Where to go and what to see when you're in the Cape

Oct 11

The most famous landmark in South Africa has to be Table Mountain.This flat-topped icon with its ‘table cloth’ of snowy white cloud is the first thing you see as you leave Cape Town International Airport and head towards the Mother City.From everywhere in the city, and beyond, Table Mountain dominates the horizon.

In 1503 António de Saldanha was the first European to land in Table Bay and the first to climb this mighty mountain. He named it Montanha da Mesa in Portuguese or 'Table Mountain'. The great cross that the Portuguese navigator carved into the rock of Lion's Head is still traceable

The seemingly endless stream of drifting white cloud over the mountain is formed when a warm south-easterly wind is directed up the mountain's slopes into colder air, where the moisture condenses to form the "table cloth". Legend attributes this phenomenon to a smoking contest between the Devil and a local pirate called Van Hunks.When the table cloth is seen, it symbolizes the contest.

The top of Table Mountain is a level plateau approximately three kilometres from side to side, with plunging cliffs of sheer rock on all sides. The plateau is flanked by Devil's Peak to the east and by Lion’s Head to the west and forms a dramatic backdrop to Cape Town and Table Bay harbour.Together with Signal Hill these three mountains form the natural amphitheatre of the City Bowl.

The highest point on Table Mountain is towards the eastern end of the plateau and is marked by Maclear's Beacon, a stone cairn built in 1865 by Sir Thomas Maclear for a trigonometrical survey. It is 1,086 metres (3,563 ft) above sea level and about 19 metres (62 ft) higher than the cable station at the western end of the plateau.

The Table Mountain Aerial Cableway Company was first opened in 1929 and today takes some 600 000 visitors annually up or down the mountain in its two cable cars. Each cable car takes some 65 passengers to the top of the mountain or down again every15 minutes. Recently upgraded in 1997, the new cars, or Rotairs, have revolving floors that give passengers a spectacular 360-degree view over Cape Town, Table Bay, and the mountain itself as they ascend and descend.

On the summit there is a restaurant and a souvenir shop, from which letters bearing the Table Mountain postmark can be sent. Short walks from the cable station enable visitors to view a rich variety of fauna and flora, many species of which are endemic and survive only in the unique ecosystem of the mountain. There are approximately 1 470 species of plants, including over 250 different species of daisies! Examples of endemic plants are the rare Silver Tree and the wild orchid, Disa Uniflora.

The most common animal on the mountain is the Dassie, or rock hyrax. These little creatures look like plump rabbits without ears; incredibly, their closest living relative is the elephant! The Table Mountain Ghost Frog is an example of an amphibian found in no other place in the world.

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 1920s but are now extinct locally. Two smaller, secretive, nocturnal carnivores, the rooikat (caracall) 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.

For the athletic and energetic types, there are some 350 recognised paths to the summit, some undemanding and suitable for children, and others extremely difficult. It is strongly suggested that climbers wear suitable climbing boots, take a good supply of bottled water, sunscreen and hats in summer and waterproofs in winter.Some of the climbs are no picnic!

The cliffs of the main plateau are split by Platteklip Gorge (Flat Stone Gorge), which provides an easy and direct ascent to the summit and was the route taken by António de Saldanha.

In 1896 and 1907, five dams, the Woodhead, Hely-Hutchinson, De Villiers, Alexandria and Victoria reservoirs, were opened on the Back Table to supply Cape Town's water needs. A ropeway ascending from Camps Bay via Kasteelspoort ravine was used to ferry materials and manpower (the anchor points at the old top station can still be seen). There is a well-preserved steam locomotive from this period housed in the Waterworks Museum 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. Cape Town's water requirements have since far outpaced the capacity of the dams and they are no longer an important part of the water supply.

The mountain became part of the new Cape Peninsula National Park in the 1990s. The park was renamed to the Table Mountain National Park in 1998.

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