Table Mountain - The Wild Heart of the City
View from Devil's Peak looking south to Cape Point
A winter storm was heading for Cape Town. First the clouds arrived, moving in steadily, covering Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak, before rolling over Table Mountain itself and enveloping the peninsula.
Then the wind picked up. The same relentless northwester which ships’ crews have loathed since the first Portuguese explorers rounded the Cape in the late 1400s. Table Bay frothed and foamed and container ships bobbed like tiny corks on the ocean swell. The rain fell hard on the sandstone, which has been eroding for 540 million years since the mountain’s geological beginnings. Finally, along with the plummeting temperatures, hail sliced through the icy air. Yet we were safe and warm and somehow felt protected.
‘Table Mountain has seen these storms before, I am sure,’ I remarked to my friend Murry McCallum, who was staying with me at the tented camp at Silvermine in the Table Mountain National Park (TMNP). This verdant valley of proteas lies on top of the mountain in the central part of the park and the storm seemed concentrated above our heads. We stoked the wooden fire in the cast-iron stove and the warmth ‑ owed through the room. A few glasses of sherry helped too. The Silvermine Tented Camp is one of several on the mountain that form part of the five-day Hoerikwaggo Trail, which runs 88 kilometres from the city to Cape Point. But the camps can also be rented just for a night. We had driven up in our car, something which is possible in this part of the park.
Silvermine Tented Camp
‘We’re sleeping on top of the mountain!’ we laughed as we clinked our glasses, feeling like brave adventurers, even though the wooden refuge was well-insulated from the storm outside and was fully equipped with gas stove, fridge, cutlery, pots and pans. The stylish architecture and wooden décor blended in with the mountain setting and was as comfortable as it was attractive. ‘It feels like we’re in the middle of nowhere,’ Murray chuckled, knowing that so-called civilisation was only a few minutes’ drive away.
The fire and cooking area at Silvermine Tented Camp
I was at the start of my year-long journey to 31 of South Africa’s most special nature reserves, including all 19 national parks. I wanted to photograph and document South Africa’s wilderness areas and spread the message of conservation. Table Mountain was the first park on my schedule.
Falling into the Cape Floral Region, a World Heritage Site, and as a conservation area surrounded by the city of Cape Town, TMNP is a symbol of the wild for millions of people. It wasn’t only me and Murray who felt protected by the presence of the mountain. It has provided shelter, nourishment and spiritual significance to plenty of people for thousands of years. Some of the first stone-age people made their home on the peninsula about 500,000 years ago, surely drawn to the landmark’s distinctive shape, just as modern tourists are. Then many years later, Khoisan people moved through, leaving shell middens and finding refuge in shelters such as Peers Cave in Fish Hoek where a 12,000-year-old human skull was found in 1929.
Relatively recently, European explorers on their ships came calling in the late 1400s, peering through their telescopes after months of scurvy-ridden ocean sailing, eagerly looking for the Tavern of the Seas and its fresh fruit, water and meat.
In the 1600s, Islamic slaves and political prisoners who were sent from the East to the Cape looked upon Table Mountain as the centre of their sacred circle – and their descendants still do. They believe everyone who lives within this area is protected from natural disasters, such as earthquakes, famines, plagues and (appropriately for Murray and me inside the tented camp) belligerent winter storms.
And the mountain continues to provide solace. Former president Nelson Mandela famously wrote after his release from prison on Robben Island that the mountain, ‘was a beacon of hope. It represented the mainland to which we knew we would one day return’.
Today it’s one of South Africa’s top tourist attractions – a beacon of fun as well as escape. If it wasn’t for Table Mountain, the history of Cape Town and perhaps South Africa wouldn’t be the same. And it all started because of the stuff that was now pouring down from the clouds onto our roof at Silvermine: water. Indeed, the perennial fresh water flowing down the streams meant the city of Cape Town developed at the base of the mountain. Without this constant supply, the city probably would have developed 100 kilometres further north, in the topographically‑ at Saldanha Bay. It has a far safer natural harbour than Cape Town’s Table Bay, but – crucially – it lacked a reliable source of drinking water.
The city’s water demand has long ago outgrown the mountain’s supply (it now gets its water from dams in the Hottentots-Holland mountains), but the preservation of the mountain’s eco-system is still the all-important factor for TMNP manager Paddy Gordon, whom I had met earlier in the week.
‘The mountain and the peninsula are the last parts of original, natural habitat left in the whole city,’ the former botanist told me. ‘It’s very important because there’s nothing natural left in the city below. Urban developers always want a bit more of the park’s land, but what they don’t realise is that Table Mountain is all that’s left.’
More than 2,250 fynbos plant species are found on the mountain’s 25,000 hectares of conserved land, which stretches about 70 kilometres from Signal Hill in the north to Cape Point in the south. Many of these species are found nowhere else in the world. In some instances, only three or four specimens of a particular plant remain.It’s also home to rare creatures such as the Table Mountain ghost frog, which lives in just a few streams, and the western leopard toad, existing only in the Noordhoek wetlands. Then there’s the Table Mountain pride butterfly, which exclusively pollinates at least 15 species of fynbos, all of them red. (If you want to attract them when you hike, be sure to wear red.)
Protea flower in Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
The diverse natural flora and fauna are part of the reason Table Mountain is such a popular place, as locals and visitors make the most of the park’s sense of wildness. It’s now a place to escape from the stress of modern-day life in the city below.
‘Studies have proven that people subconsciously seek out indigenous, pristine natural landscape,’ Paddy told me. ‘They want to experience a diversity of colours and sounds. TMNP conserves these.’ But Paddy admitted that managing a conservation area without fences within a city of about four million people can be challenging. ‘People often consider Table Mountain as their own,’ he said,
‘And rightly so ... the locals are very proud of it. But unlike other parks, there are hardly any fences and people come mostly for recreation, so the mind-set is different. There’s a greater sense of entitlement, but they are also very proud of it.’
There are a staggering number of things to do in the park. Besides hiking, visitors can bike, paraglide, scuba dive, surf, swim, kayak, go whale-watching and birding. For the adventurous, there’s caving, climbing and abseiling. For chilled folk, there are plenty of picnic and braai spots and viewpoints.
Thousands of tourists flock to Boulders Beach Penguin Colony on the eastern shores of the peninsula, to get up close to hundreds of endangered African penguins. The undoubted drama of nearby Cape Point’s stunning location – perhaps the most dramatic in the country – makes it one of the country’s most iconic destinations.
Boulder's Beach Penguins - Table Mountain National Park
Then there are snow-white beaches like the five-kilometre-long Noordhoek Beach, sheltered bays such as Buffels Bay in Cape Point, kloofs such as Skeleton Gorge above Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, coastal roads such as Chapman’s Peak Drive and amazing viewpoints from Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head, for example. This dense concentration of natural beauty all lies within a relatively small patch of land almost surrounded by the city of Cape Town, so it’s clear why TMNP is one of the two most-visited parks in the country.
Despite its global popularity, Table Mountain retains a feeling of wilderness. You can leave the city below and a few minutes’ drive or walk later, you can be alone, not see a single light and hear only the crickets, frogs and birds – or in our case at Silvermine, pouring rain and howling wind.
Earlier in the week, I had stayed at Orange Kloof Tented Camp, one of the other stunning camps on the peninsula’s mountain chain. It’s situated in the largest remaining tract of original indigenous forest, just up the road from the suburb of Hout Bay. The early colonialists felled most of the timber from the slopes of the mountain. One morning, I explored the Orange Kloof forest, walking up alongside the Disa Stream which has its source at the top of the gorge. As I hiked up, I seemed to be moving back in time. Gnarled and twisted trees that were several-hundred years old stood sentry. Thick moss covered the stones alongside the stream. Huge ferns sought out every available slice of sunshine in the tree canopy above.
Orangekloof Forest in Table Mountain NP
Today, only 15 people are allowed into Orange Kloof every day and the waiting list for a permit is several months long. Whereas 100 years ago the mountain’s natural resources would have been taken for granted, today it’s closely guarded and managed. The value now lies not in harvesting nature, but in protecting it. In the distance, I could hear just the slightest hum of cars driving up and over the Constantia Nek road. I couldn’t help but feel that the mountain is under siege from urban development.
The Disa River, which flows through the Orange Kloof valley, begins its journey on top of the mountain as pure, fresh water and continues to sparkle and glisten until it flows through the suburbs and townships below. From the urban area to the sea in nearby Hout Bay, it becomes one of the most polluted in the region. The whole river is no longer than 10 kilometres.
The stream’s degradation emphasises the importance of conserving Cape Town’s natural habitat and I was just grateful a large part of the mountain is now conserved. I lost myself again in the hues of green, the croak of frogs, the gushing of water and the touch of velvety moss on the rocks.
As someone who had grown up in Cape Town, I’d spent a lot of my spare time on the mountain. Like thousands of other people, past and present, I always felt invigorated and comforted by its presence. Thanks to conservation, thousands more will feel the same way in the future.
Awesome video of Table Mountain National Park
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