One of the new 7 wonders of nature along with the Amazon (South America), Iguazu Falls (Argentina/Brazil) and Halong Bay (Vietnam), (yes I see some more travel plans looming), Table Mountain is quintessentially Cape Town and South Africa. Stretching 1085m above sea level Table Mountain has incredible 360 views of the Cape Town area. Often covered in a blanket of cloud, or the tablecloth as it is locally known, planning your trip to explore Table Mountain needs to include some preparation for a quick change in the climate. Flanked by Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head, Table Mountain makes up the northern end of the Cape Fold Mountain range. It was given it’s name Table of the Cape (Tabao do Cabo) by Antonio de Saldahna after he climbed up Patteklip Gorge in 1503.
Geology of Table Mountain
For Geography lovers like us, Table Mountain is especially interesting as it is one of the oldest mountains on Planet Earth, likely to be six times older than the Himalayas and five times older than the Rockies. Beginning as sandstone, sediments formed a shale continental shelf under water, it was given strength by the magma rising from the earth’s core cooling underground forming hard granite. You can very easily see all the granite rocks along the coast of the whole Cape Peninsula area. During an ice age, the ice sheets flattened the layers of sandstone creating the flat surface of the ‘table top’ we can see today. You can actually see the glacial deposits at Maclear’s Beacon at the summit. There are many deep ravines and jaggy points evidence of millions of years of erosional processes. During the great shifts in the earth’s tectonic plates, the supercontinent Pangea separated into two parts. The southern continent Gondwanaland also broke up, this was the separation of Australia and Antarctic from Africa which remained more or less stationary. These shifts in the earth’s plates created many fold mountains, but the hard granite base of Table Mountain resisted folding, deflecting the forces downwards and producing an uplift or ‘istotacy’ which caused it to rise above sea level. The incredible landscape is due to the hardness of the granite base protecting against the erosional processes of the sea, but the coarse softer sandstone being eroded by rain and wind giving the fantastic gnarled and craggy appearance. The sheer front face, was caused by wave action, it is essentially a giant cliff face.
Floral and fauna
Table Mountain has an incredibly rich biodiversity, and is actually one of the six floral kingdoms of the world due to the unique species in the area. It is the only floral kingdom to only occur within one country. The vegetation is mainly endangered Peninsula Sandstone Fynbos. Fynbos is an evergreen, hard leaved shrubland that occurs on nutrient poor soils that are derived predominately from sandstones and limestones. Fynbos has an enormous diversity of species of vegetation, Table Mountain alone has more species of plants than the whole of the British Isles. Many of these endemic species occur nowhere else on earth.
Leopards once roamed the mountain, sadly not since the 1920s, but you will more likely see the dassie or rock hyrax, mongooses, snakes, tortoises, and if you are lucky a Table Mountain Ghost Frog. We did see dassies, lizards, and a snake. We have become big dassie fans, one of Miss 7 new favourite animals. Mainly because the closest relative to the little dassie is the elephant, due to the similarly of their digestive systems. You also stand a good chance of seeing jackal buzzards, booted eagles, African harrier-hawks, peregrine falcons and rock kestrels.
Climate changes at the top
Cape Town is a windy city, and once up Table Mountain the climate can change quickly. One of the most majestic and impressive sights is when the southeasterly winds roll in and the tablecloth of cloud forms. It is part of an orographic cloud formation, which normally forms during the summer months when Cape Town’s south to southeasterly wind pushes moist air against the mountain’s slopes. The air is forced to rise and, as it climbs it cools, causing the relative humidity to increase. The moisture then condenses to form the world-famous tablecloth. When the clouds roll over the other side, it will often dissipate, reversing the process. I was was hoping for perfect visibility then this to roll in when we were on top. We got the good visibility part, which I’m happy for!
Of course, there is also a legend to this phenomenon, the story of Van Hunks and his competition with the Devil himself. According to the myth, Van Hunks, a Dutch pirate who lived a life of villainy sailing the high seas before retiring to Cape Town, spent his days sitting under an ancient tree on Table Mountain smoking his pipe. One day he was approached by a cloaked stranger who challenged him to a smoking competition. Confident of his smoking ability, Van Hunks accepted, and ended up defeating the man. The stranger took off his hood, revealing himself as the Devil and the two vanished in a puff of smoke. Legend has it, that to this day the Devil of Devil’s Peak and Van Hunks continue their challenge, obscuring the top of Table Mountain with their pipe smoke each time they try to out -do one another.
Which do you think?
Getting to the top
The easiest way to get up is to the take the Cable Car. If you are feeling more energetic then a hike up will be time well spent. The cable cars carries up to 65 passengers per trip, and the journey up takes about five minutes, with the cars rotating through 360 degrees during the trip giving you spectacular views of the mountain below. It also means that all the people that push past, will get the exact same view as you! Genius! The cars depart from the lower cable station on Tafelberg Road every 10 to 15 minutes, but it can be really busy so you may end up queuing quite a while.
The cableway does not operate if the wind is too strong or the visibility too poor, so do check in advance. Tickets that you purchase will last for 7 days. We were keen to ensure that we got good views so one of our first days we that was bright and clear we headed that way. It was super hot, and the little adventurers might not have managed the 2 to 3 hour hike to the top so we took the Cable Car.
There are a couple of different hiking routes you can take. Platteklip Gorge is a prominent gorge up the centre of the main table, and one of the most popular routes up the mountain. While it is quite steep, the ascent is the most straightforward and it is reported that it will take between one to three hours depending on fitness levels. A tricker route starting on that side of the mountain is India Venster, which requires a fair bit of scrambling. This route can take between two and four hours and should only be tackled by those who are fit and are familiar with the route. On the Atlantic side of the mountain, Kasteelspoort, which offers incredible views of Camps Bay, is the easiest route. There are also longer routes to the summit from the Southern Suburbs. Nursery Ravine and Skeleton Gorge both start in the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden. From Skeleton Gorge, you can hike along Smuts Track to Maclear’s Beacon, which, at 1086 meters above sea level, is the highest point on Table Mountain. From Constantia Nek, you can take a longer, milder walk up the jeep track to the dams at the top of the mountain.
Exploring the top
Keen to get some hiking, we made our way over to Maclear’s Beacon which involved a hike down towards Platteklip Gorge. The kids loved clambering and exploring up and down through the rocks, and the fynbos. It takes about an hour and half to get from the Cable Car station over to Maclear’s Beacon and back. There are shorter and easier walks marked on the maps provided, the Dassie walk, the Agama Walk, and the Klipspringer Walk. There are also free guided walks that depart – on the hour – from the Twelve Apostles Terrace.
Do watch your sun exposure, it is windy up there and you can get burnt quite easily.
There’s also a cafe, many viewing points, a gift shop and a wifi lounge at the top.
Miss 7 declared it Times Table Mountain, so of course we had to recite all the times tables she is learning as we explored! It must be good memories to remember learning your times tables on top of Table Mountain.
It was a fantastic adventure, checking out the views all around Cape Town city and the wider twelve apostles mountains. Whether you climb up or get the Cable Car I would strongly recommend that you get some clambering and climbing around either towards Maclear’s Beacon or up the mountain itself.
Top tips for visiting Table Mountain
- Book tickets in advance online and check the weather before you go. The Table Mountain website has regular updates because it can close very suddenly due to quick onset of high winds. Tickets last for 7 days so plan your time in Cape Town accordingly.
- It will likely be busy if you have chosen a good weather day. So arrive early, and be prepared to queue. The queues did move quite fast and there was plenty to see with the incredible views even from the lower cable station.
- Bring plenty of water and sunscreen – it can be super warm. There are plenty of places that you can buy some en route for the cable car but if you are hiking make sure that you bring all that you need.
- Parking is a pain, you are parked down the roadside, if you are feeling unsure about driving , an uber is quick and cheap and will take you to the bottom cable car station.
- Wear decent shoes if you plan to hike at all. The further you go from the Cable Car station a the top, the quieter it gets, and the more incredible the views are. It is well worth a little bit of a hike if you can manage it.
- Don’t forget your camera, charged and with plenty of memory space for all the amazing views you will see.
We were gifted Cable Car tickets from Table Mountain