Friday, October 7, 2011

South Africa Day 5: Climbing Table Mountain

Blog Entry #26: South Africa Day 5: Table Mountain

Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Table Mountain & Downtown Capetown at Sunrise

After efforts to visit a former Montana student of mine working in the Khayelitsha township fell through, Pat and I decided to take advantage of another beautiful sunny spring day to climb the local icon, Table Mountain. 

We took a taxi to the base of the cable car, and then walked a km or so east to the Platteklip trail, the traditional and original route up Table Mountain, first climbed by Europeans in 1503 when the Portuguese navigator António de Saldanha landed in Table Bay and named the mountain Taboa do Cabo (Table of the Cape).  The trail follows a large split in the rocks that follows all the way to the top, passing through what from below looks like an impassible layer of the Table Mountain sandstone cap.
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Along the way we passed through the endangered Peninsula Sandstone Fynbos, with many flowers in bloom – some we had seen previously at Volmoed, but also several new varieties. 

I was delighted to have a chance to hike the entire geologic column of the area, from the Cambrian or Precambrian Cape Granite at the base that intrudes the softer Malmsbury shale above (roughly 500 million years old).  

Sign at top of Table Mountain explaining the geology

Above this and forming the impressive cliffs all around Table Mountain is the Table Mountain Sandstone, of Ordovician age (roughly 450 million years) – beautiful, clean and white slightly metamorphosed quartz sandstone.  Prominent crossbedding is still evident, as are several pebble-strewn conglomerate layers with quartz pebbles.

This sign shows the amount of erosion that has occurred in the past 260 million years to expose Table Mountain today
Table Mountain apparently is the remnant of a major mountain-building period about 240 million years ago, as the Atlantic Ocean closed and Africa collided with the South American and Antarctic Continents.  This diagram from the top of the mountain gives a nice explanation of the history – what we experience as the top of the mountain 200 million years ago was the buried roots!

View East from Table Mountain Summit over the University of Capetown (foreground)
and the black townships in the distance
Devil's Peak from Plattklip Gorge
Views from the top of course were stunning, even with a somewhat hazy day.  We would see south to Cape Point where we had been the previous day, and across False Bay to far-off Hangklip Point.  We could also see the extensive black townships of Khayelitsha and Mitchell Plain; largely hidden from the main highway system, they remain a challenging part of the legacy of apartheid to overcome.

Capetown & Table Bay from summit of Table Mountain with Robben Island in distance
Wetlands on top of Table Mountain
Visitors to Maclear's Beacon
Pat and I spent a fair amount of time wandering the moonscape top of Table Mountain, and walking over to Maclear’s Beacon, the highest point on the mountain on its eastern edge.  We were struck to find wetlands on the very top, with frogs croaking no less!  Water pools in the sandstone and forms delicate wetlands complete with horsegrass and amphibians.  The area is also prone to “veld fires”, the last one occurring in 2006 and scorching much of the top of the mountain.

Equally moving were the groups of Black Africans who now ride the cable car and walk across the top of Table Mountain – often in their church clothes and dress shoes, shouting Alleluia! as they go.  By 4 pm it was time for us to descend, and we decided to take the Cable Car, which rotates as you descend.  First built in 1929, it takes only a few minutes to go down, giving thrilling views across Capetown and the Bay.

Twelve Apostles ridge with yellow fynbos 

We had to scramble to get back to the ship for a quick supper, as we had tickets to a one-man show at the Baxter Theatre in Rondebosch that we had to get to by 8 pm.  We were going to see “Desperate First Ladies,” a hilarious political satire by gay activist and performer Pieter-Dirk Uys (  On the ship with us is Michael Williams, the Managing Director of the Capetown Opera ( and creator of a magnificent opera trilogy about Nelson Mandela, the Mandela Trilogy.  Michael had recommended we see “Desperate First Ladies” as it was both a brilliant performance and astute political commentary and satire on South Africa, past and present.  Pieter-Dirk Uys regularly got in trouble with the authorities during the apartheid era for satirizing the authorities, and he continues that tradition today into his seventies – though now without the worry of arrest and detention. 

It was a fascinating evening that exposed us to many aspects of the enduring legacy of apartheid: the Metrorail ride to Rondebosch where we were the only white faces on the train, as Capetown’s coloured and black working populations commuted home from work downtown, sitting in a theatre of over 500 nearly-all white faces with a sprinkling of black, watching a white comedian satirize every racial group, and then being driven back to the harbor by a black taxi driver.  We have been acutely aware of our own race as we negotiate the complexities of post-apartheid South Africa.

1 comment:

  1. What amazing views from the mountaintop! (in more ways than one...)