Inspired Travel: Hiking Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa

by  Blane Bachelor | Sep 6, 2013
Table Mountain, South Africa
Table Mountain, South Africa / sculpies/iStock

Table Mountain, the flat-topped monolith that soars over Cape Town, South Africa, is one of the coastal city’s most iconic landmarks. Named as one of the world’s new seven wonders of nature last year by the foundation New7Wonders, the gorgeous, cloud-swathed mountain is flanked by the surrounding peaks of Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak, and offers stunning views of the city and its beaches and harbor below.

It's not surprising, then, that exploring Table Mountain is a huge draw for both visitors and Capetonians themselves – a fit, outdoorsy bunch who relish the abundance of outdoor activities their city offers. One way to impress them? Ascend to the 3,280-foot peak on foot.

On a recent trip to South Africa, I did just that – and the experience was a shining highlight of my time in Cape Town. Here, a few tips I learned on the way up.

What to bring: First off, you’ll need to plan your excursion carefully. Cape Town’s weather is notoriously erratic; locals say you can experience all four seasons in a single day, so be sure to check forecasts and take advantage of any clear weather. (Even then, you may get rained on, as I did, despite starting out with sunny skies.)

Another important aspect of planning: pack a rain jacket or poncho, hat, plenty of water (there’s none on the trails), and even a pair of gloves, as temperatures are significantly lower at the top and plummet when the clouds roll in. Sturdy shoes are also essential: I was fine in sneakers, but light hiking shoes, especially after recent rains when the trail is damp, are ideal. Definitely don't attempt the excursion in flip-flops, as someone claimed to have done in some unfortunate graffiti on the underside of a rock along the route.

Where to go: There are several routes up the northern face of Table Mountain, including the popular Platteklip Gorge trail, which is one of the easier options and the one we took at the suggestion of our excellent guide, Brian Vandayar, from Jorvan Tours.

The trail head is about a 20-minute walk on the road from the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway (more on that later), but be sure to keep an eye out for cars around the curves. Once you see the marker for the trail, get ready to start climbing. The trail is well-maintained, but recent rainfall tends to creates several water-logged spots along the way, the first of which was a little tricky to maneuver and forced a family that had been hiking not far behind our group to turn back.

The trail switchbacks and zigzags up the gorge, alternating between sections of steep, stair step-stones and flatter sections that give your quads a much-needed break. (Brian casually mentioned how he used to run the very same route – both up and down – several times a month, which was both a testament to his fitness, and a humbling comparison to our slower slog up the mountain.)

What to do: The Platteklip Gorge trail takes between two and three hours, depending on how often you stop to gawk at the spectacular views. There’s also an incredible array of plant life, with more plant species per square kilometer than a tropical jungle. At higher sections where the trail winds alongside sheer cliffs stretching skyward, I found myself ignoring all the beautiful distractions and focusing more on proper footing and balance. (It's important to note that Table Mountain is dangerous to trek. Just several days before our hike, a local university student fell to his death along a difficult route in Newlands Forest.)

Two hours after we set off, we finally reached the peak, just as clouds and chilly winds descended on the plateau like a last hurrah of Old Man Winter. At the top, you can traverse the entire tabletop to Maclear’s Beacon, the highest point on the mountain, which takes about 45 minutes from the upper cable car station. But we were more than satisfied with our accomplishment as such and headed to the cable car for a merciful, pain-free trip down (you can only buy one-way cable car tickets down from the top; they cost 105 rand, about $10). Keep in mind, however, that the cable car can close at any time due to weather, so always allow for enough time to hike back down if necessary.

Those who really want sore quads the next day can hike back down, and for the seriously adventurous, there are also outfitters who offer abseiling: rappelling off the mountain from about 3,000 feet above sea level. Facing knee surgery in a few weeks, I figured this wouldn't be a wise option for me. But it sure is a great excuse to come back.

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