Funny thing about Table Mountain: Until I went to it, I never saw the top of it.
The tableau is iconic. So much so, in fact, that try to find a pic of Cape Town that doesn’t involve it snuggling up to the mountain’s slopes. But the summit — if you can call something that flat a “summit” — was always like the other shoe that never dropped. What was up there? Was it bare like a mesa or lush like a tupi?
A little bit of both, it turns out.
It’s a simple cable car ride up topside, and you’d be surprised how far up the slopes Cape Town actually goes. It makes Table Mountain, now a national park, look deceptively shorter than it actually is; its elevation reaches an impressive 3,558 feet. But once I got to the top of something very tall, it took me a moment to absorb how everything was very low:
Trails criss-cross Table Mountain from stem to stern; it’s possible to hike all the way to the tip of the Cape of Good Hope and back if you start early enough (the cable car is the only way up or down unless you want to take your life in your hands), and the even landscape makes things easy.
I did a little research and discovered that, once upon a time, Table Mountain did actually have forests. Then the Europeans came in all their wood-choppy glory in the 17th Century and pow! Kiss those timberlands good-bye. Permanently, it seems. A few remnants stick it out in the deep cwms and scarps along the mountain’s slopes, but that’s about it.
Without trees, the landscape itself looked as if it had been scoured smooth, and I wasn’t far off: Way before saw-happy loggers set foot on Table Mountain, ancient glaciers and then a few millennia of erosion leveled things off while adding a curious, fluid look to the exposed rock. And that was about all the “fluid” I could find; while the summit is often hidden in the clouds, what the Captonians call the “Devil’s Tablecloth,” that doesn’t translate into lush, misty mountain gardens. There is barely any soil to speak of, nothing to hold the water in or down. Any rains that falls or mist that condenses on Table’s top runs off immediately to Cape Town below. South Africa’s “Mother City” may be all palm trees and vineyards, but a few thousand feet above it and things get arid fast. And, not surprisingly, more than a little wind-blown. Put it all together and nothing get too big anymore. Lotta shrubs.
But as Monty Python suggests, you can do a lot with shrubbery. The very definition of a microenvironment, many of the plants of Table Mountain are found nowhere else. I was surrounded fynbos, Africaans for “fine bush,” which are so numerous on the mountain I had no idea they are so rare. Earth has six floristic kingdoms, regions where the plant life is fairly uniform, and what botanists call the Cape Floral Kingdom, found only here, is the smallest of the six. South Africa’s greatest floral export, the protea, is a club member, and covers the mountain to such a degree the whole thing takes on a pinkish tint when they bloom en mass.
Another treat I had was coming across a dassie, pronounced “dussy,” at the exact same moment when I had my camera out and pointed in the right direction. Up until that point, the wildest the wildlife got were some particularly stubborn geckos that utterly refused stay still long enough for a picture. Sort of the animal mascot of Cape Town, a dassie looks a little like a rabbit and a koala shared a night of passion. Science calls it a rock hyrax, and it’s amazing to think that something the size of my head can count as its nearest relative an elephant:
Because of the sheer expanse that the summit of Table Mountain encompasses, the crowds constantly coming up disperse fairly quickly. I snapped off a bunch of photos that make it seem like I was the only one around. Consequently, the wildlife isn’t constantly in hiding, and may in fact be somewhat acclimated to humans provided we stay in low numbers. Stay quiet enough, move slowly and you’d be amazed what crawls out of the crevices. Don’t try to pick anything up. It’ll bite.
Like visiting Buckingham Palace in London or the Liberty Belle in Philadelphia, you cannot come all the way to Cape Town (17 flight from New York) and not take the cable car to Table Mountain. It’s almost like missing the point. The views are spectacular, of Cape Town, of the Atlantic beyond, and of an elephant’s kissin’ cousin. One’s just a little easier to find than the other two.