In which we make a mountaineering expedition

Sheryl and I had been living in Cape Town for six weeks and somehow we hadn’t yet gotten around to climbing Table Mountain. We’ve been lazy, for one thing, and then we were away for a couple of weeks, and then, well… we’ll be here for awhile, right? There’s plenty of time. So now, when it looks like we’ll finally be leaving in a couple of weeks, we’re trying to fit in all the things we left for later. One of those things was climbing the mountain.

You can take it as read that we were warned about the hideous dangers of muggers, and of the mountain itself, and you can imagine that we didn’t pay an awful lot of attention. We’d slept beside a glacier in the brutal Făgăraş Mountains in Romania, and we’d climbed Mount Triglav, the highest mountain in the Slovenian Alps. I felt we’d somehow been through our rites of passage already, to be honest. Table Mountain is a measly thousand meters of well-maintained paths and steps, and only the work of a couple of hours.

That didn’t stop it from being quite beautiful. We started at the Kirstenbosch Gardens on the southeast side of the mountain, aiming for Skeleton Gorge. The easiest way into the foot of the Gorge is through the Gardens, but we were too cheap. We walked around the gardens by road until we made it to Cecilia Forest, and then made our way through logging roads and paths to the north side of the Gardens, overlooking the reservoir. We thought we’d gotten a bit lost already, but it turned out that yes, the trail really was vertical at that point and really had washed away in a flood. But we scrambled up a hundred-meter ladder of tree routes until we met the Counter Path which girdles the lower third of the mountain. Following that brought us to Skeleton Gorge and Smuts Track. The sun was brutally hot and there was no shade on the Contour Path. I set my daypack down on the hard-packed dirt of the trail at one point and saw heat-waves rising from it. We’d brought two litres of water with us and should have brought more. I knew Sheryl would need all of it herself, so I took very sparing sips occasionally. I need almost no water when I’m hiking - Sheryl calls me a camel - but it’s a good thing for her I don’t. Or more for me I suppose, since I’d end up carrying it anyway.

Skeleton Gorge was lovely and shady and green, though. Its moss-grown dampness and drips reminded me of Fiordland National Park in New Zealand, one of my favourite places. The trail was very steep for the first four or five hundred meters, but not rough at all - mostly rock steps. We took a break at the foot of a tumbled cascade of mossy boulders where a little stream came down through the moss. I took the chance to drink my fill. Our map called Skeleton Gorge the most popular route up, but we’d only met three or four people up to that point, and only another couple from there to the top. We came out of the Gorge at around seven hundred meters and had a bit of lunch, then set off across the top of the table for Maclear’s Beacon, the highest point. The vegetation was lovely and strange - proteas and flowers I have no name for everywhere. There was a little stream with the most brilliant red orchids and lots of frogs and tadpoles.

The so-called Tablecloth - the blanket of cloud that swathes the top of Table Mountain on most days - had rolled in just as we’d come out onto the top, so there was no view off the edge of the Table. Visibility was fine on the trails, though. Our (increasingly inaccurate) map warned of the debilitating conditions and the dangerous lack of visibility when the Tablecloth was present, and added a caution to hikers about the ease of getting lost in the cloud. I think you’d have to be blind or actually retarded to get lost on Table Mountain, though, the paths are so well-worn. It took us another couple of hours of easy walking and rock-hopping to get to Maclear’s Beacon. The Beacon was a bit of an anti-climax - I’d expected some sort of… beacon, or something, but there was only a rock cairn that had a flagpole with someone’s shirt tied to it.

As we walked away from the Beacon along the edge of the Table toward the cable-car terminal to the north-west, one dangerous aspect of Table Mountain did present itself - the wind. Cape Town is a windy place, and all the more so at a thousand meters altitude. The trail wound right at the edge of the mountain, and there was a sheer drop of a couple of hundred meters below. We held onto our hats, didn’t venture closer to the edge than we had to, and watched the ragged shreds of Tablecloth cloud being ripped across the flat rocks and out into space. At the fork in the trail for the route down or to the cable-car, we saw the back of a rusted sign. When we went around the front and read it, it proved to be a notice that the trail we’d just been on was considered dangerous and that it was recommended to take the other trail farther away from the edge instead. This is such a common and unexceptional occurrence for us that we just chuckled and walked on.

We decided to save the money on the cable-car and walk down the mountain via Platteklip Gorge. This was a steep stone staircase that switched back and forth down the side of the mountain. The wind came howling down from the mountain and the temperatures in the Gorge were fifteen degrees cooler than the top of the mountain, and twenty-five degrees colder than the bottom. Getting down was a knee-destroying hour and a half, but judging from the expressions of the people coming up, I wouldn’t have wanted to trade places with them. Their red, sweating faces turned up to us, they would ask how much farther? I tried to lie, I really did, but I just couldn’t. I’m sorry, you’re only a quarter of the way up, I’d say, or Another hour, you can do it! It wasn’t hiking they were doing, it was just… stair-climbing on a mountain, and it looked like no fun at all. We passed an awful lot of Brazilians and Argentinians going up, for some reason, the guys all macho and racing up thirty meters at a time before collapsing, and the girls all wearing little shorts and halter-tops and freezing to death. If I were a nicer person I wouldn’t have found it as amusing, I imagine.

After so many years of hard cycling my knees are a bit shot, and they weren’t happy with me by the time we reached the bottom of Platteklip Gorge. It wasn’t a surprise at all, I’d been expecting it. I’d done much the same descending a thousand meters from the Jackson Peaks on the Kepler Track in New Zealand, and I remembered how my knees complained then. This time, at least, I wasn’t carrying a twenty-five-kilo pack, so my knees were only sore rather than screaming. At the bottom of the Gorge there was an intersection in the trails. We could have gone straight down to Tafelberg Road and started the walk into town, but I wanted some pictures of the cable-car, so we took the trail that led to the lower cable-car terminal. Turns out it was the very same Contour Trail that we’d left when we came up Skeleton Gorge on the other side of the mountain.

While we were waiting for the cable-car to pass overhead, we were chatting to a nice American couple from New York City. We’d passed their hosts in Cape Town (also New Yorkers, I think) on the way down the Gorge and they were waiting for them to catch up. After I got my pictures we split up and headed down to the lower cable-car terminal - more rocky downhill. I’d had enough of picking my way down and just ran down the rough uneven steps for ten minutes to the bottom, fully expecting to break an ankle or a neck any second. My knees were in pain at the end, but no worse than they would have been if I’d taken it slowly.

We could have taken a taxi back into town, but we’re stubborn and cheap and decided that the added hour of walking to the bus station was the lesser of two evils compared with spending money for a cab. But we’d only been walking for a couple of minutes when all four of the New Yorkers pulled up in a compact car and offered us a ride. We didn’t even make a token protest, after nine hours of hard hiking, and we piled in with Sheryl on my lap. We were immensely grateful for the ride - thanks guys, you’re the best! That extra hour made all the difference. We caught the bus to Plumstead just as it was leaving and were back at Joan’s place, cleaned up and eating an amazing dinner by 8 o’clock. I’m not sure I’ve mentioned, but Joan’s a very good cook. I’ll be sorry to lose her curries when we finally move on.

Speaking of Joan, her phones had all cut out earlier that day. Asking around the street, she found out that it was the whole neighbourhood - an entire exchange had gone down. She called the phone company on her mobile to try and get some kind of resolution to the problem, but it didn’t seem like anything was going to happen quickly. The phone company here has a monopoly, just like Bell used to have in Canada before the government opened up the market to competition, and they have no incentive at all to fix the problem quickly. Joan was a bit peeved, to put it lightly - not only does she have no phone, but her internet connection, being DSL and working over the phone lines, is out as well. At home there would be civil unrest if the phones and internet connections were down for more than a couple of hours, but hers stayed out for six days in the end, if you can believe it. It took them four days even to get around to assigning a technician to the problem. Joan was more or less cut off from the world during that time, and her family in Canada were apparently worried sick. I sent off a text to her granddaughter, our friend Nicola, asking her to spread the word, but the text didn’t get to her. I thought it wasn’t too much to expect Joan’s son Russell here in Cape Town to call his sister (Nicola’s mother) in Canada to let her know the situation, but there was no way in hell I was going to step into the middle of family affairs like that.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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