Thursday, January 30, 2014

Cape Town Part 3-Table Mountain

Table Mountain
Table Mountain is Cape Town’s most iconic landscape feature. An immense sandstone mesa, Table Mountain tops the shale and granite mountain range that forms the spine of the Cape Peninsula, with Devil’s Peak and Lions Head on its flanks to the east and west, the lower Back Table to the south, and the Twelve Apostles to the west, watching over the Atlantic Ocean.

On rainy, overcast days, the mountain is obscured by clouds. On clear, windy days, Table Mountain often wears a “table cloth” of thick fog, which looks much like the “fingers of fog” that creep over the Marin headlands north of  San Francisco Bay. Legends have explained the fog as blankets thrown by gods, or a smoking contest between the devil and a local pirate. In truth, it’s created by the orographic lifting, cooling, and collision of two air masses. The moist Atlantic air mass flows up over the Twelve Apostles to the mesa 3500 feet above sea level, cooling and forming a cloud as it goes. Crossing the mesa, it collides with warm, moist Indian Ocean air rising on the south eastern back side of the mountain. The resulting condensation and combination of clouds forms the famous "Table Cloth," which is beautiful to see from below, but does not make for good views from the top of the mountain. So go on a clear day and get there early, before the Table Cloth has a chance to form.

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The Wildcard luck was with us on Tuesday for our journey to the top, and the day dawned cool, calm, and clear. There are two options to get to the top. You can hike up the trail, or take the aerial tram. Our friends Terry and Pete hiked it when they went last year, but they recommended against this, because it took several hours. We didn’t want to spend that time and, to be honest, we were still a bit sore just from walking in town!

We had gotten some advice from the Australian plant lovers at More Quarters, who told us to buy aerial tram tickets ahead of time, and arrive before 8:30 a.m. to avoid lines. The first ride up is at 8:00, but the busloads of tourists don’t arrive till sometime between 8:30 and 9:00. The More Quarters concierge offered to purchase our prepaid tickets for us, but it was too late and we had to purchase them at the mountain. Since we had no car, they called a taxi to drive us up the hill, right up to the ticket window, which had a lineup of about three people.

Africa (491)We got right onto the tram and it was a breathtaking experience. If you have vertigo or a fear of heights, which we both do a little bit, the ride up through the abyss is all the more breathtaking. The floor of the car revolves to provide everyone with a chance to enjoy all the views, but that also means that you can’t maintain an iron grip on a railing. So there you are, slowly rising up to 3500 feet while slowly spinning. Not exactly an amusement park thrill ride, but there is plenty of time to contemplate what would happen, and where you might land, if the cable were to separate.

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It didn’t matter. The views were stupendous. The sensation of rising up the mountain above Cape Town, seeing the top of Lion’s head, then the emerging coastline, and Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years … what a special place on Earth. So much natural and human history is packed into this part of the planet.

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Intriguing too was the mountainside itself, with the layers of erosion-resistant Table Mountain Sandstone forming deep crags, dotted with unique flowering fynbos shrubs.

Table Mountain recreational_map

Table Mountain is a South African National Park (SANpark) and was recently inaugurated as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. Because it covers a great expanse, yet is broken up by urban development and privately owned land, it is divided into four management areas, three land and one marine.

So basically, the city of Cape Town is in a national park. How cool is that? The people living there are surrounded by recreational opportunities, and only need to step out their door and walk up the street. Or hill. Or maybe take a short drive. The more I research and write about this place, the more I am falling in love with it.

I discovered while doing follow-up research for this story that we could have booked a naturalist guide to take us on a half-day hike up Table Mountain. Why is it that, when the trip is over, you find so many things you would have loved to do? I guess that’s life, and how we find places that we want to return to. I hope we go back to the Cape, someday.

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Africa (451)We emerged from the upper cable station and were greeted by one of the most stupendous sights I have ever witnessed. 360 degrees of mountain, ocean, peninsula, city, bay, harbor, island, and on and on, all spilling into the the infinity pool at Earth’s slightly curved edge. I wanted to start running on the rocky path, like a little kid arriving at an amusement park.

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Mark was intrigued by the cable, chuckling at the simplicity. What if it broke, I wondered aloud? He was thinking the same thing. It’s not likely, though. Conceived by a Norwegian engineer after plans for a funicular railway were thwarted by two wars, the aerial cable car system has been upgraded several times since its 1929 opening, and has a perfect safety record. You can read its interesting history here.

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One reason the safety record is so good is that when conditions are windy, it shuts down. I don’t know how often this happens but I imagine it’s fairly often. So, check the website on the day of your visit and once up top, listen for the hooter.

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Looking west at the Atlantic Seaboard, where we had driven the day before, we noticed the little brown Dassies (Dutch for badger) perched on the rocks just below us. These little animals are the elephant’s closest relative, believe it or not. They were lazing on the rocks below us, basking in the sun

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As a keystone animal, they are food for predators like Eagles, Caracal, and Leopards. They look lazy and slow, but if threatened they can disappear into the rocks in a hurry. Their rib cages collapse, allowing them to squeeze through the tiniest of spaces.

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Being both of independent mind, Mark and I wandered away from each other, as we often do, absorbed in the scene and its network of rocky trails and viewpoints. One of the features I especially liked was the way the paths were constructed, winding through the existing rock. It looked very natural, blending with the mountain, and yet the paths were very easy to follow, interconnected, and leading to magnificent views.

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It felt like I was up there wandering the rugged mountain alone, even though there were other people around. Like Mark, who takes photos of me when I am unawares.

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The balconies built on the edge of the cliffs overlooking City Center are heart stoppers.

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I could see and photograph our Kloof Street neighborhood and the V&A Waterfront beyond.

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Mark refused to go out on the balconies! But he still had the same great views from where he stood.

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He just couldn’t see the cliff sides dropping off beyond.

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You can walk down the mountain, or ride the cable car. We rode, but decided to walk down to our neighborhood from the lower cable car station instead of taking a taxi.

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Cutting down through the hillside on a trail, we caught some good views of the mountain, and wildflowers. What a perfect day, and a perfect way to see this incredible natural wonder.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Cape Town Part 2-A Trip to Cape Point

Atlantic Seaboard and Cape of Good Hope

The second day we had our first of two organized tours. Normally we don’t do these, but we decided to go with tours instead of renting a car, thinking it would be fun to be with a group, as long as it was a small group. We boarded the 12-passenger minibus at 8:00 a.m., and threaded through town picking up more people at 5-star hotels at the waterfront, then turned west, passing around the base of Lion’s Head to the Atlantic Seaboard, where the millionaires live.


The rocky coastline, kelp, seabirds and coast mountains all reminded us of our beloved California coastline. The Table Mountain coastal range is called the “Twelve Apostles,” even though there are more than twelve peaks.


We stopped at Hout Bay, (hout is the Dutch word for wood) the southernmost and least ritzy in the string of Atlantic Seaboard communities dating back to the Dutch settlers, who felled wood for timber and established two farms, which are now subdivided into neighborhoods. Hout Bay is a busy commercial and sport fishing harbor.


We had the opportunity to go for a boat ride out to the rocks to view the sea lions. But we’ve seen plenty of sea lions over the years when we go sailing, so we stayed on shore, explored the colorful harbor, gazed out over huge beach (Snickers would have loved it!) and had an ice cream.


Back in the van, we wound our way south along the coast, stopping to take photos of Hout Bay and its promontory, spread before us.


This was “the fairest cape” at its most sublime, with a verdant green, flower-mottled blanket tumbling down the granite and sandstone slopes.  

Onward to Chapman’s Peak Drive, one of the world’s most beautiful highways.  After paying the toll our tour guide, a Ukrainian man named Viktor who has lived in South Africa for 20 years, told us some history of the road, which began with the determination of Cape Town’s first governor, who would not take no for an answer, despite the technical problems of building a road in such steep, rocky, dangerous terrain.


This road, built along a contact unconformity (the geologic term for a seam) between the Table Mountain Group sandstone and underlying Peninsula Granite, is truly an engineering marvel, taking 114 turns through just 9 kilometers, and is on at least one list of Roads You have to Drive in Your Lifetime. I was really glad I had called shotgun, so I could shoot some photos.


The geology of the Cape Peninsula is a huge and fascinating subject, and one that I would study further before another visit. This page from the University of Cape Town Department of Geological Sciences provides a good explanation, with geologic maps and illustrations.


Emerging from Chapman’s Drive, we came upon a huge expanse of pearly white sand and turquoise water. A popular surfing spot, it is named, of course, Long Beach. Viktor waved at a guy at the side of the road, and pointed out the green flag, meaning that the beach was free of sharks. This guy’s job was to sit up there, where he would be able to see sharks if they were to approach, and warn the surfers with a red flag.

Leaving the coast, we took a jog inland across the peninsula, and suddenly everything seemed different. We were on the rocky sandstone of the biodiversity hotspot Cape Floristic Region, home of the Cape Floristic Kingdom, the smallest of the world’s six recognized floral kingdoms. The landscape is dominated by fynbos, a fire-prone, fine brush community. We were there in spring, when the prescriptive burning was finished, the rains had just begun to return, and the wildflowers were blooming.


We saw our first South African wildlife – a bontebok, (antelope,) then ostriches, and then baboons. The baboons are a problem, because people leave food around or even deliberately feed them, which makes them bold, aggressive, and dangerous. Rangers now patrol in areas where people and baboons are present carrying paintball guns, which they shoot at the baboons to force them to stay out of areas where they don’t belong, such as ranches, roads, and housing developments.


I rolled the window down to take some photos and Viktor cautioned, “Don’t open it more than one or two inches.”


Everything was still reminding us a lot of California, partly because we are a bit homesick. We felt familiar with the Mediterranean climate, the rocky cliffs, and the scrub-covered uplands. Yet, it was different. We knew we were at the other end of the earth.


Well, not at the exactly the end. The Cape of Good Hope is not the southernmost point; it’s the most southwestern point. The southernmost point is Cape Agulhas, about 90 miles further east. In between the two points is False Bay, so named because of the frequent ships that would end up there, thinking that they had rounded the southernmost point and turning north.


The lighthouse is no longer used for navigation, because it was built at the highest elevation on the point, which is too high, making it visible to ships from very far away, enticing them to approach too close to the rocky coast. Alternatively, it was so often shrouded in fog that it was invisible to ships. Another lighthouse was built 87 meters lower. This is also where the legendary ghost ship Flying Dutchman still wanders, trying in vain to round the point.


The views from the balconies overlooking the cliffs, down to the water, were breathtaking – literally. I got a touch of vertigo.

We spent about an hour there, walking up to the lighthouse and exploring the many cliffside balconies with views of the turquoise and sapphire sea surging around the rocky cliffs, and ringing them with brilliant white foam.

I thought of all of the sailors who have rounded the Cape, from the early explorers and traders to modern day cruisers and racers – including the Clipper Round the World racers, who were starting their leg to Australia that day, and would be rounding the Cape and heading south into the treacherous Southern Ocean.


Leaving the Cape, we spotted a small flock of ostriches, with young chicks. They were gazing out at the expanse of sea and rock. “This is very unusual,” said Viktor. “We are lucky to see this.”


After the Cape, we drove along the shore of False Bay, stopping for a Kingklip fish lunch at the Seaforth Restaurant, which I highly recommend for the casual maritime vibe, outdoor seating with great views, and good food. By this time it was mid afternoon, and we were more than ready for lunch, with a glass of wine.


We sat with two other couples including a lovely pair of young Canadians who have been married for a decade and take an exotic vacation each year. “We love traveling,” they said. “Before the end of a trip, we’re already planning the next one!” I guess they don’t have any kids.


Then it was on to the quaint seaside hamlet of Simon’s Town, which has operated as a Navy base for two centuries. Just south of town we stopped at Boulder’s Beach to see the African jackass penguins. They have been there since 1982, when just one breeding pair arrived, and now … well, you can see what happened.


It’s a little touristy, but not to the point of detracting from the fun of seeing the penguins, who have been provided with little doghouse-like shelters, each with its own address. There were several interpretive panels explaining not just the penguins, but also the flora and fauna of the unique Cape ecosystem.


The penguins were molting, which accounts for the their sometimes raggedy look.


Our final stop, after a long drive along the peninsula back to Cape Town, was the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, nestled into the eastern slope of Table Mountain. It had been a very long day, we had wine for lunch, and we arrived barely an hour before the 7:00 p.m. closing time.


Even so, as we wandered around on legs that were still sore from the previous day’s walk across town to the waterfront, it was impossible not to be enchanted by the beautiful gardens, and intrigued by the wealth of information.


There was an Australian couple from our hotel on the bus in the morning, but they made a quick exit, saying the tour “wasn’t what they expected.” What they had expected was a private tour. They later told us they took a taxi to the botanical gardens, and spent the day there.


I would not have wanted to miss everything we saw and learned on the tour, but they were perfectly happy with their decision. I can understand why. For a botanist, master gardener or other lover of plants and flowers, the gardens are a feast for the senses.

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The most striking flowers, which we saw in profusion in the Cape fynbos, are the South African national flower, the proteas. This flower can take many forms and is endemic to South Africa, although a few of its 1600 species have spread to other parts of the Southern Hemisphere.

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Other flowers, like the Bird of Paradise, were very familiar to me, having been successfully imported to and grown in California and other temperate climates. In a way, it’s sad that they are no longer unique to the African continent. But that’s life on Earth.


It was good to get back to our cozy apartment after a long day …


… have a glass of wine and a hot bath …


… and contemplate tomorrow’s plan to reach the summit of Table Mountain.

Watch for Cape Town Part 3: Table Mountain
Thanks for reading!