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**Unemployment in CT is at an all time high, not to mention a bit of left over segregation from apartheid- which is a very relevant topic with the locals. There are thousands of unemployed communities of people here, mostly in the coloured community (“coloured” is a race category here, and not at all an offensive term as it is in the USA. It simply means mixed race). This community in particular was not a factor during the “clean up” after apartheid, and was for a large part forgotten about- leaving them to fend for themselves. They have set up squatter camps, or informal settlements, all over the cape- some of them housing 3 million residents (this is 3x the population of the entire country of Swaziland btw). There was nothing the police could do, and nothing we could do either, so the window was fixed and we cared on.


2 thoughts on “The Great Cape Town Hunt

  1. I have been following your blogs since you were on the Househunter International Show. I love your blogs and learning about your amazing life. I think you could write a book. It would be a best seller!

    Lots of luck to you and George in Cape Town.

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