Exploring Cape Town’s Big Attraction, Table Mountain

On any visit to Cape Town it is impossible to ignore Table Mountain.

Locals tell the weather by the clouds swirling around the peaks, and don’t be surprised if driving directions involves phrases like “drive away from the mountain.” And, of course, up-country workaholics love to joke that Capetonians spend all their waking hours idly mesmerized by the mountain.

Which isn’t a bad way to spend a day, to be honest, and it’s a rare tourist that doesn’t set foot on the sandstone hulk at some point during their stay. Plonked in the middle of the city, it’s usually just a short drive from your hotel to the trailhead.

And that’s part of the problem: because it’s so accessible, tourists often underestimate the mountain. Over a kilometer high at its summit, temperatures up top are a far cry from the sunny beaches below. When the wind picks up, the iconic cloud ‘tablecloth’ blankets the mountaintop and a lazy stroll in sandals and T-shirts quickly leaves tourists cold, hungry and lost in the mist.

But that’s not to say you shouldn’t explore Table Mountain: a walk should be high on your list of things to do in Cape Town, and there are plenty of ways to enjoy the Mother City’s largest asset quite safely.

table mountain

Table Mountain Aerial Cableway (Shutterstock)

Platteklip Gorge is a steep plodding route to the top of Hoerikwaggo, The Mountain of the Sea, which is what the indigenous San people called today’s Table Mountain. (Pronounced “hoo-ree-kwa-ko”, with the second “k” spoken as if you are clearing your throat.)  But the easiest way to discover it is via the world-famous cable car. Perhaps one of the finest urban cableway journeys in the world, the all-too-brief ride to the Upper Station provides an unforgettable 360-degree view of the city below.

Up at the top, paved walkways and lookout points offer panoramic views out over the Cape Town, and seawards towards the iconic Robben Island. Visit the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway Company website in the morning to check on weather conditions at the top.

Once you’ve taken in the postcard views, lace up your walking shoes and head south: the highest point on the mountain awaits.

Maclear’s Beacon is named for Thomas Maclear, Her Majesty’s Astronomer and Director at the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope from 1833 to 1870, and is an easy walk that shouldn’t take you more than an hour each way.

Within minutes you’ll leave the cableway crowds behind and enjoy the fine views of what’s called the ‘Back Table’. With yellow feet painted on the rocks the path is easy to follow and the flat walking won’t be too taxing.

You’ll spend the first hour wandering through the fynbos, the small heather-like shrubs that dominate the Cape Floral ecosystem, the smallest and richest of the planet’s six ecosystems. Soon you’ll come upon the rocky cairn marking the highest point on the mountain. Curiously, Maclear built it in 1865 not to mark the summit, but to assist in measuring the curvature of the earth! Breathe in the clean, clear air 1086 meters above sea level before strolling back to the cableway.

The gentle walk to Maclear’s Beacon is the easiest and most popular mountain wander for visitors to enjoy, but there are also plenty of others where you can get a feel for Hoerikwaggo.

A short drive from the Lower Cableway Station, the Pipe Track is a straightforward wander along the contours, following the pipes laid down in 1887 to supply water to the growing city.

The Twelve Apostles, Cape Town (Shutterstock)

The Twelve Apostles, Cape Town (Shutterstock)

From the starting point at Kloof Nek the trail meanders below the famous row of buttresses known as the Twelve Apostles, offering splendid views of the beaches of Clifton and Camps Bay. There are one or two steep sections, but the path is mostly level as it passes Porcupine Ravine, Kasteelspoort and Woody Ravine. However, these valleys can be steep and scrambling, so only explore further if you have a good map or one of your party knows the route.

The Pipe Track ends at Slangolie Ravine, although as it’s an out-and-back route you can turn around whenever your legs tire of the walk, or your eyes of the view. But it’s unlikely the latter will happen too quickly.

While the western side of the mountain offers wonderful sea views, the eastern edge is perhaps more popular with local hikers for its cool forested valleys and dramatic mountain views.

The Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is one of the top attractions in Cape Town and well worth a wander, but is also a convenient starting point for the lovely walk up Skeleton Gorge.

Butterfly in Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden (Shutterstock)

Butterfly in Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden (Shutterstock)

The path is well sign-posted from the Kirstenbosch car park, and from the contour path it’s hard to miss the Gorge rising up into a cool canopy of indigenous Yellowwood, Milkwood and Wild Peach trees.

For climbing the mountain in the summertime, shady Skeleton Gorge is your best bet. The path is steep in places, and occasionally wooden ladders climb over boulder-strewn sections, but even novice hikers will be fine if they take it slowly. Towards the top, keep an eye out for the colorful Red Disa orchids that flower during January and February.

At the top of the gorge the path wanders along the edge of two large reservoirs — built in the 1800s, they still supply some water to Cape Town — but look for the signs pointing to Nursery Ravine. A short, sharp, knee-jerking path leads you back down to the contour path, and Kirstenbosch.

These are just a handful of the trails that criss-cross Table Mountain, but are perhaps the easiest for the first-time visitor. On her slopes you’ll find rare flowers, shy antelope and some of the finest views South Africa has to offer so before you leave… pack your walking shoes.

Safety

Have a safe walk with these tips:

  • Never hike alone – four is the ideal size for a group.
  • Choose your route according to the ability, fitness and experience of your group.
  • Carry a rainproof jacket (even on a sunny day!) and water, and wear proper footwear… no sandals or heels!
  • Stick to the path and don’t be tempted to take shortcuts.
  • Muggings have occurred on the lower slopes of the mountain, so walk in a group and leave valuables in your hotel.
  • Mountain Rescue hotline: +27 21 937 0300

Useful Links

Mountain Club of South Africa: Cape Section

Table Mountain Walks

Hike Table Mountain

Ridgway Ramblers

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