An Overview of Table Mountain, Cape Town

South Africa’s favourite mountain provides activity even just through visual appreciation

The Mountain, bru, is South Africa’s most recognisable landmark. And Capetonians favourite method of one-upmanship over Joburghers (who only have a lot of trees, no ocean, and lots of money).

Useful Too

Wherein does the worldwide attraction lie? Well quite obviously the fact that it’s a damn great Mountain with a flat top (hence Table Mountain) overlooking (enveloping really) a city has something to do with it.

It’s multifunctional; most Capetonians use the mountain as a compass, firmly believing that as long as you can see which side you’re on, you can work out where you are, and how to get where you’re going. I believe it’s the comforting familiarity. That mountain’s going nowhere.

And it’s pretty; seriously, look at it - pretty.  It doesn’t take long to fall in love with the mountain. I myself for a long time thought it rather ruined the view, but soon came to miss it whenever I left Cape Town.  

Lions and Devils

Flanking Table Mountain are Devil’s Peak to the East, and Lion’s Head to the West. The Mountain itself has been surrounded by folklore and mysticism since the first Dutch invader realised it would make a good focal point for stories. The most famous of these is probably actually centred around Devil’s Peak; the tale goes that one Dutch pirate oke, Van Hunks, sometime in the 18th century quit his day job of pillaging to retire to the slopes of Devil's Peak. He spent his days sitting on (surely sliding down?) the mountain, smoking his pipe.

One day this ominous china approached him, and challenged him to a smoking contest which lasted for days. The smoke from their pipes kept billowing all around and flowing down the mountain, (these being the days before smoking laws). Van Hunks finally won the contest, (but lost his breath) and said ominous oke revealed himself to be the Devil (hence Devil's Peak).

So the town gossipers decided that the cloud of smoke they left became Table Mountain's tablecloth - the famous white cloud that spills over the mountain when the south-easter blows in summer.

Our ancestor’s tried long and hard to think up a good yarn to accompany Lion’s Head, but lacking in Faustian creativity that day simply named it on visual description – if you squint right it sort of almost looks like a Lion’s Head.

The highest point on Table Mountain is on the Eastern end of the plateau (flat top), marked by Maclear’s Beacon – set up by Sir Maclear for trigonometrical surveying. 1,086 metres (3,563 ft) above sea level, and about 19 metres (62 ft) higher than the cable station at the western end of the plateau.

The cable station is a landmark unto itself. Come the late 1870’s, the laid back, energy sapping atmosphere in Cape Town had drained all zest from the locals – leading to Capetonians whimpering for the construction of a railway to the top. A little scuffle called the South African (Anglo-Boer) War got in the way of this, and then later another scuffle (World War 1), putting any ideas of Trains on a mountain right out of their heads.

Enter Norwegian engineer, Trygve Stromsoe, who suggested the idea and plans for a Cableway. The rest, as they say, is history.

Because It’s There

Since its opening in 1929 over 16 million people have taken the trip to the top via the Cablecars – the cableway offering a 360% view of the Mountain and City, and the most popular tourist attraction in Cape Town (the Cableway includes a restaurant and cocktail bar at the top of Table Mountain, the effort of letting a machine do all the work being thirsty work).

Another popular Mountain activity is ‘Caving’, our Mountain having formed a few sandstone (unusually, cave’s generally occur in limestone) caves; the deepest of which are on the back of the mountain, which is known as the ‘Twelve Apostles’, due to number of the huge rock formations that make up the back. Twelve – count them, twelve.

An even more favoured pastime is Hiking, Table Mountain having many varied routes of differing difficulty levels for you to wear your shoes down on. Some of the most famous of these are the Hoerikwaggo trails; the Kasteelsport ascent; or there’s the Pipe track, a more level route.

In the 1990’s the mountain became part of the new ‘Cape Peninsula National Park’ in the 1990’s (the park renamed to ‘Table Mountain National Park in 1998), and as such there are strict guidelines and laws to abide by when approaching these hikes, and in most areas dealing with the Mountain. These are very necessary however, and we’d appreciate you follow them properly – for your own safety.

It’s primarily an open access Park with only three managed pay points, so often there’s no one to enforce such rules – but it really is in your best interest to follow them. And in ours, far too many fires have been started on the mountain by careless wannabee Van Hunks trying to recreate the table cloth incident.

For more information visit the official site at www.sanparks.org/parks/table_mountain/.

By John Scharges

For more tales of our dynamic city and its wealth of activities, be sure to subscribe to our monthly Editor’s newletters - and for more info on the who the how and the why in Cape Town, visit our What’s the deal with...? section

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