Table Mountain is a South African icon. This bizarrely flat plateau towers above the high-rises and hotels that jostle for space on the Cape Town skyline, is visible from every direction, and welcomes more than 1.5 million visitors every year.
I’ve always had the desire to stand at the top of Table Mountain, although I’ve never known exactly why. Its global reputation is probably a big part of it (especially as it’s now one of the world’s Seven Natural Wonders) – but then there’s also the element of height.
Getting high when you travel
I know what you’re thinking, but that’s not quite what I mean… It’s a common habit among travellers to find the highest point in any new city they arrive into, be it climbing a hill, riding a cable car or reaching the top of a castle tower.
Once at the top, you can see yourself inside a living map, and it’s easy to join the dots from where you’ve been to where you are and where you’re going next.
But it also gives me a sense of freedom and relief to be that far above things, yet still on solid ground. It feels like a way of physically and visually readjusting myself to that new place. At a particular height, it’s like I understand where I am.
This is pretty difficult to do, of course, when your time in that place is brief. I only spent a week in South Africa, and less than twenty four hours in Cape Town – nowhere near enough for such a cool city – but luckily I still managed to get an idea of what life is like here.
And that enormous mountain was right at the centre of it.
Arriving into Cape Town
My first sight of the infamous mountain was from the train tracks, as we pulled into Cape Town’s station after a luxurious 27 hours spent riding the Blue Train.
But I was worried to see the Table’s flat top covered in a large swathe of thick cloud, and almost immediately my fears were realised. Our guide from Illios Travel informed us that heading to the summit was postponed until the weather improved.
Like many other mountains, Table Mountain has its own micro-climate which means sudden changes in rain, wind and cloud at a moment’s notice. And because the operation of the cable car is weather-dependent, it can be a little bit stressful for tourists who have finite time to spend in Cape Town.
Of course, there’s more than one way to experience Table Mountain – if you’re hardcore enough.
To hike, climb or cable?
The most common route is via the Cableway, a five minute ride in a gondola that takes less than five minutes to arrive 1,089 metres above the city – and the floor even rotates a full 360 degrees to give as many views as possible to each of the 65 people inside.
Not the best if you’re afraid of heights… But at least it’s over quickly.
For those looking for a more sweat-inducing way of reaching the top, there’s also a number of hiking routes which visitors can take – from easily marked routes on stone steps, to clambering up wooden ladders and hanging onto chains.
I even met a few local Capetonians who make the one hour climb to Lion’s Head a regular part of their workout!
I was on a bit of a fitness kick during my time in South Africa and was actually keen to attempt the hike, but because our time in Cape Town was so short – and the weather so changeable – I boarded the cable car instead.
And once we reached the top, it really did feel like being in an entirely different world.
Standing at the gateway to Africa
There’s something undeniably magical about Table Mountain. It’s one of the oldest mountains on the planet, is home to over a thousand different species of flowers and plant life (a few of which are highly endemic to only this region) and a number of different animals, including porcupines, snakes, tortoises, lizards, and even the endemic Ghost Frog. Which I’m slightly sad I never got to see.
The most famous animal on the mountain, though, is the Rock Hydrax – known locally as a dassie. They’re closely related to the African elephant, a fact which immediately prompts a barrage of ‘no way is that possible!’ to every poor guide who gives out that titbit of info.
These guys look pretty adorable at first glance – although they do manage to switch into threatening mode alarmingly quickly.
The views from Table Mountain are incredible from every angle; Cape Town’s coastline stretching out for miles, the V&A Waterfront, Robben Island, and even the 12 Apostles mountain range.
Our guide showed us the topography of the mountain laid out on a map and then we headed off around the trails to check out part of the plateau’s landscape – and battling our way through the groups of tourists wielding selfie sticks as we went.
I even chanced upon a rockclimber, sorting out his ropes and waving gleefully at anyone snapping photos. The mountain caters for a lot of different activity sports, and abseiling back down to the base is a popular option.
Maybe if the cable car wasn’t so damn speedy…
A taste of South African wanderlust
When we’d ridden the cable car back down to Cape Town again, I felt a strong sense of how wild this part of South Africa felt. Ok, so there weren’t lions and leopards strolling around the streets, but there’s something to be said for a city with such a prominent natural entity sitting in its centre.
There’s an obvious freedom here, too: no doubt stemming from the ability the locals have to lose themselves on the mountain’s trails and paths for hours at a time if they want to.
Or nearby, at least.
And above all, Cape Town reminded me acutely of my beloved San Francisco. The layout and the scenery of these two cities is so similar.
Both sit on the edge of the water, with tourists wandering along the boardwalk in the sunshine. There’s a constant micro-climate-related uncertainty about the weather, which puts a kick of adrenaline into your day’s activities.
And there seem to always be rather spectacular sunsets as a result.
A bit in love with Table Mountain
Being able to see a main landmark wherever you go in a city is amazing. Whether you’re eating breakfast at your hotel or driving through Cape Town on your way to the winelands, Table Mountain is always there, even behind the high rises and the smart shiny office buildings.
In the same way that I get a flutter in my chest whenever I catch a glimpse of the Thames, or a bridge spanning its ancient width, I half-imagine the people living in Cape Town with an unconscious smile on their lips whenever they look up at Table Mountain.
In my view, the mountain is much more than just a tourist attraction. It’s a symbol, constantly reminding people of how fleeting their urban lifestyles really are – but also how easy it is to be connected to that sense of freedom and nature.
It’s just at the top of a mountain.
Have you climbed your way up Table Mountain yet? What other nature-loving cities have you travelled to?
NB: my time in Cape Town was kindly sponsored by the South African Tourist Board, Ethos Marketing and South African Airways – and I promise that no dassies were harmed in the writing of this article. Regardless of how angrily they might have glared at me.