We are back in the world of internet, so we’re catching up with some of our African adventures!
We started our worldwide trek with two weeks in the beautiful city of Cape Town, South Africa. With a photogenic curving coastline and a variety of activities to offer – from penguins and wine to hiking and history – we were excited for this first stop in a new continent.
One of the main attractions we were looking forward to was ascending the centerpiece of the city: Table Mountain. We were there long enough to climb it twice, and each was a unique experience. Which method would you prefer?
About Table Mountain
It’s impossible to miss the massive granite table that dominates the Cape Town cityscape. It was formed millions of years ago (it’s older than the Himalayas) and flattened by glaciers during the Ice Age, and it now stands as an alluring geological wonder to tourists and local hikers, alike. It rises over a kilometer above the city below, so the views are spectacular.
But most stunning of all is the blanket of clouds that almost always shroud the summit – nicknamed the “tablecloth.” These perpetual clouds never seem to clear, particularly throughout the summer months. Cool, moist air is blown in from the coast, only to be slammed against Table Mountain’s cliff face, forced upwards, and condensed.
This can obviously prove to be a barrier to views of the distant city from the top, but it’s also a beautiful phenomenon when photographed from below. And if the blanket is thin on the day you summit, you might be fortunate enough to catch some magical breaks of the ground below – as we did.
Approaching the national park, I was blown away by the sheer beauty of the mountain looming over us – the dark granite draped with stark white cloud in front of sapphire blue skies. Passing the neighborhood just below the main entrance, I wondered what it might be like to wake up to this scene in my backyard every day.
There are a few paths that ascend this popular point (including some smaller paths that take you up the backside from the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens). One takes you directly up the slope under the cableway. This one is steep and not for the faint of heart, though it is somewhat shorter.
We opted, instead, for the more popular Platteklip Gorge route. This zigzags up the side of the mountain via multiple switchbacks, the views increasingly better the higher you get. This route was suggested by our Couchsurfing host, who told us to drive past the main cableway parking lot to the secondary one about another kilometer or so down the road.
The trail itself is fairly straightforward, though it does branch off into other paths that circle the mountain (I’ll come back to this in a bit). We stuck to the left; we were determined to summit.
The gorge is a wonderful path to hike, and we took so many pictures. I was also fascinated by the swift-moving clouds overhead. We filmed the mesmerizing motion, and Aaron recorded a time lapse as we rested. The path provided quite the workout in between, and it was welcome exercise after having been so stationary over the last month prior to our departure.
Now, the beautiful tablecloth we admired below quickly became a dense fog obscuring our path. It got dark, and it got cold. But by this point, we had worked up quite a sweat, so the moisture was a welcome cool-down. It was also windy. We dared a few pictures of our little travel kitties, but we had to keep a really tight grip on them so they wouldn’t blow away!
We saw fewer people on the trail the higher we climbed, and we saw more coming back down in the opposite direction. About two hours in, we were pretty exhausted, and those returning reported at least another hour to the top. We could no longer see the city behind us, and other hikers were coming down with pretty wet hair. On top of it all, the cableway was closed due to the wind, so every meter up would be one we’d have to hike back down.
Figuring we’d put in our time and we wouldn’t gain anything more by continuing, we decided to call it a day.
We reemerged from the damp shroud, and could appreciate the clearing view the rest of the way down. When we came once more to the fork in the trail, curiosity won out, and we chose to explore this alternate path.. just around the next bend.. and the next (this happens sometimes).
While the views of Cape Town didn’t change much, we were able to see more of the tablecloth overhead by venturing out of the gorge and beyond the corner of the cliff face. We marveled at the beauty all around us, and we took more pictures.
We could have followed this new trail back down to the road from there, but then we’d have a short hike along the road back to our car. The trail was more scenic, so we simply backtracked. Tired but refreshed, we resolved to leave the possibility of returning for another try on a later date (the beauty of staying longer in one place!).
We were fortunate enough to have that opportunity on our last day in Cape Town.
Our second day on the mountain was similar to our first: sunny skies with a cloudy summit. We could have hiked again – tried once more to reach the top – but we wanted a different experience this time. We wanted to check out the ever popular cableway ride to the summit. It being our last day in Cape Town, we hoped the gondola would be open and that despite the clouds, we might see a little bit of what lay below.
Fortune was with us. While the cableway had been closed quite a bit the past few days (mostly due to weather, which is quite common – be sure to check the status before your visit), it was running. We still fretted that we wouldn’t see much once we got to the top, but it was our last day, so we didn’t have much of a choice.
The clouds must have scared away much of the crowds, as we didn’t have any wait to board the large gondola. An elevator takes you up from the main parking lot to the boarding platform. From there, each of the two oscillating cableway cars hold about 65 passengers.
Aaron and I hopped onboard and quickly jockeyed for the best photographic position. We’ve ridden gondolas before, so we knew the game. Was it better to photograph and film the cliff-face ascent or the expanding cityscape below? Or would one of the sides afford the best views? We could always try for a different position on the way back down for an alternate angle, but there were no guarantees we’d get a spot we wanted.
But then something brilliant happened.
We were told to move away from the walls, to let go of any metal handrails. As the car jerked into motion, the entire floor began to rotate. That’s right: much like the Seattle Space Needle, everyone onboard had equal opportunity to see complete 360 views. This tiny bit of ingenuity was simply delightful!
The first half of the ride was fascinating – individual cars and buildings rapidly shrinking while the overall city expanded below us – but it was the second half that made the experience memorable.
As we neared the cliff, the cable became almost vertical. I felt we could have reached out and touched the wall of granite before us, and the ground was so far below, I was overcome by a mild sense of vertigo. Word of advice: if you are severely afraid of heights, don’t look down! Just when I thought we couldn’t climb any higher, we rose still.
Eventually, we docked at a dizzying height, though the ground disappeared in a haze of cloud. We’d made it to the summit – finally!
Covered in a dense fog, the summit area was like a scene out of Silent Hill. Hazy outlines meandered the several educational wildlife loops while others crowded the lookout points hoping to steal a glance of the view far below.
I was transfixed by the eeriness of our surroundings (I love a good foggy scene), but I was ecstatic when the clouds actually did periodically part. We attempted to perfectly time a couple of quick selfies, and I more successfully captured the distant corner of the table amidst the clouds. The spotty views made photography a game, and I thought the views were made all the more spectacular with the spotty cloud cover. A clear day would have been so ordinary!
We took a break from the misty air to warm up with some curry at the summit cafe. It was surprisingly packed inside, though I suppose nicer weather would have drawn more people outside to the patio.
Before we reentered the loading dock for the descent, I wanted one last look from the observation deck in the same building (they have a wifi lounge there, too!). I’m so thankful we made the detour. This side offered a different view of the bay, including departing and arriving gondolas. It was from here that the distance to the ground became truly apparent.
The return trip wasn’t quite as shocking as the ascent, but it was still enjoyable. Once more, we gently spun around as we rejoined the ants over a kilometer below us.
Both methods for reaching the top of Table Mountain are memorable and exciting. But whichever you choose, I want to make clear some safety concerns.
There has been a growing number of incidents at this popular tourist destination of individuals being mugged for their valuable belongings. Oftentimes, these involve knives and violent attacks; hikers have been hurt – even during the day. This is tragic and upsetting, particularly because Table Mountain is such a beautiful park to visit; anyone should feel safe hiking her trails.
Signs are posted to travel with others. Even if you are an experienced hiker, you should never hike the area alone. Unlike usual precautions that urge activities with others, this isn’t in case you fall and hurt yourself. This is to keep yourself from being targeted. Thieves are more likely to approach individuals than groups. Just having a friend with you could save your life.
We felt pretty safe when we hiked the gorge trail; here were many other hikers around. However, there was one moment when a group of younger men seemed to be looking a bit too intently at our cameras. Needless to say, we moved on quickly.
Which brings up another good point: travel only with what you need. We know now that we brought far too much camera gear with us that day. And we probably should have kept it hidden more than we did. We fortunately didn’t run into any problems in the park, but our bags were stolen later that day out of our car. While having the gear on us didn’t necessarily make us targets at Table Mountain, we wouldn’t have had as much to lose had we left more back at our lodging.
The cableway area is heavily trafficked, and there was a decent security presence there. We were surrounded by lots of visitors at all times, so we never felt unsafe. Regardless, we brought only absolute minimal gear on our second visit.
If something does happen, don’t resist. No inanimate object is worth getting hurt over. But don’t let unfortunate incidents dissuade you from visiting this beautiful city or keep you from experiencing the magic of this “new wonder of nature.”
If I had to choose the hike or the cableway, I’m not sure which would prevail! Honestly, I enjoyed both experiences for different reasons. I would have liked to actually get to the top with the hike, but it wasn’t in the cards for us. Would we have enjoyed it more on a clear day?
Even with the clouds, the cableway was magical. The blanket cleared enough for us to see the views, and the presence of clouds actually improved the scenery. The ascent was more dramatic than the descent, but both were memorable.
If you’re an avid hiker, grab some friends and take to the gorge. If you want to see the views without the sweat, check out the cableway. If we had it to do over, I think we would ride the cableway up and then hike down to get the best of both worlds.
Which mode would you choose?
Disclaimer: Tickets to ride the cableway to the top of Table Mountain were provided to us free of charge by Cape Town Tourism. We thank them as this enabled us to experience this beautiful site in a unique way, but as always, our experiences and opinions of the service are entirely our own.
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