Table Mountain is Cape Town’s most prominent landmark. The view of the flat-topped massif, as seen from Table Bay or Blouberg, is recognised throughout the world and has placed Cape Town on the map. That it is one of the seven new wonders of the world is no mystery.
The triptych of Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain and the Lion is as famous, as is the mountain’s ‘tablecloth’ – the result of the south-easter, one of the prevailing winds of the Cape peninsula.
But the mountain’s bulk is not there simply to be admired, although this is a large aspect of its appeal. It is also there to hike, climb, worship, drive, walk and explore. From the paths that lead to its summit, to the inescapably rare fauna and flora, Table Mountain is attractive to every visitor…
What you may not know about Table Mountain:
Table Mountain is one of the oldest mountains in the world at 260 million years. Even the Andes, at 250 million years of age, is younger. The Himalayas, which people automatically assume are far older, are only 40 million years old.
If the First World War hadn’t happened, Table Mountain’s cableway would have been a funicular railway up Platteklip Gorge. The war put paid to any plans for the funicular. And then a Norwegian engineer’s idea for a ‘ropeway’ was taken up by Sir Alfred Hennessy in 1927. But it would take until 1929 before the first cabin made it to the top.
The first woman to write about her climb up Table Mountain was Lady Anne Barnard, wife of the Colonial Secretary of the Cape during the first British occupation. She borrowed her husband’s trousers to climb to the top in 1797. It was an event that included her husband, her maid and John Barrow, an explorer and naturalist, and entailed no fewer than twelve servants to carry up their food and baggage.
There are three major winds of the Cape that affect weather on Table Mountain. The Berg wind is a warm, dry blast that occurs sporadically and mainly in winter, and blows from the inland mountains. It can feel odd on cold days. The other two – the north-wester and the south-easter – come in off the sea.
The south-easter howls its way through spring and early summer (also known as the Cape Doctor), whilst the north-wester hits Cape Town after a ‘honeymoon period’ of beautiful still days in late summer and early autumn. It heralds the cold of winter, gusting, in full-force, from the Atlantic and usually bringing black clouds with it.
According to historical observations, black-maned Cape lions lived on Table Mountain at the time of Van Riebeeck. He gives an account of a lion killing cattle near the fort followed, a couple of days later, by a sighting of the lion when he strolled up to the Company gardens. He must have scared him off, for the lion headed towards the mountain. Because of the slaughter of large animals, most big game retreated northwards and the Cape lion, like the dodo, soon became extinct. No-one has seen one since 1802.
Table Mountain had its very own hermit. Cecil Townsend lived in Rendezvous Cave near Postern Buttress for eight years with a small group of pets that included a cat, a dog and a lizard. The rest of the time he spent walking and playing his violin. He made money felling trees or cleaning out the water reservoirs.
He was also one of the founders of the Cape Mountain Club (1931). Joshua Penny was an even earlier hermit who lived on the mountain for 14 months to escape from a situation on board a ship. He wrote an account of goats, buck, hyenas (wolves) and leopards on the mountain.
John Lennon is believed to have paid a four-day secret visit to Cape Town in the early 1970s as he was unaccountably drawn to Table Mountain. He is said to have meditated up on the top of the mountain.
Anthony Sher, South African actor famous for his acclaimed role as Richard III for the Royal Shakespeare Company in London in 1984, was said to have drawn much inspiration from Lions Head during a visit to his Sea Point home. He confessed that the mountain functioned as inspiration for him to create the portrayal of the tyrant.
Ways to see and explore the Table top include:
- The aerial cableway, which takes thousands of people to the top of the mountain daily.
- The City Sightseeing night tour – available between September and March: expect to see unusual views of the mountain from the top deck of the red bus as you head up Camps Bay Drive to Signal Hill, at the bottom of Lion’s Head and commonly known as the ‘rump’ of the Lion.
- Self-drive Signal Hill, Tafelberg Road, or drive the Atlantic Seaboard between Sea Point and Camps Bay.
- Hike to the Table summit via Platteklip Gorge, Kasteelspoort to the Front Table, Maclear’s Beacon (a more sedate climb that involves first taking the cableway to the top and then walking across), Kasteelspoort via Echo Valley, Maclears Beacon to the Cableway, or Skeleton Gorge via Maclear’s Beacon to the Front Table. Other than the second option to Maclear’s Beacon – the quieter part of the Table top – these hikes are anything but a walk in the park; you need to be fit to reach the Table’s top.
On Table Mountain (and within the Table Mountain National Park) lies the world’s richest single floral kingdom. Within a tiny area of 500 square kilometres you will find 2 600 plant species. Table Mountain alone is home to over 1 700 of these species.