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Table Mountain (Afrikaans Tafelberg) is a flat-topped mountain in the Western Cape, South Africa that overlooks Cape Town. The main face is approximately three kilometres from side to side. The shape of the rear of the mountain is much more complex than one might imagine when looking at it from the front.
The view shown in the photograph to the right is from the city of Cape Town, looking roughly south-south-west. The main face of Table Mountain is flanked on the left (east) by the triangular Devil's Peak (1,000 m) and on the right (north) by the rounded Lion's Head (669 m) and Signal Hill. (None of these can be see in the photo). Table Mountain is the northern end of a range of mountains that stretches south down the entire length of the Cape Peninsula and ends in a sheer drop into the ocean at Cape Point. The mountain top is often covered by cloud, which forms the famous "table cloth."
The mountain's highest point at Maclear's Beacon is 1,086 m (3,563 ft) above sea level. This point is named for a stone cairn (beacon) built there in 1865 by Sir Thomas Maclear for trigonometrical survey. Maclear's Beacon is not a peak, being merely the highest point of the plateau at the summit and is only 19 metres above the cable car station at 1067 m. Most of the major features of the mountain are named. For example, the cliff immediately below the cable car station at the right is called Arrow Buttress and the area at the extreme left of the main cliff is called "Ledges". About a third of the way along from Arrow Buttress is a deep and partially hidden ravine called Platteklip (lit. "Flat stone") Gorge. This provides an easy ascent to the summit plateau and was the route taken by Antonio de Saldanha on the first recorded ascent of the mountain (see History). A famous and dangerous feature is Carrell's ledge, which winds it narrow way across the face of a vast and sheer drop on a large cliff to the south of Devil's Peak. At one point the ledge is less than 200 mm wide but the drop below is hundreds of metres.
Table Mountain is in the unique position of being the only terrestrial feature to give its name to a constellation — Mensa, meaning The Table. The constellation is seen right-side up in the Southern Hemisphere, below Orion, around midnight in mid-July. It was named by the French astronomer Nicolas de Lacaille during his stay at the Cape in the mid eighteenth century.
The cable car
The Table Mountain Cableway at the western end of the plateau takes visitors to the top of the mountain. It is a popular tourist attraction. Apart from spectacular views, there is a restaurant, curio shops and clearly marked walking trails for visitors at the top of Table Mountain. The upper cable car station is visible at the top right of the image. The cable car system operates only in good weather as gale-force winds can make it dangerous.
The cable car was opened on 4 October 1929. An improved cable car reopened on 4 October 1997, with the capacity increased from 25 to 65 persons. The new cable car is circular, and rotates as it travels, to give good views to all.
Hiking, climbing and other activities on the mountain
There are many routes that may be followed, ranging from easy to difficult. The descriptions below should not be seen as a substitute for a good guide book or an experienced hike leader with local knowledge. Commercial guides are available. A number of excellent hiking maps and guide books for Table Mountain are available from most bookshops in Cape Town.
Table Mountain's popularity and proximity to the city means that dozens of incautious hikers and climbers have come to grief on the mountain over the years, although the mountain is not particularly dangerous by mountaineering standards. The changeable weather is the most significant risk and hikers should always carry warm, waterproof clothing as well as additional food and water. Unfortunately in recent years muggers have operated in some of the lower reaches of the mountain, although the city is working hard to prevent this. Other basic safety rules include not hiking alone, sticking to known paths, allowing enough time to descend well before darkness, and always letting someone know where you are going and when you will return.
There are a number of level paths on the lower reaches of the mountain, including the Pipe Track overlooking Camps Bay, Tafelberg Road, the slopes of Devil's Peak above Rhodes Memorial, Newlands Forest, Kirstenbosch, Cecilia Forest and Constantia Nek. A contour path runs all the way from Constantia Nek to the lower cable station, and can be reached at various points, sometimes via a steep climb. Routes on the Southern Suburbs side tend to be forested while the city and Atlantic sides are more open. Leaving from the upper cable station are a number of well-marked trails ranging up to about two hours in length.
The most popular route for hikers wanting to reach the top of Table Mountain is via Platteklip Gorge, which leaves from Tafelberg Road a few hundred metres past the cable station. This is a straightforward hike up a well-marked route, but is strenuous as it consists of an unrelenting ascent of over 600m.
Other routes to the summit
Because of the steep cliffs around the summit, other direct ascents from the city side are not recommended except by those familiar with the route. Longer routes to the summit go via the Back Table, a lower area of Table Mountain South of the main plateau. There are paths to the Back Table from both the Atlantic and Southern Suburbs sides. Once on the Back Table, a number of paths make a gradual ascent to the summit.
Kasteelspoort is a popular ascent to the Back Table on the Atlantic side, overlooking Camps Bay. At a number of points you can see evidence of the first cableway used in the construction of the dams on Table Mountain.
The Jeep Track
The Jeep Track (also known as the Bridle Path) leaves from Constantia Nek and is the easiest ascent to the Back Table, following a gravel road up to the dams. However, it reaches the Back Table a long way from the main plateau, so is only recommended as a route to the summit if you have a lot of time available. The Jeep Track used to go through gum and pine plantations, but most of these have now been felled to allow the fynbos and indigenous forest to return.
Nursery Ravine is a fairly steep ascent to the Back Table starting from Kirstenbosch. The first two thirds of the ascent are through indigenous forest. The path can be slippery in winter. Nursery Ravine is named after a historic nursery planted at the top of the ravine, where some unusual alien trees including a redwood can be seen.
Skeleton Gorge is a forested ascent starting from Kirstenbosch a few hundred metres to the North of Nursery Ravine. It is a very pleasant and popular route, but includes a number of ladders and scrambles over boulders which make it a little difficult, and is not recommended for hikers with dogs. It is particularly slippery in winter and one upper section is dangerous after heavy rain. The ascent via Skeleton Gorge to the summit at Maclears Beacon is known as Smuts Track, after Jan Smuts, former Prime Minister of South Africa, who was a keen hiker and loved this route.
Rock climbing on Table Mountain is a very popular pastime. There are hundreds of well-documented climbing routes up the many faces of the mountain. These vary from fairly easy to exceedingly difficult. Only traditional climbing is allowed on Table Mountain; no bolting can be done. There are a few bolted Abseil anchors. Commercial groups offer abseiling from the upper Cable Station.
Most of the world's important caves occur in limestone but Table Mountain is famous amongst spelaeologists for having several large cave systems that have formed in pure sandstone. However, most of these caves are not well known outside of caving circles. The biggest systems are located on the Back Table, not far from the Jeep Track in ridges that overlook Orange Ravine and Hout Bay. These are often referred to as the Wynberg caves.
The upper part of the mountain consists of Ordovician quartzitic sandstone. The rock is very commonly referred to as the Table Mountain Sandstone or TMS but this is no longer a formal geological name. The sandstone is highly resistant to erosion and forms the steep grey crags that are so characteristic. Below the sandstone is a layer of micaceous basal shale, which weathers quite readily and is therefore not readily visible. Between the basal shale and the basement rocks below there is a famous unconformity. The basement consists of heavily folded and altered late precambrian Malmesbury shale, which has been intruded by the Cape Granite. There is some evidence for the suggestion that the Cape Granite was formed by the melting of some of the Malmesbury rocks at great depth in the crust during a collision of tectonic plates. The basement rocks are not nearly as resistant to weathering as the TMS but significant outcrops of the Cape Granite are clearly visible on the western side of Lion's Head. (This same granite also forms the famous Paarl Rock at Paarl to the north).
Plants and animals
The main vegetation of the mountain is the unique and rich Cape fynbos. An estimated 1,470 species of plants are found on the mountain and amongst them are many kinds of world-famous proteas. Remnant patches of ancient rain forest persist in a few of the wetter ravines but not on the famous face above the city, because conditions there are too dry and harsh. The mountain has also suffered serious invasions of alien plants for well over a century, with perhaps the worst invader being the cluster pine. Considerable efforts have been made to eliminate these alien plants.
The most common animal on the mountain is the dassie, or rock hyrax, an animal like a rabbit-sized brown guinea pig. They especially cluster around the upper cable station, near the sources of junk food. There are also porcupines, mongooses, snakes and tortoises. The last lion in the area was shot circa 1802. Leopards persisted on the mountain until perhaps the 1920's but are now extinct locally. Two smaller, secretive, nocturnal carnivores, the rooikat (caracal) and the vaalboskat (also called the vaalkat or African Wild Cat) were once common on the mountain. The rooikat continues to be seen on rare occasions by mountaineers but the status of the vaalboskat is uncertain.
Himalayan tahrs, fugitive descendants of tahrs that escaped from Groote Schuur zoo in 1936, used to be common on the less accessible upper parts of the mountain. As an exotic species, they are being eradicated through a culling programme initiated by the South Africa National Parks, to make way for the reintroduction of indigenous klipspringers. Until recently there were also small numbers of fallow deer of European origin and sambar deer from southeast Asia. These were mainly in the Rhodes Memorial area but during the 1960's they could be found as far afield as Signal Hill. The animals may by now have been eliminated or relocated.
The first person documented to climb the mountain was Antonio de Saldanha in 1503.
Several dams, including the Woodhead, Hely-Hutchinson and De Villiers reservoirs, were built on top of the mountain to supply Cape Town in the 1800s and a cable car descending to Camps Bay via a ravine known as Kasteelspoort was constructed to ferry materials and manpower. The cable lift was removed long ago but the anchor points at the old top station can still be seen. In the sixties there was also a well-preserved steam locomotive housed in a small shed at the top of the mountain near the Hely-Hutchinson dam. It had been used to haul materials for the dam across the flat top of the mountain. The rails were removed many years ago but some walking paths still follow the lines of the old railway tracks. Cape Town's water requirements have since far outpaced the capacity of these small dams, so they are no longer an important part of the water supply.
The sport of rock climbing came to Table Mountain late in the 19th Century. The earliest recorded climbs (1894) were led by J. Searle and from 1895 onwards the name of G.F. Travers-Jackson featured prominently (MCSA, 1952). An interesting feature of these early years was that a few of the climbers were female. For example, the party that pioneered the difficult route known as Porcupine Buttress in 1914 included Mrs. F. Humphries (ibid). This was at least forty years before women in general came to participate in the sport world-wide.
The mountain has enjoyed some degree of protection from urban expansion and other abuses since the earliest days of the 20th century and has been a national park since 1998.
Mountain Club of South Africa (MCSA) 1952. Climbs on Table Mountain. 54pp
- Signal Hill
- Lion's Head
- Devil's Peak
- Cape Town
- Table Mountain National Park
- Disa Park
- 2006 Table Mountain fire
- Table Mountain Aerial Cableway Company
- Table mountain national park
- Nature South Africa Includes links to maps and hikesaf:Tafelberg