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Hiking Table Mountain

April 2, 2012

Any Capetonian, indeed anyone that’s ever visited this amazing city will tell you about Table Mountain. It’s central place in the city makes it part of daily life for many people and a trip to its flat summit is on any tourists itinerary. There’s a perfectly good (if a little expensive and scary) cable car that takes hundreds of tourists a day to the top, but the only way to really see all Table Mountain has to offer is to hike up it.

If you read my posts on the Otter Trail you’ll know I’m not as athletic as most of my friends, not even close. But with my very good friend Gozzy and my Dad and Kath recently visiting I could no longer find good reason not to climb the mountain I’ve been staring at every day for the last year and a half.

Getting up at 6am to avoid the midday sun, we decided to take the Skeleton Gorge route up the mountain which can be easily accessed from the Southern Suburbs (and our house) through Newlands Forest and the 400m contour path. 

In summer this is a nice route as you spend much of the hard uphill climbing in the shade of the forest and the gorge. If you walk up from Kirstenbosch or through Newlands Forest there’s some great opportunities for bird watching and if you’re lucky you may catch a glimpse of a few bock or snakes warming themselves on the rocks. The climb up the gorge wasn’t as bad as I expected. Arriving on the contour path you’re already 400m up so the climb, although steep is really short. There are some ladders but no real perception of height, making this route particularly suitable for those uncomfortable with steep drops.

It had rained a few days previous to our first hike up this route, which meant a small trickle of water was running down the gorge – delightful to cool down in but had there been severe rain (i.e. in winter) I imagine this route would not be so fun.

As you emerge at the top of the gorge the flora begin to change and you start to understand why Table Mountain is part of the Capes unique floral kingdom but also has more species than the entire of the United Kingdom.

The damp woodland environment gives way to fynbos dominated shrubs and small rivers and pools. Around the rivers we were lucky to see the Disa orchids in flower as well as an array of sunbirds, sugar birds and birds of pray. This side of the mountain is still fairly uneven, unlike the characteristic table as viewed from the city, providing lots of interesting micro environments for wildlife.

From the top of the gorge we then carried on along Smuts track – now part of the Hoerikwaggo trail (Hoerikwaggo is the Khoisan name for table mountain meaning Mountain of the Sea). Smuts Track ends at Maclears beacon – the highest point of the mountain and the most westerly point of the Table itself. This is a great place to take pictures!

From Maclears it was a race for ice cream across the table for us, but try and keep an eye out for Dassies, lizards and more sunbirds on this fairly flat path. At the cable car station you join the throng of tourists, looking comparitively out of place in their high heels, little dresses and sandals! The cafe is a good place to grab a an ice cream and a drink but the food is pretty pricey so perhaps wait until you descend. However if you do wish to spend some time on the table – there are great photo opportunities and the views are phenomenal – consider taking a sandwich or coughing up for pizza/paninis etc at the cafe.

Returning down Skeleton gorge as a round trip is improbably long for most people I would imagine – it took us about 5 hours to do the route and enjoy it – so budget another 4 hours or so to return this way. On our first foray up the mountain we descended via Platteklip Gorge. This is the most commonly hiked route up the mountain – a steep, rocky but safe path which takes you up through a gorge in the other wise flat front face of the city side of the mountain. Walking down it is not too hard but pretty tough on the knees. We were mainly trying to avoid paying for the cable car which is your other option and probably worth is as the Platteklip hike is a little long and repetitive compared to Skeleton Gorge. When hiking with Dad and Kath we took the cable car down – a wise move I think in the 40 degree heat of the day?

Table Mountain is a little bit deceptive and there have been many accidents, particularly in recent years with inexperienced hikers injuring themselves and falling foul of the changeable weather conditions. As a mountain in the middle of the city, its readily accessible and there’s no one there to control who hikes it. Whilst the route I’ve described is really safe – no risk of falling compared to the India Venster route for example, you should definitely take some precautions, especially if like me you are unfit and inexperienced.<

Hints for the unfit and inexperienced!

– Watch the weather: Check the weather forecast to make a plan considering wind and cloud cover but leave plenty of time to change this day if you are working on a holiday itinerary.

– Leave early: Hiking in the heat of the day is no fun and giving yourself plenty of time allows you to enjoy the hike without racing if you’re worried about fitness levels.

– Take a map and or guide: Maps of the mountain and the hiking routes are available from Kirstenbosch (probably from tourist information places too but this is where I bought mine). Skeleton Gorge is easily navigable, so a map would probably be ok, but it won’t harm to take a friend familiar with the mountain (we took Ben who is practically a mountain goat so had been up plenty of times!). If you wish to hike one of the other routes besides Platteklip and Skeleton Gorge (i.e. India Venster) it would seem essential to book a guided tour or take an experienced friend. I personally wouldn’t consider any of the other routes which have been designated as dangerous.

– Water: We took 2 litres per person but saw many people carrying small bottles. This seems like a recipe for disaster. In the summer there is no real water source on the route described, so take more than enough for your hike.

– Biltong and fruit are perfect light snacks to give you a little energy, sugar and salt.

– Binoculars, bird book, camera – if you intend on spending a fair amount of time enjoying the mountain – taking these is good, the map has a few pictures to help ID birds and flowers.

– Sunblock and hat: The forest and gorge were shaded on our route but there is little to no shade once you reach the top.

– Fitness: I’m not very fit, but I did manage this hike ok. However I was really very slow and wouldn’t want to do this hike with my fitter friends. My advice is if you think you can do it, have a go, but take it at your pace and be prepared to turn around if you think you’re going too slow. If you try and keep up with fast people you’ll get tired really quickly and not have time to enjoy this beautiful place.

I’m going to try and hike much more this year so I’ll update with reviews of routes around Cape Town from my perspective.

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