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.

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