The highest landmark: Table Mountain

The pride and joy of Capetonians far and wide, Table Mountain is undeniably a landmark you couldn’t possibly miss. It is the city and is the foremost source of inspiration and pleasure most locals and foreigners alike draw on. Cape Town exists because of this and Table Mountain knows it. There are not a lot of places in the world that can boast such a natural wonder on their doorstep and this in turn puts Table Mountain at the top of our landmark series.

Other than this post being a very special one close to our hearts it is a landmark that is (was) very close to our home as well. No more having to jump in the car to hit the long open road (as inviting as it was for all our previous landmark excursions) although hiking up to its summit would render a long drive child’s play. But its totally doable in an afternoon if your fear of heights and a wee bit of grueling exercise leaves you feeling clear headed and exhilarated. Alternatively novices should unlike us daredevil types; opt in favour of the brisk hikes on offer. They’re less daunting but make up for it in the way of much eye candy. Think bird watching, animal spotting and all round landscapes to die for. And because no hike should be a race (unless you’re a trail runner or the weather changes for the worse) I will take my time with this post.

Exactly what we were going for, shortly after we were dropped off at Kirstenbosch Gardens was planned out meticulously. Our driver though, long time friend Alan, was convinced we’d phone him to come pick us up not long after being dropped off. Sadly for him that was not an option for we only had one goal in mind. The fulfilment of a need to get outdoors and take on the Mother City’s proudest feature; Table Mountain.

Now the gardens are a hotbed of trails, all beginning at the base of the mountain and darting off in numerous directions. The trick is though in finding the (correct) one that’s right for the hike you have in mind. Ours being (on a scale of 1 to 10 a 6) would involve a hike up to Maclears Beacon via Skeleton Gorge followed by a brisk trudge along the top of the table and to end a scenic cable car ride down. All the while not forgetting to look out for a mysterious dam beach situated somewhere between here and there.

But before we continue I have to say Alan’s suspicions were almost spot on. Roughly after fifteen minutes we soon realised we had taken the wrong trail and had almost gone full circle to where we had started. But our little expedition party was not ready to fold before it had even begun. And so after some deliberation with a couple of fellow hikers we were finally on an upward trajectory in search of Table Mountains highest point: Maclears Beacon.

I imagined it to be a stony pinnacle jutting out into the sky, but from within Skeleton Gorge it was nothing more than a mess of clouds and mist. And after about half an hour I had all but giving up on seeing it as my laboured huffing and puffing reached its crescendo. Culminating in me looking for a sweet spot to sit my behind on and when I did I would pen some thoughts about the terrain. It was predominantly wooded and did yield in parts a type of look similar to that of a lost temple complex straight out of the Amazon. Complete with moss covered boulders and vines dangling from fallen trees. It made the hike all the more perilous for we had to, on numerous occasions, scramble over said features. But it did offer us a taste of the diversity of the mountainous landscape we had never before seen let alone knew existed. And it was just the beginning; the trail had led us deeper into the forest over more crossings that were slowly and with ever increasing frequency becoming wilder and more challenging. I had started to get the feeling that maybe we should have factored in how long it would take us to accomplish our hike.

Time it should be known was not to be a major factor if the weather held, but if it didn’t well then it becomes all the more imperative. Quickly I shrugged off the thought as we made it to what looked like a beaver dam. With the trail now leading slightly over to the right flattening out as it did. A light stream, which we had stepped over many times on the way up, was flowing from the little “beaver” dam trickling down the mountain as it did. It would provide us with a source of pure refreshment unlike anything I had felt on my skin before.

It was not long before the trail went from a right to a left then again (and then again) until finally we were standing before a marker placed right in the middle of a crossroad. It was beautifully made and the illustrations of key landmarks were a welcome surprise. Right would take us along Jan Smuts’ track to Maclears beacon whereas straight went on to a dam reservoir and left moved onto Nursery Buttress. We then on a hunch opted to go straight for we had to know if the existence of the notorious dam and its beach were true. I mean an actual beach on top of the mountain, I had only heard rumors about it and few had confirmed its existence. And so ducking under the brush worming our way through the fynbos I started to notice that the hardened ground was starting to sink. It looked and felt like beach sand its softness increasing exponentially with each impression our feet made. It was not long before we finally broke through all the bushes that the myth came into view. A broken dam wall flanked on the opposite bank by another with a pan of brown looking water between them and at the waters edge what looked like a beach! And from what I could deduce it seemed as though the dam was built around this body of water formed by a mountain stream but was later abandoned and left to its own devices many moons ago. So not ones to gawk in awe opting instead for a brisk walk along the waters edge we soon find ourselves set up on the still standing wall for a spot of lunch. Noticing what looked like an old mountain road and workman’s shed beyond. It made the experience all the more Indiana Jones.

The weather was perfect but the afternoon was moving on and we had settled in on the beach a little longer than expected. It was probably a combination of fatigue, comfort and accomplishment but we had to push on. And Maclears beacon had been waiting all morning for us to make an acquaintance with it. One thing you quickly develop I can only assume when you hike often is that just when you think its nearly over the trail itself is seemingly just getting warmed up. But it was also due in part to having had our first taste of victory and just like this paragraph I was stalling.

Gorilla in the mist. Photograph by Nomadic Bug, Nomadic Existence

Gorilla in the mist. Photograph by Nomadic Bug, Nomadic Existence

Jan Smuts’ track is a trail made for the enthusiastic trail runner and moderate rock climber. Evident in the trail running flags whipping in the light wind and climbers hooks defacing the boulders like street graffiti. Brace the knees and chalk the hand was a motto I would later brandish this part of the trail with as we clambered up and up into the clouds. It was literally Cape Town’s version of a stairway to heaven albeit with the occasional ledge you had to pull yourself up on but ascending steps nonetheless and once you got into the rhythm it’s was all quite invigorating. Inevitably we would stop to survey the landscape, check our bearings and catch our breaths, noticing then for the first time the speed at which the clouds were travelling through and above us. The light wind was slowly becoming something not so light, and the fact that we were struggling to see the terrain below and the trail ahead, resulted in my heart rate increasing not decreasing when one stops doing anything physically challenging.

There is though something incredible to tell about the trail makers who keep the paths up the slops of Table Mountain alive, they left markers. And although some are more like ancient cave paintings faded and difficult to make out one thing was clear. They pointed the way and that was all we needed to complete this leg of our journey. It was also comforting to note the closer we fumbled our way to our ground zero the numerous hikers, who literally came out the woodwork, confirmed that we were not too far off course. It had been a result of the bad weather but finally we had touched down at Maclears beacon.

The weather had by now turned significantly from a bright clear sunny day to a pale grey warning of an approaching storm. Mountain weather as its called is as unpredictable as the deep blue sea and as unforgiving as well. But getting temporarily lost in bad weather literally a couple of feet from a landmark would be a theme that permeated throughout our adventure. But before we pushed off a quick scan of our surroundings through pockets in the wisps of clouds rewarded us with a near perfect view of Table Bay and Robben Island in all its glory. It had the effect much like the dam beach of suffocating the underlying reality that we had to keep moving. I had to marvel though for one last minute to what exactly Maclears beacon was. In effect its an old trig beacon and was used in the days before GPS to measure the curvature of Earth. Trig beacons are slowly becoming as extinct as the Dinosaurs but with one exception, if all our technology fails, without them we would be completely without our bearings.

Something we felt we now had a firm grasp on after consulting the sprinkling of hikers that were meandering around the beacon. Meander we did not as we scrambled over a few rock outcroppings in a downward trajectory onward to the cable station. Shortly after stepping onto what is considered the central table there was something else we had inadvertently stepped into; a marshland. It was reminiscent of a scene straight out of the Sherlock Holmes novel the Hound of the Baskervilles. Complete with low hanging mist, watery bogs to the left and right and the distant cries of creatures unseen. I occupied my mind rather with thoughts like how flat it was and that it did not allow for a look over the edge of the table so to speak, a misconception when standing at the base looking up.

My thoughts kept me preoccupied until the mist became as thick as soup and the wind chill started to cut into the bone (we had not packed warm clothes due to a clear & sunny forecast). So we naturally started to pick up the pace while trying with much concentration to keep to the paths all the while trying not to fall into a puddle of mud.

Fall we did, well not in the conventional sense but rather slowly more like stones crumbling under your boots kind of way. We were after all on a very slight decline the landscape having dramatically changed once again. Walking across the central table can be likened to walking in one spot while the world slowly turns under your feet. The current view was now barren devoid of life with piles of stones lying all about the place. It was stuck somewhere in between the Australian outback and the Blair Witch Project. Its effect provided us with some relief by lifting the mist for it was drier, unobstructed and desolate. Multiple paths began to appear some looked inviting while others were just suicide. But we just kept on ours the cable car station was our goal and we didn’t want to miss it for the world.

Remember earlier I mentioned the misconception of not being able to look over the edge of the table? Well I was wrong, you can its just not possible anywhere, ok maybe it is but not unless you burn your own trail through to the edge. But it is possible the closer to the cable car station you get. And it’s due to the tapering effect of the eastern side of the mountain poking out into the sky much in the same way as a peninsula juts out into the sea. The paved walkways and viewing points dotted all along the edge were a welcome surprise built in place for the thousands of tourists who opt only for the cable car ride up and down the mountain. Losers I thought as we excitedly started to walk faster to the station. I could just imagine them all primped and well groomed feeling exhilarated with themselves only to have two sweaty weather beaten nomads squeeze in next to them with the smug look of accomplishment on our faces. But in actuality I was more psyched to grab a beer at the restaurant (yes it has a restaurant at the top) and maybe a little snack as we enjoyed our victory ride back down.

It was not long before my thoughts of enjoying that ice cold beer quickly disintegrated. The complex was a ghost town, the massive cables of the pulley system were immobile and all the stores were closed. At first I was in the preliminary stages of denial, oh it’s a slow or very quiet day probably because of the weather, reassuring myself. But reality bites and when it does it bites hard and it doesn’t let go. We were defeated our suspicions confirmed when we finally got to the actual cable station. It was empty, locked and the cars were in the garage.

All was not lost though first off we had achieved what we had set out to do and secondly we were rewarded with the most incredible views. It had the effect of solidifying my opinion on how iconic and majestic Table Mountain is and how privileged we are to have this all in our backyard (or front, depends how you look at it).

But now the time had come for us to re-conquer our fears and make the slow journey back down. Thankfully I had paid attention to the fact that Platteklip Gorge, which was not far from the station, was an option we had to get down. It was as well one of the less suicidal style paths down. It would be a piece of cake as long as we could navigate our way through the mist and rain. The weather was playing with us again the only difference now that it was much later in the afternoon and an actual storm seemed imminent. After much fretting about whose left is right and you get the picture we finally made it too the entrance of the gorge. It looked imposing but easy enough to do in under an hour. Or would’ve been if I had the knees of a horse. And a warm jacket, it was like been caught in a storm out to sea. The wind whipped past us at such a speed that it made the overhanging boulders groaned. I on occasion, after hearing what sounded like loose rocks falling from above, would find a boulder on the path to cower under. It was bad and it was only going to get worse. The funny thing was from time to time a trail runner or hiker would casually come past us and continue on in the direction from which we were fleeing. It seemed as though for them it was nothing new. I always put on a brave face though as I imagined the parking lot below getting closer and closer. It was but not quickly enough. All we could do was push on through it for it couldn’t last forever.

Wrong it did, and as long as we took it slow the view was going nowhere and due to a couple of rash decisions we were well on our way to the safety it offered. Our current situation did remind me of what I had thought of earlier which was to not fret about the time too much. The weather had played a big part in creating a sense of haste in the both of us but in the end there were plenty of moments to take it easy and enjoy the majesty of the places we had just walked, climbed and literally jumped across in order to get us back to square one. I knew after all this we would miss it as we reminisced about our little adventure, which didn’t take too long happen as the weather began to clear. The sun was back the wind had dissipated and it was as if we had never even been through the eye of the storm minutes before. We were flabbergasted the last leg of the climb down was peaceful peppered with gentle pools of water all fed by tiny mountain streams and rock features to rival Hugh Hefner’s grotto. It was not long before we hit pay dirt the weather now on ground level was clear and sunny and not even close to the hell we were just in.

Weather-beaten, fatigued yet exhilarated could best describe the feelings that washed over us as we clambered onto the adjacent roadside wall for a time-out. To our surprise there were numerous parked taxis waiting to offer their services to individuals such as our selves. It made me realise the popularity of doing such a hike, the drivers knowing all too well that most day trippers would often opt for a ride rather than a walk home after all their bushwhacking. Luckily for us we live a mere fifteen-minute walk from the mountain and after all we had experienced an easy stroll down the road would be the best way for us to decompress.

Looking back at the towering Cape Granite block of sand and stone behind us, seeing the storm still raging on the tabletop, I was in awe as to the diversity of the adventure we had just completed. It being our very own playground in our backyard offering up all sorts of adventures a lot of people would pay good money to do. And we had not spent one cent to pit ourselves against the Mother city’s proudest and most prized possession. It’s a monolith that’s stood the test of time and which has seen the birth of many an era rounding the Cape of Good Hope. And as proud and possessive as I feel about it I love nothing more than to share it with anyone who has the goal of conquering it, even if it is with the help of the cable car. I wouldn’t want any local or visitor to Cape Town to miss it for the world, it’s a wonder then that so many people who live here have never taking up the challenge.

This way up. Photograph by Nomadic Bug, Nomadic Existence

This way up. Photograph by Nomadic Bug, Nomadic Existence

Fun Factoids: 

  • Table Mountain, the flat-topped monolith towering over the city bowl of Cape Town is not just a landmark but is also a haven all kinds of outdoor activities. Fancy yourself doing a spot of paragliding, kloofing (canyoning) or climbing? Not a problem, pack a day bag and let’s go, you’ll probably still have time to catch a sun-downer before the day is done.
  • It’s not all extreme outdoor activities though. There are numerous safe and relaxed activities as well. Bird watching, walking and relaxing on the beach of an old dam pondering over its past are just a few. Even a quick ride up the cable car and back is a must do, the view is one you should make your own opinion on.
  • If you, like us, consider yourself a bit of an adventurer why not go off the beaten track once and awhile and see what hidden treasures you may come across. For example we came across what looked like an abandoned water works museum, old unused mountain roads and presumably a decommissioned dam.
  • Table Mountain has been officially declared a natural wonder of the world. Not convinced then you’re just going to have to experience it for yourself. Think unusual fauna found in the smallest and richest of the six floral kingdoms in the world. Now sporting (on the slopes of Devils Peak above Groot Constantia Hospital) a once extinct species endemic to Southern Africa; the Rau Quagga.
  • And the adventure continues with more treasures to be found. Think you can find the remnants of a cross, inscribed on the surface of a rock face, by the first European to ascend to the top of Table Mountain (over 500 years ago)? Or why a certain peak is named after a pipe smoking duel between a Dutch pirate and the devil? Go climb it if you want to know more.
  • Lastly (but not in the least) it’s not all adventure and historical anecdotes, Table Mountain is also a conservation success story. I mean how do you safeguard a sensitive eco-system straddling a sprawling metropolis. Well, you educate the masses on how to look after it by organizing field trips, study groups and clean ups. Everyone in Cape Town does his or her part in some shape or form and when you visit you should as well.

By Slippery Joe Lyzard © (Writer for Nomadic Existence)

Photography: Nomadic Bug © 

Nomadic Existence 2015 ©

 Explore. Conserve. Discover.

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