It is just after 5am when our alarm goes off and it is still dark. Half-asleep, we get dressed and make our way to the hotel entrance where our taxi is waiting. Today we are going to hike up to the top of one of the seven natural wonders of the world – Table Mountain!
We can see the sun is beginning to rise behind the mountain. A white cloud spills over the top but it seems to be lifting and our taxi driver says to us “I see God has finished his breakfast.” The mountain has an ancient history steeped in mystery and there are many myths surrounding the legendary ‘tablecloth’ of cloud.
One legend states that the tablecloth is created by the devil and Van Hunks (a local legendary pirate). As the tale goes, Van Hunks arrived at his usual spot on the top of the mountain to find a stranger sitting under his favourite tree. He started a conversation and eventually challenged the stranger to a smoking competition, stating that only he could smoke his tobacco without feeling sick. The two lit their pipes and puffed away from sunset to dawn, by which time a crowd had gathered to marvel at the cloud of smoke that they created. The stranger eventually had to give up and, as he leaned forward to cough, his hat fell off allowing Van Hunks to see his horns. It is said that Van Hunks is forced to repeat the duel every year.
South Africa’s earliest hunter-gatherers, the San people, believed that the white cloud was their god smothering a mountain fire with a huge, white karos (animal skin). However, we now know that the tablecloth is in fact an orographic cloud which is developed in response to the forced lifting of air by the earth’s topography (in this case, Table Mountain).
We arrive at the lower cable car station, where we will meet our guides and the rest of the group, just before 5:45 and the sun is rising. “I know you probably all hate me for making you get out of bed so early”, says our guide when he arrives, “but you will be thanking me when the sun starts to come up and we are almost at the top already – it can get very hot up here!”
Table Mountain is 1,086 metres (or 1,087 according to some sources) high and is one of the new Seven Wonders of Nature. It is believed to be one of the oldest mountains in the world, lying above ancient shales deposited some 700 million years ago and large areas of granite dating back some 540 million years. The sandstone sediment which forms the main block of the mountain was deposited around 450 million years ago when the peninsula, then a part of Gondwana, lay below sea level. The effects of wind, ice, rain and extreme temperatures caused erosion of the softer layers leaving behind the characteristic mesa.
We are going to take the route named India Venster, which starts just to the right of the cable car station. The route is apparently the best half-day route to the summit with some scrambling and plenty of adventure along the way. It does however have a reputation for being dangerous which, we are told, is due to inexperienced tourists trying to do the route alone and not paying attention to any of the warning signs along the way.
Our guide tells us that the first part of the hike is the hardest as we begin to climb the steps on the Contour Path. Around 15 minutes into the hike I can feel my legs starting to tire and the summit is still a long way away. “It gets easier”, says our guide and, as I look up at the sheer rock face, I wonder how on earth that could possibly be true.
Soon we reach a fork in the path and a warning sign states that India Venster is an extremely dangerous route. The recommended safe route to the top is Platteklip Gorge which can be reached by following the path to the left. We take the path to the right onto the India Venster trail, which will lead us to Venster Buttress, along the dramatic north side of the mountain.
As difficult as it was to believe, the route does get smoother and soon we are looking down on the cable car station and the city of Cape Town. The view is breathtaking and I know it is going to get more spectacular the higher we climb.
“Watch out for the blister bush” says our guide, as he points towards a small bush with greenish-yellow, umbrella shaped flowers. If you happen to touch this bush a mixture of psoralen, xanthotoxin, bergapten and other chemicals are brushed off on your skin and a few days later a severe, red-purple rash and large burn-like welts will appear. This is caused by the exposure of the chemicals left on the skin and sunlight creating a phototoxic reaction. We give the plant a wide berth as we try to etch the image of it into our minds in case we come across any more on our hike.
India Venster gets its name from the shape of the ravine which, from a certain angle resembles the continent of India. The word ‘venster’ is Afrikaans for window and comes from a framed window shape in the rocks that offers views of Devil’s Peak.
We pass the ‘window’ and soon we find ourselves at a wonderful viewpoint, looking out over the Lion’s Head, Robben Island and the Mother City. I stop to photograph a female sunbird, sitting on a branch and some beautiful red heath flowers. There are over 2,200 species of plants on Table Mountain, which is more than in the entire United Kingdom.
We follow the path around the head of the India ravine and soon we reach our first grade C scramble, at the side of Arrow Buttress. Staples and chains were attached to the rocks in 2009 and a warning sign clearly advises us that all climbing aids are to be used at our own risk. Following the instructions of our guide we safely make it to the top of the rocks.
We are already around half-way to the top and we take a quick break to have some food and water. To our left is Africa Ravine and the sun is beginning to appear over the mountain. It is very windy but despite this we can feel the heat from the sun already – our guide was right about getting up early!
The path becomes flatter as we continue around the cliffs onto the Atlantic Ocean side of the mountain, until we find ourselves above Camps Bay. We can see the Twelve Apostles, covered in cloud, and the wind gets stronger. We stop to put our jackets on before continuing along Fountain Ledge Path, which leads us to another scramble.
Fountain Ravine is completely shaded, which makes it quite chilly, but the views are magnificent. We stop for a few minutes to take another drink of water before making our last climb to the peak. It is now that our guide breaks the news that the cable-car is unlikely to be running when we reach the top due to the wind, which has been steadily picking up since we set off. We are nearly at the top and right in front of us is a sign that says “this is not an easy way down” – we have no choice but to continue.
We set off on the final stretch and soon we find ourselves standing on the top of the city’s main landmark. The cloud is still thick but the wind is blowing so strongly that it is moving quickly. Every few seconds there is a gap in the cloud and we can see the incredible view of the city and the Atlantic Ocean. We take care not to get too close to the edge for fear of being blown over as we take lots of photographs.
After we have spent a while enjoying the view and relaxing at the top our guide asks us to take a vote on what we will do next. Our options are to wait it out on the top of the mountain and see if the cable-car starts running later on or to hike back down. We opt for the latter and set off for Platteklip Gorge, the safer route down.
Platteklip Gorge is the most direct route to the top of Table Mountain and, for that reason, it is also the most popular. The path is constructed with stone steps and anti-erosion gabions, making it much more accessible to people with little hiking experience. In the old days, local climbers and hikers used to call those who took this route ‘Platties’ or ‘Platteklippers’. The name Platteklip is of Dutch origin and means ‘flat rock gorge’, after an embedded slab of granite low down in the gorge. Antonio de Saldanha, a Portugese explorer, was the first person to use this route to gain the summit, when he became the first white man to climb the mountain.
We find the route to be easy but steep and quite monotonous as we make our way down the 1,800 steps. There are lots of people hiking up this route and this slows our descent as we have to stop to let people pass on the narrower sections of the path. It seems that many people have decided to hike up as the cable-car has been closed all day and I am not sure that they were all best prepared.
As we pass the half-way mark we see an older, slightly overweight couple sitting on the rocks by the side of the path – the woman does not look very well and is struggling to breathe. A little further down we see a group of teenage boys who are barefoot and carrying flip-flops in their hands. We pass a family with a man carrying a baby that looks to be only months old and then our guide stops to help a young girl wearing sandals who has fallen over. We are well-prepared, wearing the correct footwear and even our guides have almost lost their footing a few times. Some of the rocks are very slippery and it is now looking very unlikely that the cable-car will be running at all today meaning that all these people are going to have to hike back down too. I would not be doing this route in flip-flops, let alone carrying a baby!
Three kilometers later we have descended 700 metres and around five hours after we set off we find ourselves taking the final steps down to Tafelberg Road. Our legs feel like jelly and we struggle to take our first steps on level ground but as we look back up the mountain we feel very proud of our achievement. It is not even eleven o’clock and already we have climbed one of the world’s natural wonders and one of the oldest mountains on the planet!
Thank you to @ for a wonderful experience!
- Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Travel South Africa, 2013