History records that the first white man to set foot on Table Mountain was Antonio de Saldanha, commander of a Portuguese fleet sailing around the Cape of Storms en route to India in 1503.
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.
The early explorers
After becoming separated from the rest of the fleet, his ship took refuge in an unknown bay sheltered by a high, flat-topped mountain. Saldanha, anxious to orientate himself, struggled up the obvious gorge that split the front of the mountain to the summit plateau.
From the top he could see that, as he had feared, the Cape of Storms still had to be rounded before he could reach the safety of False Bay. Nevertheless the trip was a fruitful one, for fresh water cascaded down the gorge through which he climbed. Thereafter Table Bay, known as Aguada de Saldanha (Watering Place of De Saldanha) became a regular stopover for the Portuguese fleets. In 1652 Jan van Riebeeck sailed into Table Bay and under his governorship Cape Town grew into an important, almost self-sufficient outpost of the Dutch East India Company.
Shortly after Van Riebeeck's arrival he began work on a fort (the Castle of Good Hope) and encouraged settlers to grow crops. Soon the slopes of the mountain were being cultivated, the first Cape vineyards were planted and a European settlement was firmly established in the Cape. However, the industrious Van Riebeeck and his officials apparently never found the time to climb Table Mountain. Since Jan van Riebeeck put the Cape on the map, Table Mountain has been a powerful icon for Cape Town and South Africa, and is now one of the most famous landmarks in the world. A detailed account of all its historical places would occupy more than the entire book, so here are a few snippets to whet your appetite. More information can be found in Cape Town's museums.
A cairn of rocks nearly 3m (10ft) high and topped with a beacon marks the highest point on Table Mountain, 1 086m (3 564ft). The beacon was constructed in 1844 by the then Astronomer Royal at the Cape, Sir Thomas Maclear, as part of his efforts to measure the arc of the meridian of the earth. Nearby is the Mountain Club of South Africa's memorial (unveiled and dedicated in 1923 by General Jan Christiaan Smuts), which bears the names of nine members who died in World War I. One Sunday at the end of February you may chance on a brass band or similar group leading a large group of climbers in refrain. The natural amphitheatre below the beacon is the site of the annual memorial service, which was regularly attended by Smuts, a keen climber. A plaque in his memory can be found in the rocks below the beacon.
Perusal of the records in the Hout Bay Museum indicates that Chapman's Peak was named after John Chapman, Master's Mate on the English ship, The Consent, which was becalmed at the entrance to Hout Bay in 1607. Chapman's Chance was the first name given to Hout Bay, and it was also the first English name to appear on maps of southern Africa. It seems unlikely, however, that Chapman ever climbed to the peak that now bears his name.
The scenic Chapman's Peak Drive, originally known as the 'Hout Bay-Noorde Hoek Road', was opened in 1922 at a cost of £20 000 and after seven years of construction. The road was closed in January 2000 following the tragic death of a driver whose car was hit by a falling rock, and the subsequent fires that raged over the mountain, stripping it of binding vegetation. The route was only re-opened at the end of 2003 after extensive engineering works costing R157-million. During this period two of the Cape's most famous events, the Cape Argus Pick 'n Pay Cycle Tour and the Two Oceans Marathon, had to be re-routed, for the first time in their history, over Ou Kaapse Weg.
The fortifications around the Cape Peninsula were constructed in the wake of political instability and turmoil in Europe in the eighteenth century. After building the Castle of Good Hope (then on the shore of Table Bay - the land that now lies between the Castle and the reclaimed sea) the early Dutch settlers attempted to fortify their position with various other batteries. After the American War of Independence in 1776, in which the French supported the Americans, Britain and France assumed their roles as old enemies.
When the Dutch Republicans allied themselves with France in 1780, they, too, became enemies of Britain, and the French rushed to the Cape in order to protect it from invasion, since the Cape was considered a strategic point on the trading route to India. Following an unsuccessful attempt by the British to capture the Cape in 1781, lines of forts and batteries, known as the French lines, were constructed. These included those from Fort Knokke (Woodstock Station) up the slopes of Devil's Peak, and the East and West Forts guarding the entrance to Hout Bay.
West Fort, near Hout Bay harbour, is now rather scruffy. However East Fort, a series of impressive ruins on Chapman's Peak Drive guarding the other side of the harbour, is well worth a visit. The remains of barracks, the powder battery and cookhouse, including the old Dutch 'pizza' oven, lie on the mountain side of the road. The terraces on which the traverse guns sat - cannons mounted on wooden platforms which commanded a 360-degree line of fire - are below the road on the seaward side.
Also on the lower terrace is an old pillbox dating from World War II surrounded by a fynbos garden of remembrance. The Dutch only used the Hout Bay cannons once against the British, but, ironically, it was when the two nations were in fact allies. The French left the Cape following a ceasefire in 1783 and the forts fell into disrepair. Following the collapse of the French monarchy in 1789, and the subsequent invasion of Holland by revolutionary forces, the Dutch allied themselves with Britain and sought to improve the Cape fortifications in case of a French attack.
The deposed Dutch king declared that the Cape would temporarily be placed under British protection. However, inter-continental communications being what they were, when the British fleet arrived on 10 June 1795 to help with the defence, they were met with suspicion and not allowed to land by the Dutch forces, who were caught between conflicting loyalties to their king and the republican government which had taken power. The Brits fired off a few volleys to test the position and strength of the Dutch forces in Hout Bay, before sailing round to attack Simon's Town and Muizenberg, prompting the Dutch to capitulate on 16 September 1795.
The British commander, Major General James Craig, then decided to extend the fortifications by building batteries and blockhouses above the French lines. The best preserved of these, the King's Blockhouse, sits high on Mowbray Ridge beneath the steep rock bands of Devil's Peak. At the beginning of the twentieth century the stone tower was used to house convicts who worked on the re-forestation programme of the mountain.
Two cannons still sit on the terrace below the blockhouse next to the remains of the forester's cottage. A plaque erected in 1904 commemorates the forester who was in charge at the time, Frank Jarman. The remains of the restored Queen's (sometimes called York) Blockhouse, which also has two cannons on the terrace, lie just below the end of Tafelberg road. Those of the Prince of Wales Blockhouse are less interesting but can be found lower still near the Devil's Peak Forest Station, easily accessible from De Waal Drive.
The Martello Tower at Simon's Town (once part of the South African Naval Museum, but now awaiting renovation and sadly closed to the public) also dates from this period. You will also see blockhouses along the Peninsula in Blockhouse Gap, between Simonsberg and Swartkop above Simon' s Town. These are of a later date - probably built before World War I - and, although they are not particularly interesting in themselves, the view from the Gap is impressive. Easy access is from Jan Smuts Drive, off Churchill Avenue on the mountain side of the coastal road above Seaforth.
The magnificent memorial to Cecil John Rhodes that graces the slopes of Devil's Peak was built in 1912 and financed by the citizens of Cape Town in commemoration of Rhodes' considerable contribution to the development and increasing prosperity of southern Africa. The classical structure, with its striking Doric columns, was designed by Sir Francis Macey and Sir Herbert Baker and built from the granite that underlies the Table Mountain sandstone.
The eight lions were modelled upon those protecting Nelson's Column in London's Trafalgar Square, and are a tribute to Rhodes' wish to have real lions roaming his 'African Wildlife Garden'. 'Energy', the dynamic bronze of a horse and 'god-like' rider, which rears at the foot of the steps, represents the genius and restlessness of Rhodes. Count the steps as you climb from the statue to the bust of Rhodes at the top. The number is no coincidence but represents the span of Rhodes' life.
The view is superb and several hikes, including the Contour Path and Mowbray Ridge, are easily accessible from the carpark. Behind the memorial you will find a stunning tearoom. The surrounding Groote Schuur Estate on which the University of Cape Town stands was bought by Rhodes as his Cape Town home in 1891 and bequeathed to the nation on his death in 1902. The area that is now the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden was left to the Botanical Society and the gardens were formally established in 1913.
If you take a walk through the mixed oak and pine woodlands around the memorial you may come across some fallow deer or even a sambur - an Indian elk. These, like the Himalayan tahr, which is sometimes spotted on the upper slopes, are descendents of escapees from the zoo that used to be on the estate. Several strange looking zebra graze on the enclosed slopes on the city side of Rhodes Memorial. These are part of a selective breeding programme, the Quagga Project, which aims to produce zebra whose coat-pattern characters closely resemble that of the extinct Quagga, or former Plains Zebra of the Karoo and southern Free State.
The Table Mountain Cableway
A rack railway up Table Mountain was first mooted in the 1870s soon after railways were introduced in the Cape. However, despite the successful construction of Kasteelspoort aerial cableway (1893) and the Wynberg Trolley Track (up which a small steam engine hauled a cargo/passenger trolley in 1907) to cart supplies essential in the construction of the Woodhead, Hely-Hutchinson, Victoria and Alexandra reservoirs, the idea was shelved for nearly 40 years.
In 1909 the newly formed Cape Peninsula Publicity Association announced the provision of a light railway up Table Mountain and a Swiss engineer, H.M. Peter, was invited to review the proposals. Mr Peter suggested a funicular railway from Oranjezicht up Platteklip Gorge. However the outbreak of World War I put all plans on hold and nothing concrete came about until the late 1920s. The new scheme, put forward by the daring Norwegian engineer, Trygve Stromsoe, was vastly different from those proposed before the war.
Instead of a railway, Stromsoe suggested whisking Capetonians and tourists to the top of the mountain via a cable car. Despite the considerable investment and financial problems incurred during this period of post war depression, the Table Mountain Cableway opened on 4 October 1929 with the cars capable of transporting 20 people at a time. The cableway underwent a major revamp in 1997 when the present state of the art Rotair car, with its revolving floor and large windows, replaced the third generation of cable cars.
The new car can take up to 65 people and the revolving floor has a built-in scale (which you can see in the central control panel). It has a maximum load of five tons. The old cars can be seen outside the Lower Cable Station. Famous dignitaries to have ridden the cars include the British Royal family of King George VI, his queen and two daughters, Elizabeth - who succeeded him as Queen Elizabeth II - and Princess Margaret, visitors to Cape Town in 1947. Prime Minister Field Marshall Jan Smuts, as was his normal practice despite being 77 years of age, hiked up to join the party on the summit. He then rode down with them - apparently the only occasion on which he used Table Mountain's cableway.
The Waterworks Museum
I am always astounded by how few people know of the museum next to the wall of the Hely-Hutchinson Reservoir. Most displays relate to the dam building and include the old steam engine used to carry supplies from the top of the Kasteelspoort Cableway to the dam site.
Hout Bay Museum
Open Tuesday to Friday 8:30-16:30 and Saturday 10:00-13:00.
Closed Sundays, Mondays and Public Holidays.
Table Mountain Aerial Cableway
Tel: 021-424-5148 or visit
Current opening hours are 9:00-15:00 every day.
Further information can be obtained from the duty manager of the Newlands Reservoir.
Did you know?
If you have ever looked at the caves on Table Mountain and thought what a nice home they might make, the story of Joshua Penny may appeal. Penny, a press-ganged American, was a deserter from HMS Sceptre, which was stationed in the Cape after the Battle of Muizenberg between the Dutch and British on 7 August 1795. After giving his guards the slip, Penny spent 14 months hiding out in a cavern on the mountain, eating antelope and dassies spiced up with indigenous herbs, and drinking a rather nasty sounding fermented brew made from honey, water and roots.
He improvised clothes from animal skins and became quite an expert in survival tactics, recording the passing of time by cutting a notch in a root at each full moon. Periodically, Penny would check to see if HMS Sceptre had left Table Bay. Finally, after over a year, only one ship remained at anchor in the bay. Penny deemed it safe to descend only to find that his ship had sunk in a violent storm in 1799 only weeks after his desertion. He was taken on as a crew member by the Danish vessel, thereby ending his long, somewhat unnecessary, exile. Penny's cave, high in the cliffs above Fountain Ravine, is visible from the Pipe Track.
Did you know?
Hout Bay (Wood Bay) was renamed by Jan van Riebeeck, who landed in the Cape in 1652. Van Riebeeck wrote about the bay, 'T' Houtbaaitjen', in his journal and described the forest as the finest in the world. Free hiking tours on top of Table Mountain are offered daily by volunteers. Contact the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway for further details. Remember that the cableway hooter is sounded half an hour before the last cable car descends, or when the cableway is going to close due to bad weather.
If you do get stuck on the mountain the safest and easiest descent route will be via Platteklip Gorge. Although the French were only in the Cape for three years whilst supporting Dutch rule (1781-1784), they had such an impact on Cape Town that it soon became known as 'Little Paris'. Sir Edmund Hillary visited Cape Town following his ascent of Everest in 1953. The great man clearly had a tight schedule - or perhaps he considered Table Mountain too big a peak. He took the cable car to the top.
In the stars
During his stay in Cape Town in the mid-eighteenth century, Abbé Nicolas-Louis de la Caille observed more than 10 000 stars, which he named Mons Mensa (Latin for Table Mountain). This, the faintest of all the constellations, is found very near the Southern Cross and also contains part of the Large Magellanic Cloud (if you use your imagination, you can almost envisage Table Mountain's famous tablecloth). The claim to fame for Mons Mensa is that it is the only constellation that's been named after one of earth's geographical features.
Did you know?
Table Mountain is also known as Camissa or 'Place of Sweet Waters'. Much of the fresh water that flows down the mountain's streams is a result of condensation from the famous Table Mountain tablecloth, which steadily seeps through fissures in the rocks and then emerges as springs. As a result, you will always find water on the mountain, even in the height of the dry Cape summer.