Enjoying Solstice on Table Mountain

December 21, 2016

There is hardly a location in Cape Town where Table Mountain does not dominate the skyline. Throughout the city bowl, its sheer cliffs loom above you, seeming almost impossibly close. From the moment I arrived, I knew the moment would arrive when I would walk atop the table! Oddly enough, barriers to my visit appeared before I ever left the United States. I encountered my U.S. Representative at a minor-league baseball game in Nashville. When I mentioned I was thinking of moving to Cape Town, he snorted derisively. “You’re not going to move there. A tourist cannot even go up Table Mountain without getting mugged!” Even though I have lived in South Africa for more than a year, my hikes have been limited to the lower slopes of Table Mountain. The arrival of a friend from Denmark, however, gave Natasha and me the push to visit the mountain top!

Hiking to the top of Table Mountain requires a very early start and a fair amount of energy. We opted to spend our efforts at the top rather than taking the climb on foot. We started by driving to Tafelberg Road (Tafelberg is the Afrikaans name for the mountain). This road is at a very impressive height, reaching 417 meters above sea level (40% the height of Table Mountain). We arrived at one of the outlying parking lots near 8:00 AM, and we saw the first cable cars swinging into motion as we walked to the cable way. Even though the lift had only started moving, we found ourselves in a pretty substantial line to purchase tickets (we couldn’t get the Wild Card discount through the website). I snapped a photo or two of the City Bowl of Cape Town.


By 8:02 AM, the sun had been up for two and a half hours.

After approximately a half hour, we had our tickets in hand. The cable car pricing is expensive enough (R285 or more than twenty dollars for an adult’s round trip) that many Capetonians get tickets only on their birthdays, when it is free! We moved from the queue for the tickets to the queue for the cable car. This wait was also about half an hour. We saw a lot of people who were dressed for summer, not realizing that the temperature at the top is quite a few degrees lower. At last we were in the holding area for the next car! The sight of the gondolas swooping down out of the clouds was pretty dramatic.


The current cars, installed in 1997, carry 65 people.

The marketing team at Table Mountain has thrown all its weight behind the 2011 declaration that Table Mountain is one of the seven wonders of nature. When I looked at the list of sites chosen for this honor, I admit to feeling my American pride pricked a bit. Where was the Grand Canyon? (It was one of 28 finalists.) Yellowstone? Why did the New7Wonders site spell the mountain’s name as “Tabel?” In the end, selection depended upon votes cast by phone, SMS, or website. Table Mountain is making the most of it.

Our ride up the cables was uneventful. We were perched at the center of the car since the outer ring rotates; I was unsure how I would handle the slow spin since my head inclines in that direction anyway! Suddenly, the car was surrounded by mist, and we arrived at the upper cable station. The area immediately around the station was a bit crowded, even at 9:30 in the morning, and the environment felt very close, with the clouds blocking a view beyond ten meters or so. I enjoyed a silly moment with the tourist binoculars.


What a view!

Our path led away from the heavily-touristed area, though. Our destination was Maclear’s Beacon, the highest point on the Mountain. Our course would begin in a southeasterly direction across the top of Platteklip Gorge, then continue along the “back table,” along the south edge of the high, flat area of the top, until we reached the Beacon near the easternmost part of the Table. Then we would return via a path on the “front table,” overlooking the City Bowl, returning to the upper cable station.


Abstracted from an image at SANParks.

Our walk southeast was shrouded in mist for quite some distance. Our first crossing of Platteklip Gorge was a bit unnerving as a result; the path just seemed to vanish in a steep slope downwards, at first. We passed other trails I have heard mentioned in connection with the mountain, such as Kasteel Poort and the India Venster. After those junctions, though, the path was relatively level, with the high plain dotted by sandstone and pretty stands of fynbos. Some were quite lovely blooms! Soon, though, we passed into a marsh. It might seem strange to think of a marsh on top of a mountain, but enough rain falls on the mountain to produce several streams to water the city below.


Boardwalks helped us navigate areas that were sometimes slippery.

We had been trudging in the mist for around a half hour when we reached a bit of an upland, featuring a beautiful king protea. At just the right moment, the sun burst through the clouds. The colors around us blazed with new light. My companions allowed me yet another photo opportunity.


It was a beautiful day, and I was standing on top of the world!

A raised area had come into sight before us, and we were happy to draw nearer. A cairn of stones had been piled on this highest point of Table Mountain. After almost exactly one hour of walking, we had reached the summit. That sounds more impressive than it really is; Maclear’s Beacon is only nineteen meters higher than the upper cable station! I was delighted to learn that the Beacon was used by nineteenth century astronomers to measure the curvature of the earth (an early effort had misleadingly found the earth to be pear-shaped). The view from the Beacon is stellar. When the mists cleared, we could see all the way to False Bay and the Cape Peninsula. Even though Devil’s Peak and Table Mountain are essentially the same height, Devil’s Peak just looks like a bit of a wedge rather than the massive mountain that it is. Our group paused for a snack, taking pictures of other groups who had reached the Beacon from much longer hikes than ours.


One shouldn’t act like a hero for climbing less than 100 meters.

Getting down to the “front table” path from the beacon took a bit of scrambling, but we made it okay. Very soon we saw charred undergrowth all around us. Natasha explained that a fire in October had burned this area, including some of the boardwalk. Many species of fynbos, however, have evolved to require the occasional burn. We saw signs all around us that the plants were returning to life.


Even a big fire cannot keep the greenery down!

The walk back to the cable station skirted the cliff’s edge on the north side of the mountain. The sun was once again losing its battle with the “tablecloth,” and so our views of the city below were frequently mottled by clouds. I fired photo after photo down at the city, but I never really found the clear view I hoped for. I think this image, though, helps to illustrate just how much altitude we had gained since my shot of Signal Hill and downtown at the top of this blog post.


Oh, this city that I call my own!

Forty minutes had passed since we left Maclear’s Beacon when we encountered Platteklip Gorge again. I stumbled down the rocks into the depression at its head, and my mind was blown when I saw how far down that gorge leads! Hikers were gasping up that last narrow path to the table top. I really admire the folks who make the effort to climb the Gorge. When I saw, in person, the routes that our intrepid graduate student Wout Bittremieux had taken to the top, I was pretty stunned!


It’s a long way down.

By noon we were back to the Upper Cable Station. We caught some glimpses of the Atlantic coast as the mists battled the sun, but the fog was most dense around the station. I was glad that we had enjoyed as much sunlight as we did on the eastern extent of our walk. I feel bad for the people who did not leave the vicinity of the station, since they probably saw little else but clouds. As for our group, we headed back down the cable way and hoofed it back to the car. I drove the Strawberry to the nearby Knead Bakery. We ate ravenously. Our Solstice adventure was at an end!


5 thoughts on “Enjoying Solstice on Table Mountain

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