Table Mountain Activity Guide. Scrambling

Devils Peak, Cape Town, South Africa.Photo: Shaen Adey ©
Classic lines run the length of the major buttresses and gullies of Table Mountain, offering the intrepid hiker airy routes and incredible views.

Words by Fiona McIntosh

Photographs by Shaen Adey

Siyabona Africa recommended book on Table Mountain:
Table Mountain Activities
Authors: Shaen Adey and Fiona McIntosh.
Copyright © 2004 Struik Publishers Cape Town.Classic lines run the length of the major buttresses and gullies of Table Mountain, offering the intrepid hiker airy routes and incredible views. Despite their often daunting appearance, many of them can be accessed by a series of ingenious passages through tunnels and over ledges with solid holds and the occasional chain. There are many fine scrambles on the rest of the Peninsula - for example on Elsie's Peak, Muizenberg Crag and in Silvermine - but, in my opinion, none can rival those described on the following pages for length and views.

The difference between walking and scrambling?

Scrambling requires the use of your hands, not just your feet, and is therefore considered an extreme activity that should be undertaken only under the guidance of a capable leader, or by people competent and confident on rock. Scrambling is a dangerous activity, particularly in the Cape Peninsula where the weather can change rapidly. Routes that are perfectly obvious in good conditions become difficult to follow in the mist, and the rock and scree gullies are treacherous in wet weather.Anyone attempting any of these routes must  adhere to the basic principles of mountaineering. In particular: always climb in a group and plan a route that all members can manage, even in bad conditions; advise someone back home of your route plan before setting out; carry, and be able to use, a rope; and have a sound understanding of navigation.

Guides

With the exception of Lion's Head, which is clearly marked and usually has considerable traffic, unless you are an experienced mountaineer you would be advised to take a guide on your first attempt at these scrambling routes. The Mountain Club of South Africa holds a list of registered guides.

Timing

Approximate timings are given based on the speed of a reasonably fit and experienced scrambler. Where possible I have indicated circular and additional routes, which can be combined with the main scramble.

Some great scrambles

Lion's Head, 1 hour and 30 minutes up. The prominent triangular peak separated from the main table is without doubt the most well-known scramble on Table Mountain. Tradition dictates that this be done as a full moon walk, which has become so popular on warm, clear evenings, that you can expect to find long queues if you opt to follow the crowd!Although the route is well marked and obvious, don't be fooled into thinking this is just a hike. There is a steep rock face to be negotiated - either by a scramble up through the rock bands or with the help of chains, which are definitely not for the vertiginously challenged. Nevertheless you will be astounded to see dogs, hikers with children on their backs and people of all shapes and sizes enjoying the challenge. There is no shade on the route so go early or late, particularly in the heat of summer.A gravel road, closed by a chain, leads from the obvious parking area on Signal Hill Road, spiralling around to overlook in turn Camps Bay, Clifton and Sea Point. Silver trees flank both sides of the route and paragliders are often seen launching from the lower take-off point that you pass as the road becomes a wide path. Continue spiralling upwards until the path narrows just before a fork. The popular route heads up to the right. (If you stay left here you contour around until reaching a set of chains, which can be ascended until you join the main route just below the second set of chains.)Follow the path, via a ladder, until you reach a steep rock band, which you can scramble up with the aid of two chains. (To avoid this set of chains traverse to the left and scramble up the south ridge.)  At the top of the chains proceed left and go up through some trees to a shoulder at the base of the summit ridge, where you can stop to admire the view. The route up the ridge is airy but easy and assisted by a short ladder, and after 20 minutes you reach the top and a wonderful 360-degree view. To descend, retrace your steps.An alternative descent route leads off down to the kramat, which you can see on the neck between the peak you are on and Signal Hill - the Lion's Rump). To descend this way, follow the track down until you are above the granite boulders and Clifton beach, then take the obvious path, which almost doubles back to the right.

Kloof Corner Ridge 2-3 hours one way

This exciting route starts close to the Kloof Nek Water Treatment Plant on the last bend of the road to the Lower Cable Station. Park here and hike up the switchback path to the rock band. You can take a break at the beacon a few metres to the right of the path, where you'll get an incredible vista of the City Bowl, Lion's Head and Camps Bay stretching out before you, particularly wonderful in late afternoon when the sun is going down.At the foot of the rock band, the route traverses left for around 15m (49ft) along the Contour Path until you come to a chain. Climb this and then follow the cairns through the rock steps and up to a bushy gully. At the top of this you can peer through the 'window' down at Camps Bay and the Twelve Apostles. The route traverses left up some rock steps and round to a second, longer chain, which ascends a steep gully. From here, edge carefully across some exposed ledges on your left and over one awkward boulder.The route then crosses some large boulders, where route-finding is not always straightforward, before leading right and behind a large block (you will see the crack behind you on the left) to the crux - the '11-inch crack', at the start of the next steep section. If you get lost just follow the pylons. Squeeze up through the crack using some Houdini-type moves - aided by a chain - before you exit onto an exposed rock shelf.The route then follows the skyline, before traversing left on to a faint path to join the top of the India-Venster route from where you can continue right to the top of the mountain via Fountain Ledge. Essentially, follow the narrow (generally well-marked) path, passing beneath the commercial abseil and scrambling up one rock band, until you emerge opposite the top of Platteklip Gorge. Alternatively, you can descend via another fine scrambling route, India-Venster, which will take about an hour and a half.Turn left at the shoulder and follow the well-cairned route down to the Lower Cable Station. If you want to make a day of it, and can cope with exposure, head for the sensational Right Face-Arrow Face Traverse (3 hours from Fountain Ledge). This truly spectacular traverse line crosses the huge amphitheatre of rock between the ridge you are on and Platteklip Gorge, and involves some cave passages and exposed ledges.To reach the start, follow the India-Venster route until you reach a short steep section almost directly below the Upper Cable Station. On the face of Table Mountain to your right - as you look down the mountain - are three bushy ledges. A faint path leads off to the lowest one, Right Face-Arrow Face Traverse. After a few minutes the track seems to end. But fear not: there is a narrow entrance to a crack, which leads behind the face for about 8m (26ft).Turn right immediately at the exit and climb up a couple of metres to a higher ledge. Twenty five metres along the ledge, squeeze into a tunnel which, after about 20m (66ft), opens out to form a passage behind the face. Drop down a few metres at the end of the 30m-long (98ft) corridor, then traverse for 100m (328ft) before dropping down 10m (33ft) to a lower level. The exit route, down Yellowstone Gully, is marked by cairns and will bring you out, via Union Ravine, onto the Contour Path.

Woody Buttress 1 hour 30 minutes one way

A fine ridge-line scramble providing spectacular views and an airy feel, without posing technical difficulties. Access the mountain from Theresa Avenue and take the jeep track up to the Pipe Track, where you go right until you reach the pump house. The route starts a couple of metres past this, heading up the bank to the rock buttress. From here, ascend a series of rock bands via easy scrambling. The route is generally well marked with cairns, and there are often several options.If you do feel lost, the basic premise is to stick to the ridge line and the scrambling should never be difficult. After climbing a series of rock tiers, you emerge onto a shoulder to the left of the main rock buttress. The track passes through some bushes before cutting back right onto the rock face. Climb two consecutive narrow chimneys, each about 3m (10ft) in height. This is the trickiest pitch on the route. Exit above onto a large grassy shoulder, with the imposing face of Postern Buttress ahead to your left.Continue up, ascending another series of easy rock steps, until you reach a rock nose. Ignore the cairn you can see high above on your left. Instead, traverse right under the nose for about 10m (33ft), and follow the cairns up the gully. From here it is an easy ten-minute walk to the Apostles Path. Once at the top your options are numerous but, if you want a quick and easy way down, turn right and follow the signs down nearby Woody Ravine. A left turn at the main path along the top will bring you, in less than 15 minutes, to the top of Kasteelspoort (both about 1 hour down.)

Myburgh's Waterfall Ravine 2 hours 30 minutes up

This scramble up Myburgh's Waterfall Ravine is a wonderful adventure, particularly on a hot day when the cool shade of the ravine provides respite from the searing sun. It is very different in nature from my other chosen routes and deserves inclusion for its pristine indigenous vegetation and wonderful narrow upper gorge. From Valley Road in Hout Bay head uphill, first on Garron, then Hunters, until you come to a dead end at the top of Farriers Road where you can leave your car. A faint path leads up close to the fence until, after five minutes, you reach the Contour Path. Continue for another five minutes until the path enters a wooded ravine. A cairn marks a path up the left-hand side of the wood, which you should follow until a second cairn leads you through the indigenous forest in the direction of the streambed. From now on route-finding is simple - you just follow the stream, criss-crossing from right to left on the obvious paths until you come to the base of a waterfall.The pool has been somewhat spoilt by fallen trees but is a pleasant tea stop before you retreat slightly along the base of the cliffs and scramble up a short steep section of rock that is now on your right as you face down the valley. Continue following the streambed from the top of the cliffs - either path to your right will lead you down to the river. Sunlight dapples through the giant yellowwoods, red disas abound in summer and the water drips from the moss-covered slopes.As you gain height the sides of the gorge narrow and become almost overhanging, tree roots fill narrow cracks in the rock and creep earthwards and the chorus of frogs intensifies. Majestic tree ferns and arum lilies complete the Lord of the Rings-type setting. After an hour or so you come to a moss-covered waterfall - the trickiest part of the scramble and definitely not recommended after heavy rain. Clamber, carefully, up the slippery rock, or up the steep, bushy embankment on your right, until cairns on the left bank lead you away from the river and to the top.On a clear day the views over the valley to Constantiaberg and across to False Bay are stunning and they get even better as you follow the track west between the two ridges in front of you and reach the summit of Judas Peak. This highpoint, marked by a beacon, comes into view after about 20 minutes of beating along a bushy track. Keep the peak on your left until you come to the track leading up its northwesterly slopes.The easiest descent from here is down Llandudno Ravine. Once back on the path after the detour up Judas Peak, turn left and follow the cairns as the path drops down towards the sea. The route veers sharply left as the Little Lion's Head comes into view and then, after another ten minutes, swings sharply right (take care here as it is easy to lose the path) until you arrive at the top of Llandudno Ravine. From here the descent route is obvious but it is steep and unstable, particularly at the top, so care is required.

Devil's Peak via Mowbray Ridge 3 hours up

This spectacular route has a bit of everything, including stunning views over the Peninsula, some airy scrambles and wonderful fynbos. If you look up towards the mountain from Rhodes Memorial car park, you will see a blockhouse on the ridge. Take the path from top of the car park until you reach the gravel road, then walk 50m (164ft) left along this before heading up the slopes again in the direction of the blockhouse.After about 20 minutes you will come to a fence with a ladder, after which a steep climb up some log steps will bring you to a platform on which two cannons stand guarding the King's Blockhouse. Continue up behind the ruin (ignoring the Contour Paths), to a concrete water tank a few metres behind, hidden in the trees. From here, the trail climbs to the rock band. Scramble up the rock steps and round the back, up to a post on the shoulder, and then from here follow the path up to a dilapidated lookout hut.After about five sweeping bends a faint path on the left, marked by a cairn, leads directly up the slope to the famous Knife Edge. This is where the excitement starts. The route takes you over a narrow ridge with steep drop-offs on both sides, at the end of which you must bear right and scramble up the rock band to the 'window' at the top. (Do not traverse along to the left - you will end up on the steep cliff face above First Waterfall Ravine.)From this viewpoint, just below the summit of Minor Peak, you can look across at the green slopes on Devil's Peak and spot your route to the top. The path leads down to the saddle between the two peaks. Ignore the more obvious Contour Path going off to the right from the saddle and take the one that you have just surveyed, which passes to the left of the lower rock band and then climbs up the grassy slope. Keep ascending to the top of this, following the cairns.At the top of the slope traverse left under the rock band for about five minutes before scrambling up a few metres to a higher, more exposed ledge. Continue to traverse left until you are more or less above the University of Cape Town's sports grounds. Once round the corner, you can scramble up a few interlinked gullies to the summit beacons, from where you can enjoy one of the best vistas in the Cape - almost 360-degree views of the Peninsula, False Bay and the Cape Fold Mountains.The easiest way down is to continue over the peak and down towards the saddle between Devil's Peak and Table Mountain. After descending about 100m (328ft) down the ridge (10 minutes) a path leads off to the right. This is the high traverse that leads off to the right and back round to the zigzags where you left the main path to follow the Knife Edge path on your ascent. Alternatively, descend to the saddle, turn left and follow the trail to the signpost indicating the start of Newlands Ravine - a steep, quick route down to the Contour Path.Turn left at the Contour Path and follow it round through Newlands Forest until you arrive back at the fence and ladder just below the blockhouse. Allow around two hours for either descent. On the other hand, if you happen to be an experienced mountaineer, have someone with you who knows Table Mountain and want to make a day of it, you can cross the saddle and ascend Table Mountain via the classic and airy Ledges.

Further reading

Table Mountain Classics, Tony Lourens, Blue Mountain Publishers.
My recommendation for serious mountain users, this comprehensive guide to the hiking routes up the main table is full of useful background and historical information as well as clear and easy-to-follow route descriptions. It covers everything from the easy routes up the mountain to the challenging, airy scrambles for which a rope is necessary. A great bonus of using this guide is the excellent photographs on which the routes are superimposed.A Walking Guide for Table Mountain, author and publisher, Shirley Brossy.
Adventure Walks and Scrambles in the Cape Peninsula, Karen Watkins, Double Storey. This is a book for the adventurous walker or mountaineer who is familiar with the main routes and wants to try something new. Of particular interest are the walks in Orange Kloof - rarely covered in other guidebooks. Since most of the 30 routes in this book involve some scrambling, it is definitely not a book for novice hikers and a good map and route finding ability are essential. The guide is well illustrated with colour maps and photos, and is full of interesting 'boxed' information.

Did you know?

The kramat on Signal Hill, one of the five famous kramats - or Muslim tombs - around the Cape Peninsula that form the Circle of Islam, is the resting place of spiritual leader Sheikh Muhammed Hassan Ghabi Sha Al Qadri.

The chains

The Dutch East India Company maintained a permanent lookout on Lion's Head, where a flag was hoisted on the summit flagpole to signal the approach of ships. The signaller lived at Kloof Nek, then known as Vlaggeman's Hoogte, and ascended the mountain by means of a ladder. Nowadays most ascents are made with the aid of chains and two sections of iron ladder. The chains date back to 1881 when two English blacksmiths installed them to make it much easier to reach the summit.

Did you know?

Just before you start to head up towards the stone pump house on the Woody Buttress route, you cross the stream flowing down Postern Ravine. You will spot a small fenced- off area on the slopes above. This is the exit of the Apostles Tunnel, built in 1961 to carry water down from the reservoirs lying on the plateau. The tunnel, which is 1.3km (0.81 miles) long, replaced the earlier Woodhead Tunnel that had been in use for 70 years. This great feat of engineering carried water via large pipes from the headwaters of Disa Gorge through the mountain for 700m (2 296ft) before emerging in Slangolie Ravine. The tunnel exit, steps and pipes are still evident but the kloof is very unstable so a climb up to the exit is not recommended.
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