Climbing an icon: Table Mountain

Ain’t no mountain high enough. Not even the 1,085 meter steep and rocky ascent above sea level of Cape Town’s iconically flat-topped Table Mountain. Not even when the cable cars were out of action, meaning the only way up or down were my own two feet. Eye of the Tiger, who run the world?

I don’t know why I was so definite about hiking this mountain. Following the most popular route, it’s about a 2 hour climb to the top (or a 5 hour one if you ask the locals…by the way guys, you were wrong). The ‘stairs’ are steep and more like random bits of rock wedged into the earth, except for where they didn’t exist at all.

It wasn’t that it’s one of the oldest mountains in the world. Yep, at over 260 million years of age, it’s the Grandaddy even of the likes of the Andes, the Alps, the Rocky Mountains and the Himalayas. It wasn’t that 3 years ago, in 2012, it was inducted as one of the world’s ‘New7Wonders of Nature’. It wasn’t the unique and vast variety of plants and animals living on it, like the Table Mountain Ghost Frog which can’t be found anywhere else in the world. It wasn’t even the fact that it’s the only land structure in the world to have a constellation named after (no for real, thanks to French astronomer Nicolas Louis de Lecaille in 1754. Google ‘Mensa’). All I can say is that it felt metaphorical.

On my second full day in Cape Town I woke up to a beautifully sunny Saturday. The ‘plan’ was to meet friends at the weekly Neighbourgood Markets in the Old Biscuit Mill, fill our bellies with the offerings of fresh food from all over the world, buy all the designer clothes, jewellery and knick knacks, then two of us would casually make our way to the base of Table Mountain, all before lunch time.

We didn’t get to the mountain until 2pm. The cute and beautiful handicrafts mixed with delectable food smells cast a spell that made us forget the time. Add in the warmth of the sun and the cheap alcoholic offerings (not that I drank any, I had a mountain to climb, but you know, just the fact that I COULD) and it’s very easy to forget time even exists.

Late, but ready to climb nonetheless, we made it. Craning my neck to see the top, I ran through the climbing guidelines I had read:

1. Take a professional guide.

Ridiculous, locals and tourists climbed up alone all the time.

2. Take plenty of food and water.

Well I had water at least, and I was extremely full. That’s almost the same thing.

3. Bring plenty of warm layers.

But it was so hot! I had a jumper in my backpack, that would do.

4. Be off the mountain before dark, muggings weren’t uncommon.

Ummm…it’s still a possibility. Ok probably not. I’d just have to put on my city-bitch face and hope for the best.

If I was starting to doubt my wisdom, standing before a giant mountain like Frodo before Mordor, the unexpected cry of my fellow countrymen from way above brought me back.

“Cooee”

There were Aussies on this mountain, time to climb.

The next two hours were a lot like hell with a better view. My legs were on fire. My arse was on fire. My backpack was a sweat-drenched disaster. I had convinced a newly made hostel friend to come with me, and now she was cursing my name. But with every step I only became more determined to finish.

Without the cable cars to take them back down as most hikers usually did, plenty of people had resorted to scrambling their way back down on foot. It was like we had all joined some club whose teammates heralded from all over the world. Not a single soul passed by without at least a sympathetic smile. There were probably t-shirts waiting at the bottom proclaiming ‘We hiked Table Mountain, hear us roar’.

The only downfall to all this camaraderie was that, more often than not, those returning from the top were clearly feeling rather cocky. There was a tendency to add commentary to our progress. Now don’t get me wrong, I love an encouraging verbal thumbs up as much as the next person, but the problem with humanity, I discovered atop this mountain, is that we’re really shit at judging time but we haven’t realised it yet.

If I had 5 cents for every time we were told we had ‘about 45 minutes to go’, I’d be a rich woman. At the bottom, this statement is encouraging. At the middle, it’s become less so because surely you’d be closer by now. Yet, another 45 minutes from here wasn’t too bad. At what, by all accounts of passersby, should have been the top 45 minutes ago, you have to fight really hard not to punch the speaker square in the face.

But at least, with each incredibly inaccurate time prediction, you can sneak it a quick breather, during which you realise what an incredible view of the city below this mountain holds. That is, until we hit the tablecloth.

The view from Table Mountain

‘The tablecloth’ is the oh-so-adorable nickname that has been given to the heavy mist often covering the top of Table Mountain. Get it? For the record, mist is not like a cloud. It doesn’t magically become see-through once you’re in it. It stays a solid white, view-blocking mass. Only the rocks beneath your feet, the deep, melodic croaking of frogs and the ominous caw of ravens to either side keep you orientated. However, mist is like a cloud in one aspect: it holds water.

Suddenly, this hike turned into an enchanted mission. Only I and my trusty sidekick (yes Kat, I made you the sidekick) could fight our way to the top of this cursed mountain and restore peace to the land below. Any moment a troll would pop out and make us answer three riddles to continue on. To be honest, I was loving it.

Nevermore - Table Mountain

Then there was music. Exactly the type of pipe tune you would expect from a group of wood elves. Lookout, I’ve gone bat-shit. Bat-shit on a mountain that is perpetually 45 minutes from ending. Oh wait, never mind, it was just a busker.

I’m not sure if my friend was aware of my internal struggle with sanity. The breath we had for talking jumped ship about 45 minutes earlier. But she was definitely aware when I finally saw the top. The kind and invitingly flat top. The freezing, wet and incredibly misty top.

“Walk around the other side,” we were assured by a returning couple, “You’ll actually be able to see.”

When we reached the other side I was very much prepared to pursue an individual sport. There was no Cape Town, there was only more white. We had just climbed near vertically for 2 hours, and we couldn’t see more than a few meters in any direction. In the mists’ defence however, it held its own, almost ethereal beauty. It was the kind of silent and mystical scene Tolkien would describe to you over four pages. And regardless of the view, we had made it to the top. Now we just had to make it back down.

Table Mountain

I was wrong: the way up was just a really intense workout. The way down, with its mist-wet rocks that had become treacherously slippery, and the very real possibility of a head-first tumble, was a mentally exhausting hell of 3 hour proportions.

At least it was for us. Other hikers, who I will presume locals for the sake of my dignity…except for the group of Germans, and possibly some English, oh yeah and a couple of Canadians…were whizzing passed us like it ain’t no thing. I hated them.

A lifetime of slow and unsteady later, I saw it. That beautiful black tar road of steady flat ground where we could finally sit down. I was hit with a burst of energy. No-one could overtake me now!

Then I stacked it. Hard. The grazed-butt-and-palms-after-sliding-down-a-couple-of-steps-before-digging-my-feet-in-to-stop type stack. I want a new slogan on my t-shirt: ‘I fell down Table Mountain’.


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