Article by Colin Jeftha, an Australian runner returning to South Africa for a vacation
Near the foot of Africa, in the heart of Cape Town, is the imposing sight of Table Mountain. From anywhere in the metropolitan, you immediately know your bearings from the sight of the mountain. Thousands of years ago, what is now the 'Cape Flats' would have been a strait between the 'island' of the mountain and the rest of Africa.
No where in the world do you have a mountain range so close to a major city ( the SA Parliament House is in Cape Town), and where you can run from the city up and over a 1000m high mountain.
The Three Peaks Challenge each November sees runners going from Greenmarket Square in the city up to the top and back of each of Devil's Peak, Table Mountain and Lion's Head.
The first ascent by a settler was by Antonio de Saldanha who climbed up the most direct route, Platteklip Gorge in 1503, in order to get his bearings.
Cape Town has a vibrant running community, across all cultures, very supportive of the structured club scene and organised races. Most weeks see at least one race (e.g. in the week of 21st to 27th Jan there were a 15km on the Saturday, 21km on the Sunday and a 10km on the Wednesday) and all are well supported. This is in addition to at least six time trials held throughout the week by various clubs.
The most famous race is the Two Oceans (Ultra) Marathon, 56km along the flat seaboard of the Indian Ocean (False Bay) coming back via the scenic ocean drive of Chapmans Peak along the Atlantic before crossing the mountain range back to finish at University of Cape Town via Constantia Nek. The TOM has been voted the best race in SA for the last five years, and runners say that the turnout at the first race of the season (3000 at the Bay to Bay 30km 14 Jan) is an indication of a very good year for Two Oceans.
As kids we often hiked up one of the many trails to get to the top of Table Mountain at 1067m, once wagging school to do so - we used to call it 'nature studies'.
Being back in Cape Town recently offered us the opportunity to inflict this pleasure and pain upon our kids, and we did a family hike up the mountain on Monday 2nd Jan, led by my eldest brother whose memories of the trails are more recent than mine. We had the knowledge and comfort of knowing we will have lunch at the restaurant on top, followed by a scenic trip down the revolving cable car. The luxuries I won't have on my solo venture, something I didn't want to leave Cape Town without doing.
Saturday the 7th Jan arrived and it was another late rise after a heavy night. Good news is that Cape Town has cloud cover which means a late start is ok. Although the top of the mountain can be seen, with a fairly stiff South Easterly 'Cape Doctor' ( which hasn't let up in two weeks), there are some darker clouds to the south which may blow over.
Starting at the car park at the Kloof Nek five way junction (city bowl, cable car, lions Head/Signal Hill, the 'Glen'/Clifton and Camps Bay), at around 250m I had a 2 L 'camelbak', extra bottle, 600ml frozen powerade, banana, lollies and energy bar. Oh yes, the camera, mobile phone and some money just in case I needed that cable car! Also,although its not obviously necessary, I clip the splash jacket on to the camelbak strap.
The trail follows the 'pipe track', so called because of the water pipes from the dams on top of the mountain, along the western slopes above Camps Bay. Two weeks earlier, on Christmas eve a fire devastated the vegetation here, jumping over the road and destroying a historic residence. Evidence of this included one missing bridge which had to be crossed walking over the pipe holding on to the bridge railing. They say the fynbos needs 20 year cycles of re-growth, but lately fires have been as frequent as 4 to 8 years.
This contour goes up and down over gullies and after exactly 3km, having passed alternative routes up, I reached the 'Kasteelspoort' turnoff at 300m. Good round numbers. Just on 19min, not so round. Having gone in southerly direction until now, the trail goes up in a south-earterly direction. No, it goes up-is there a compass direction for that?
Kasteelspoort (Castle's entry?) ravine was the location and entrance used for building the dams on the plateau at about 750m, where most routes converge, and the anchors for the cables which pulled up the cable cars are still visible at the top.
It climbs 280m in the first 800m up the western slope to a flat rock, know as Breakfast Rock, where the trail goes east into the ravine proper. You can easily talk to yourself here as any shout echoes off the opposing face of the ravine. Maybe its like being at home with the missus.
As the wind rushes through the gap, there is the clear (or not so clear now) sight that the clouds have indeed come from the south. As opposed to the heat of last Monday, there is quite a difference in the temperature. This changing weather has brought many a casual hiker undone. If you don't know the route very, very well you are going to get lost because there are many places ahead where there are three or four way forks. A good place to turn around is now. Having, in clear sunlight, deliberated at some of these on the Monday, and chosen the correct routes with my brother's invaluable direction, I had a clear memory of all of these.
On through the ravine I climb and reach a beacon on the 'plateau' (as such) where the paths from Contantia, Kirstenbosch Gardens and another converge. The beacon agrees with the Garmin that I am now at 730m (Garmin 729m and 4.5km, 42min- a further 150m rise in 700m). Damn, these beacons are accurate!
Here it was obvious that a decision had to be made to go up or down. Clouds/mist were now down to about 20 or so metres above me and swirling. I met another couple here who were on their way down to Constantia Nek (where the Two Oceans race crosses from Atlantic to Indian). A photo and a chat later I was off pushing further up. Mobile phone reception was good, and a few caves may have to do for an overnight if necessary.
Here the route goes north/north east back towards the direction of where the cable station is. Up into the clouds the visibility is now down to about 30m with just the trail and not much else in front. At each fork I clearly make sure I know which way back (just in case) and note where the caves are. The memory from Monday is very good The travel here is up and down through gullies, rising and falling 50m at a time, and I finally reach the magical 1000m at about 6.3km and 1hr 9min. Here, where some of the rock ascents are very steep are a series of ladders, and as one gets closer to the top and a bit flatter are paths laid out with treated pine logs. It is also now fairly wet with the swirling mist, but I am still hot enough.
Almost suddenly into view comes the beacon at the top of Platteklip Gorge. This will be the way down after a visit to the cable station about 800m away on the top. I meet a British backpacker in soccer shorts, who has climbed up this way and been to the top and now going down and get him to take a photo of me. I must send a note to the Table Mountain authorities as the beacon here doesn't agree with my Garmin (1010 vs my 1042).
Here there is also the opportunity to go up to Maclear's Beacon ( the highest point of the mountain), but I decide to visit the station first and then make that decision.
I run at good clip along the top of the table, as visitors desert the top and the restaurant is empty, the cable station is bringing up a lot less than going down. The wind is absolutely swirling and as the body had cooled down after vain attempts to track down a shopping wife I put on my splash jacket-the clip now proving some obstacle with numbing fingers. My thoughts were, "they are not even ringing me to find out how I am". Showing how deceptive it can be, the view from the bottom gave no indication of conditions on top.
Back to Platteklip (flat stone), which is the most direct route and approximately 600m in about 2km. Here I leave Maclear's Beacon for some other day, best not to tempt fate on your own. We have had some absolutely suicidal runs down here in younger days, hitting the bottom once in 18min. The guide to the 'PUFFER' race says of this descent; "TAKE EXTREME CAUTION. At least 30% of the field will twist one, two or more ankles here! Do NOT run, WALK slowly, carefully and gently. You are too tired by now to take any risks! If the rocks are moist, the danger is multiplied many times over. THIS IS A DANGEROUS PART OF THE ROUTE".
With wet, slippery rocks I had to be a lot more circumspect, but still made it down in about 24min getting to the bitumen of 'Tafelberg Road', 10.4km in about 1hr 50min.
Another 3km and 80m descent to the car from here. Never been so eager to do a 3km after a long run and was looking forward to being in safe territory, as I cover the last 3km in 4:21, 3:56 and 3:32, for a total time of about 2:02 for the 13.7km.
This is something I've always wanted to do on my own, and if I never do a run like this again, it will do for me.
- Cape Town
- Table Mountain Cable Way Company
- Table Mountain Hike Routes
- Table Mountain National Park
- Antonio de Saldanha
- Two Oceans Marathon
- SA running calendar