Hiking on Table Mountain
Its iconic image is familiar, cloud-covered and magnificent, stirring the traveller’s imagination. The reality is stunning. Table Mountain dominates any view of Cape Town with a distinctive grandeur that only a handful of cities around the world can hope to equal. Whether seen from the deck of a ship approaching from the west, where it seems like an impenetrable wall rising vertically beyond the waterfront, or if you drive around its perimeter and discover its varied faces—its softer lower slopes, or its range of narrow ridges running from north to south, incorporating the summits of Signal Hill, Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head—this is a mountain that invites you to climb.
The Easy or the Harder way:
First the easy way: this is to take the Cableway, which starts on Tafelberg Road, a short bus-ride from the city centre on the City Sightseeing route, with buses stopping every 20 minutes. The Cableway runs all year, weather permitting. It may close when high winds hit the summit. The ascent takes about five minutes each way, and you can stay on the summit as long as you like. The first ascent is at 8.30am, the last descent varying with the changing season and the hours of daylight: many visitors plan their trip to take in the panoramic views of the cape through the magic of sunrise or sunset. Once up here, you can enjoy a gentle stroll or a picnic while enjoying the breathtaking views of the city and the Cape Peninsular, or make it the start of a more ambitious hike. You can follow the well marked trails that are suitable for all levels of fitness and climbing experience, and there are plenty of guided tours on offer. Remember that it can be much colder on the summit, so you’ll need to dress accordingly whatever the season.
There are more than 350 hiking routes up Table Mountain, which offer a variety of challenges. You can reach the summit in a couple of hours, or make it a longer trek for four hours or more. You can go on a half day, full day or overnight trip. Table Mountain is right on Cape Town’s doorstep, but it offers a real experience of the wild, a place of challenging climbs, sheer cliffs, forested slopes, open grassland, rocky gorges and waterfalls.
One of the most popular routes is via the Platteklip Gorge, the route taken by Antonio da Saldanha in 1503 on the first ascent by a European explorer. There are magnificent views of the peaks all the way up. The path cuts through the rocks and although steep often becomes more like a natural staircase up the more challenging stages, and the towering cliffs cast cool shadows just where you want them; then the sun is back, and you’re scrambling over warm, sun-baked rocks in the refreshing flower-scented breeze off the ocean. Up on the summit, the rolling plateau country makes for easier walking among the grass, shrubs and wild flowers. The summit at Maclear’s Beacon can be reached by following a circular path that takes you around the entire central plateau, offering magnificent views of Cape Town, Table Bay and Robben Island.
A Natural Wonderland
Table Mountain is designated a World Heritage Site and is a unique habitat that supports many animals and plants, amongst them over 1,460 of the fynbos plant species that flourish only in the Cape Floral Region. This natural shrub and grassland that stretches across the Western Cape has given to the rest of the world many of its most popular garden plants, such as pelargoniums, aloes, gladiolus, agapanthus, arum lilies, and the King Protea, the national flower of South Africa. Playing among the rocks, particularly near the upper cable station, you’ll see lots of the little rock hyrax or dassie, one of the natural delights of the mountain. You could also glimpse a mongoose, tortoise or porcupine. The rare mountain zebra and the eland antelope have been introduced as protected species in the Table Mountain National Park. On the less well-trodden tracks, you might also see the shy African wild cat, or vaalboskat.
Before setting out on an ascent of Table Mountain, you need to consider the challenge ahead, whether you are fit for the climb, whether you have the right clothing and tools, and—if you are a foreign tourist—whether you are covered by your travel or health insurance. A walk will last several hours and the heat can get the better of you. It’s best to avoid walking when it’s very hot, particularly around midday, or when it’s very cold. Take your time, take plenty to drink, and follow the advice of your guide. Note: the tap water at the top cable station is perfectly drinkable, but you should always carry a water bottle when hiking on the mountain. It’s unusual to see snakes while on a hike, but there are several venomous species on the mountain. The best advice is to keep a lookout for them and be careful where you put your feet, just as you would be on any walk in the wilderness. It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of safety because you are so close to the city, but it’s another world up here. That’s part of its appeal of course, and when properly equipped and prepared, your experience of Table Mountain should be one to remember and treasure for ever.
Contributed by Susie Dent