My first day in Cape Town the winds were too high for the cableway to run, which meant that conditions probably wouldn't be particularly good on the mountain. I wanted to ride the cableway anyhow, so I decided to wait until the next day, Saturday. Besides, I was still very jet-lagged from flying in from Singapore.
Saturday morning was bright and clear down in town but that was no guarantee of weather on the mountain. I checked and found that the cableway was running, so I took off as fast as I could for the lower station. Table Mountain is part of Cape Peninsula National Park, and volunteers give walks at 10AM and noon. If I moved fast I'd make it up to the top by noon.
As it turned out, while the line was long, which meant that I didn't get to the mountain until ten after, I was able to catch the walk fairly close to the beginning. Eric, our volunteer, was a retired mechanical engineer whose knowledge of the mountain was extensive. He talked about the problems with invasive species from other continents and how the Park Service was working to protect the native plants and animals, many of which exist nowhere else, pointing them out as we saw them. "People," he said, "are the biggest problem we have here," as he showed us some rocks that souvenir hunters had taken chunks from to take home or to sell. "But they're also why this park is here, so people can enjoy it, so there's a dichotomy there." He pointed at a red broken-off piece of rock. "It'll take fifty years for the lichens to grow back over these."
"You're all very lucky with the weather today," he observed. "You get clear, sunny, and most of all, calm, days like this maybe five days a year." And it was true. It was maybe 70 degrees F, with occasional light breezes. "It's usually blowing up to 60 kilometers an hour up here."
He also pointed out the Sealand Express, an American cargo ship, which had managed to get itself beached in Milnerton, one of the northern suburbs. "They told the captain he was dragging his anchor, but it happened anyway." We could see the tugboats trying to free the ship, but they didn't seem to be getting anywhere. "Apparently there's uranium aboard."
He conducted the tour in English, but effortlessly switched to German when an Austrian couple asked him if he could help take their picture. A couple of the Swedish guys along for the walk asked him if anyone died on the mountain. "We lose a couple of people a year," he said. "The mountain is like the sea, you know? You have to be careful up here."
After an hour, which took us to Platteklip Gorge and back, the tour ended. "Tell all your friends to come here," he said. "We need people to come and understand why this place needs to be preserved." So I am.
Because the weather was so great, I decided I'd stay up on the mountain as long as I could. The last cablecar down was at six, and I was pretty sure that if I walked the loop trail to Maclear's Beacon, I could get back to the cableway by about four.
The farther you go away from the cableway, the less tame the trails become. At the beginning, they're concrete paths, edged with rocks, recently upgraded to be wheelchair accessable. Eric didn't like them as much as the older trails, rocky paths with concrete connecting blocks disguised by patterned surfaces, which made up the paths for the next sections.
Cross Platteklip Gorge, however, and things get even less manicured. The climb down to the gorge itself is fairly straightforward, and includes some stepped rocks with post and chain guides. And there are a number of boardwalked sections over some boggy parts on the way to Maclear's Beacon, the highest point on Table Mountain. But there are also some places on the Northern side of the loop where the edge of the trail is the edge of Table Mountain. At those points you can just follow the trail markings, a footprint.
I saw one woman in flip-flops early on, as I was going out on the Southern side of the loop, being carried by her boyfriend over a boggy section which hadn't been bridged. I wonder if they came back along the Northern side as I did.
Foot traffic had been fairly sparse along the way to the beacon so it was a surprise when I got to Maclear's Beacon and saw dozens of people lounging around taking a rest. I had seen numbered runners coming the other way. I found that a group called "The Pine Nuts" had set up a station where they were handing out drink and food to the runners and marking them down as they came past. I never did find out what the event was but it was amusing anyway. "Mad dogs and Englishmen," Eric had said, shaking his head, "are the only ones running on the mountain at midday like that," when he saw some of the runners during our walk.
Most of the people, though, were just hikers who had decided to stop and enjoy the view, or just lounge around and take a break. There were too many people around for me, so I started back. Besides, I really wanted to get back with a reasonable amount of time to spare.
The return hike was spectacular. As I said, there were sheer drop-offs from the trail. What made the view so stunning, however, was that at the bottom of the cliff was the city. The parkland surrounds the city in a U-shape, and you look down on Cape Town. It's a view I can only compare to that from Corcovado down onto Rio de Janeiro or the Peak down to Hong Kong.
When I got back I meandered back towards the upper cableway station and thus found myself almost stumbling into a dassie, or rock hyrax. These were extremely calm around humans, as you'd expect given that they were part of a major tourist attraction, with their own explanatory plaque.
They kept ducking through openings in the protective wall that kept humans from encroaching onto their basking rocks, and would look expectantly at the humans for food. The signs asking people not to feed them had however worked reasonably well. I didn't see anyone actually feeding them, but clearly hope springs eternal.
I kept to my side of the wall, looking over it at the hyraxes that were sunning themselves, trying to ignore the ones that had come over and through the wall and were now behind me. Other tourists were fawning over them and getting in each other's pictures.
After a while, I edged my way along the wall past where the abseilers were setting up, back towards the cableway. It was time to go back down.
On the way down I enjoyed the view even more than I did on the way up, because I was no longer in a hurry. The Swiss-built cableway cars have rotating floors, so everyone gets a chance at a good view. There was a nice breeze coming through the car, and I wished the ride could've gone on for longer.
One of these days maybe I'll do the hike up the mountain.