The flat-topped plateau of Table Mountain, with its precipitous upper cliffs, looks almost impenetrable at first sight, but many beautiful trails wend their way through the gullies and along the dramatic ridge lines of the buttresses.
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.
Trails such as the Pipe Track, the Contour Path along the eastern flanks and the Upper Contour Path that traverses the front table, give easy access to many of the routes up the main table.
They are interesting, gentle walks in themselves, offering everything from breathtaking views to wonderfully shady paths through indigenous forest. Obviously the time you take on a hike depends on your own level of fitness, the number of refreshment stops you choose to take and the time you spend pausing to smell the flowers along the way, so you should regard the timings that are given as only a rough indicator for a reasonably fit walker.
The Pipe Track
The Pipe Track was built in 1887 to service the water line that brought water from the Disa River, on the top of Table Mountain, through the mountain via the Woodhead Tunnel and exiting in Slangolie Ravine. Even before that there had been a small path between Kloof Nek and Kasteelspoort, the easiest route up the mountain from the Camps Bay side. The Pipe Track starts across the road from the car park at the Kloof Nek end of Tafelberg Road.
Climb up the steps and follow the clear path, past a manicured hedge on your left, and some benches on the right, into the pine trees. The path goes underneath the Kloof Nek filtration plant before plunging down to cross Diep Sloot Ravine. A short, steep section of uphill follows before the path flattens out once more. You will now be looking down the dramatic buttresses of the Twelve Apostles as you continue traversing high above the beautiful houses of Camps Bay.
Look up to your left after walking for about half an hour. You should be now looking back at the Upper Cable Station. In the rock face near the summit of Fountain Ravine, almost directly above you, you may spot a cave. This was home to Joshua Penny, an American who had been press-ganged into joining the British Royal Navy. When his ship, the HMS Sceptre, anchored in Table Bay in 1799, he made his escape and hid out on Table Mountain for 14 months. Some relics of his stay were discovered in 1958.
About five minutes later you will see a sign pointing up the Diagonal Route - a long but very scenic trail to the top of the plateau. After around 15 minutes of gentle uphill walking, you will eventually pass Kasteelspoort, a very straightforward ascent and descent route to the reservoirs and the little Waterworks Museum. Shortly after that the Pipe Track joins the jeep track coming up from Theresa Avenue on the Rontree Estate.
The wide path climbs slightly to the pumphouse, then past Woody Ravine (another good route to the top) from where it climbs even more steeply. Continue round, admiring the incredible views of the dramatic mountain cliffs and wild coastline until you start climbing up some stone steps. You are now in Slangolie Ravine, which is the end of the Pipe track. The original Woodhead Tunnel entrance is high up in the ravine, but the gorge is now very unstable so don't consider attempting to climb up it.
You can return by the same route, which affords some of the best views you will have of Lion's Head from anywhere on the mountain - thoroughly recommended as a late afternoon hike as the sun is going down. (1 hour 30 minutes one way.) Alternatively, if you want to hike to the top of the plateau, continue on the rather precipitous path as it winds around, descends to cross Slangolie Ravine and then makes its way, rather steeply, through the trees on the other side.
After emerging, the path rounds the corner and takes you to the top via a fairly gentle, if rather loose, path up Corridor Ravine to join the Twelve Apostles path. You can now turn left and descend the mountain Woody Ravine or Kasteelspoort to rejoin the Pipe Track.
The Contour Path
The Contour Path runs along the eastern side of the main table, all the way from Devil's Peak to Constantia Nek. It is primarily an access route through the plantations and pockets of indigenous forest that clothe the eastern slopes of Table Mountain. Unlike the Pipe Track, which is largely open with wonderful views, the Contour Path offers wonderfully shady and varied walks, although many of the pines are now being cut down and removed.
The whole Contour Path can be walked in about six hours but, unless you fancy an endurance event, it is best broken down into two sections, the first from Constantia Nek to Kirstenbosch and the second from Kirstenbosch to the end of Tafelberg Road (underneath Devil's Peak). Obviously, you can choose to do both routes in reverse. But the disadvantage of starting at Kirstenbosch in either case is that you must pay an entrance fee. Unless you want to reverse your route, leave a car at each end of this walk.
Constantia Nek to Kirstenbosch
Park your car under the trees in the car park opposite Constantia Nek restaurant and head up through the gate and onto the gravel road. After a few minutes the road forks. Keep left (take the upper road). Keep right at the next fork, on a big bend in the road. (The left fork, which heads up the hill, is the Bridle Path, which will eventually lead to the top of the mountain.) Although primarily in shade, there are superb views over False Bay from the felled areas. Keep going straight until you come to a huge blue gum tree at a fork in the road.
Keep right, and at the next intersection, when some log steps join from the left, take the most obvious road ahead. (It actually heads off at 90 degrees to the right.) Continue walking along this jeep track until it becomes a narrow path and gains height via a series of log steps. At the top, the path starts contouring, on a higher level, towards Kirstenbosch again and you will soon leave the forest and enjoy superb views.
Marked paths up from Kirstenbosch cross the trail and you can decide which route to take down to the gardens. Alternatively, head up to the top via Nursery Ravine or Skeleton Gorge. Note that dogs are not allowed in Kirstenbosch. (This route will take around 2.5 hours one way.)
Kirstenbosch to Tafelberg Road
Gain the Contour Path by following signs from Kirstenbosch to Skeleton Gorge or, obviously, the Contour Path. Once at the Contour Path you will find a bronze plaque confirming that you are now at the bottom of 'Smuts' Track', the route that Field Marshall Jan Smuts used to hike regularly to the top of Table Mountain. Cross the stream that flows down Skeleton Gorge and continue on the Contour Path until you pass a second ravine - Window Gorge.
About five minutes later you come to a fork. Take the path to the left, which zigzags up the slopes of Fernwood Buttress. (Take care here, as the right-hand path will take you back into Kirstenbosch.) After 20 minutes of ascent, the path crosses the scree slope at the highest point of the trail and then descends steeply down the other side. The path now levels out again. Ignore a path going off right (which goes to Lubbert's Gift) and continue all the way along, past numerous buttresses and ravines with interesting names - Wormhole, Hiddingh, Ascension.
The next path off to the right leads down to the Newlands Forest Station, and the next major trail off to the left leads up Newlands Ravine and to the saddle between the main table and Devil's Peak. Keep going round on the Contour Path, enjoying the indigenous forest and occasional views. You will soon cross over a stile that marks the boundary of the Groote Schuur Estate, once the home of Cecil John Rhodes, and bequeathed by him to the nation on his death. (Dogs are not allowed here.)
The University of Cape Town and the magnificent granite memorial to Rhodes lie below you and the trail keeps close to the cliffs of Devil's Peak, descending into First Waterfall Ravine, then up the other side. Just before you reach the second stile an obvious path will take you down to Rhodes Memorial and its wonderful tearoom. (This is an excellent place to leave a second car if you don't want to take the Contour Path all the way to the end.)
If you are heading for Tafelberg Road, continue over the second stile and drop down to the jeep track that runs beneath the King's Blockhouse. (You can actually continue from here along another path, the Upper Contour Path, which goes all the way to Kloof Nek, see below.) This is now across cleared slopes with outstanding views over the city and the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. When the jeep track forks, keep left and you will soon emerge at the parking area at the end of Tafelberg Road. (This route will take approximately 3.5 hours one way.)
The Upper Contour Path
The path that runs along the face of Table Mountain is, rather confusingly, known as the Upper Contour Path. Mountaineers and most walkers will know the section that runs from Kloof Nek to the Saddle Path (the route up the mountain from Tafelberg Road to the saddle between the main table and Devil's Peak), as this is frequently used to access the hiking and climbing routes on the front face of Table Mountain.
But in fact you can continue beyond the Saddle Path all the way to the King's Blockhouse and link up with the Contour Path that runs along the eastern side of the mountain (described above). Park at the first big bend on Tafelberg Road and climb the zigzags until you reach the base of the cliffs. The views from here are quite superb - Camps Bay and the Twelve Apostles on one side, Lion's Head and the city below, and Devil's Peak just around the corner - and this is an ideal place to picnic, enjoy a sundowner or watch the full moon rise. (It also deposits you at the start of the wonderful Kloof Corner Ridge scramble.)
Turn left at the top, in the direction of Devil's Peak, and you will shortly pass under the cableway. The route crossing over the Upper Contour Path at this point is the India Venster, also an excellent scramble. Continue walking on round, over India and Africa ravines, both named because of the resemblance to the shapes of India and Africa that those with imagination see in their outlines. The path continues to traverse, largely along the 500m (1 640ft) contour, until you see a path coming up from Tafelberg Road.
This is the first section of Platteklip Gorge and the trail up Platteklip follows the route you are on for approximately 50m (164ft) before heading up again to the right. Once past the next gorge, Silverstream Gorge, the path divides. Take the lower path, usually marked on maps as the Lower Traverse (because there is also a Middle and Upper Traverse on Devil's Peak). The next intersection is with the Saddle Path, which is the easy way up to the saddle between Table Mountain and Devil's Peak.
Head down here to a waiting car, or continue along onto the slopes of Devil's Peak. You will shortly drop down around Oppel's Kop and then arrive at the base of a red cliff in which there is a cave-mouth known as Twelve o'Clock Hole. Further along, there are a couple of opportunities to head down to the end of Tafelberg Road, or you can continue along the Traverse until it finally comes to an end at the little concrete reservoir behind the King's Blockhouse. You can now descend to the Contour Path, which links Newlands Forest, Kirstenbosch and Constantia Nek, and then down to Rhodes Memorial.
An interesting detour is to Woodstock Cave, a large overhang that you will see in the cliff more or less directly above the Queen's Blockhouse. After passing Twelve o'Clock Hole, keep going right at the next two intersections to reach the cave. Then return to the Lower Traverse by following the zigzags down. (This route will take you around 3 hours one way.)