Table Mountain Activity Guide

The Cape Peninsula is home to one of the world's most beautiful cities.

Words by Fiona McIntosh

Photographs by Shaen Adey

©Photo: 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 Cape Peninsula is home to one of the world's most beautiful cities. There can be no other metropolis on earth where hundreds of hiking trails are within an hour's drive of the city, covering the full spectrum of difficulty, from perilously precipitous to laid-back leisurely.To aid your choice, the information on walking has been divided into Ambling, or easy walks (this chapter), Wandering Along (the traverses running along the sides of the mountain), Going Up (which includes routes to the top of the main table as well as other notable peaks,), Scrambling and Speciality Trails.You'll soon discover that easy walks abound, from the Lion's Rump to Cape Point. Whatever your level of hiking fitness, there is an easy walk for you. So, take a look at some of the best value-for-energy walks, starting in the City Bowl and ending up at 'land's end' - Cape Point.

The Noon Gun

Take a downhill stroll to the Noon Gun, making sure you arrive at five minutes to noon. (Sundays and public holidays would offer a disappointing end, as the huge cannon is silent on those days.) Start from the near left-hand corner of the parking area, at the end of the Signal Hill Road. Cross over the tar road up which you have just driven and get onto a gravel road leading downhill for 20 minutes (keeping left at a fork) to the fascinating Lion Battery, from which Cape Town's world-famous Noon Gun is fired.The Battery is open to the public between 11:00 and 13:00 Monday to Saturday. Although it was only completed in 1890, the tradition of firing a Noon Gun in Cape Town has been around since 1806, when it was fired from The Castle of Good Hope. The gun was moved to its present site on 4 August 1902, due to city expansion. Today it is fired electronically from The South African Astronomical Observatory, in Observatory, at precisely 12 noon. In fact, it couldn't be any more precise. The Observatory has an atomic clock with an accuracy of close to one millionth of a second.

Camps Bay to the Green Point Contour

Take the winding road down to Clifton from the top of Kloof Nek. At the first hairpin bend, park your car to start the Camps Bay to Green Point Contour, with its spectacular views of the Atlantic Seaboard. You'll find that only the first five minutes of this walk require any effort. The rest is a delightfully scenic and gentle stroll overlooking the beautiful 'Sunset Coast' from the side of the Lion's Rump.Look down the length of the Twelve Apostles chain as a backdrop to trendy Camps Bay beach. Gaze down onto the famous Clifton beaches and come uncomfortably close to the upmarket mansions of Fresnaye, then the flatland of Sea Point and finally the sportsfields of Green Point Common before eventually reaching Signal Hill car park. You will need a car at each end of this route - or turn back when you've had enough.

Constantia and Newlands Forest walks

Further down the peninsula, you have a choice of visiting paradise or hell. Hell is actually prettier, but paradise isn't too shabby. A choice of two forest walks, both in the heart of suburbia, will leave you amazed that you are in the suburbs. Not a house in sight - just verdant lush forest. One is De Hel in Constantia, the other is Paradijs, the old name for Newlands Forest. Both were buiteposte (outposts) established by the Dutch East India Company to supply timber for shipbuilding repairs, as well as fuel.Continually burning open fires were the order of the day for everyone from cooks to coopers. These forests became the pillars on which the Cape's timber supply depended. De Hel is on the left-hand side, some 750m (2 460ft) down from Constantia Nek, on the road to Constantia, Tokai. Get down to the floor of the valley really to appreciate the isolation. A circular route should take you about an hour. Newlands Forest, alongside the M3 freeway, has a myriad of paths to offer.A favourite option is to explore the lower reaches of the forest to some ruins - rather erroneously known as Lady Anne Barnard's cottage. The cottage was in fact the master woodcutter's house. In the late 1790s with the Cape under British rule, the cottage was used briefly as a weekend getaway by Lady Anne Barnard and her husband Andrew, the Deputy Colonial Secretary. She must have been quite something, our Lady Anne, because nobody ever talks about him 200 years down the line.Because of her description of Paradijs in her diary, the site became known, rather inappropriately, as Lady Anne Barnard's cottage. Your taste of paradise will take an hour and then return you to the entrance gate. But why the heaven and hell connotations to the naming of these outposts? One line of thought goes that Newlands Forest was considered to be paradise by the woodcutters because it was so close to the fleshpots of Wynberg and the Tap House at Driekoppen, which is today called Mowbray.De Hel, on the other hand, was far from the basic pleasures of life, besides which it was right next to Simon van der Stel at Groot Constantia, allegedly the most cantankerous so-and-so in the colony. A place so close to the devil incarnate had to be hell. However, the truth is that Paradijs was rather well named, but De Hel is a corruption of the Dutch 'De Hellen', which means 'the slope'.

Silvermine Reservoir Boardwalk

Although Silvermine Reservoir is on a mountain top, it's easily accessible by car from the top of Ou Kaapse Weg. It's also a superb spot for a picnic or braai and the 20-minute boardwalk circuit of the dam is even wheelchair friendly. You can't get easier than that. (Bear in mind that swimming is no longer allowed.) The dark 'cola-tonic' appearance of the water is due to the presence of organic matter (mostly tannins). The colouring has been leached from the roots and bark of vegetation growing in the catchment area. It is harmless, but is removed from the water in the purification process, more for practical industrial reasons than for anything to do with potability.

Cape Point Lighthouse

'The land God made in anger', has been said to describe Namibia. But He must also have been in a pretty grotty mood when he made Cape Point. According to the weathermen, this is the windiest place on the African continent. It blows here at an average speed of 35 kilometres an hour throughout the year. But don't let this fact put you off, or you could be missing out on an interestingly different place. A little over half an hour will take you on a gentle downhill slope from Cape Point to the Cape of Good Hope.After you have done the touristy thing by taking the funicular railway from the parking area to the old lighthouse at Cape Point, get your hiking shoes on and do the easy 1.6km walk (0.9 miles) to the Cape of Good Hope. Make sure you have someone to pick you up at the other end, or be prepared to do the uphill return route for around 45 minutes. Cape Point has been blessed with not one, but two lighthouses. The one you will visit by funicular railway was a dismal failure and hasn't shone for many a year.Erected at a height of 211m (692ft) in 1857, it was soon found to be pretty useless. The lighthouse was highly visible in clear weather but often became obscured by cloud when the weather turned bad - precisely when it was needed the most. When the Portuguese ship the Lusitania was wrecked on the treacherous rocks below the lighthouse in 1911, the message became clear, if not the lighthouse. It was soon decided that the original lighthouse had been a bureaucratic bungle and a more effective one had to be built lower down the cliff. This lighthouse is only 71m (233ft) above sea level, but its light is clearly visible in most kinds of weather.

Further reading

Easy Walks in the Cape Peninsula, Mike Lundy, Human & Rousseau - A great book for families, infrequent walkers and armchair hikers, this book is exactly what it says: a selection of hikes that all can enjoy. And you can be assured that, even if you are hopeless at following maps and instructions, you will not get lost. The descriptions are detailed and precise, and enlivened by historical, botanical and anecdotal information.

Sign of the times

In the not-so-far-off days when ships depended heavily on the accuracy of their chronometers for navigation, Cape Town's Noon Gun served the very practical purpose of allowing ships in the bay to reset their timepieces accurately. However, as the sound would take six or seven seconds to reach them in the bay (representing a huge error in navigational terms) the gunpowder was formulated to give off a large puff of smoke, so that noon was when you saw it, not when you heard it. But, standing next to the gun, you don't just hear it, you literally feel the shock wave. You will be surprised at how much noise a 1.36kg (3lb) charge of gunpowder in a small cotton bag can make.

How did Clifton get its name?

The Atlantic suburbs took a long time to develop into South Africa's most sought-after real estate. Jan van Riebeeck and his successors were far more drawn to the extremely fertile ground surrounding the Liesbeek River. But today old wooden bungalows on postage stamp plots in Clifton sell for millions of rands. This beautiful place was originally known by the rather unbecoming name of Schoenmakersgat (Shoemaker's Hole). Free burgher Adam Tas, in his diary of 1697, describes the unsavoury cobbler who lived there as Jacobus de Schoenmaker, scum of a cobbler and his cross-grained slut of a wife.

Harsh words - and then they named the place after him! But Clifton almost certainly got its present name over a century ago, from the owner of the original Clifton Hotel, Mrs Bess Clifton.

Did you know?

The only other cities in the world that fire a Noon Gun are Hong Kong, Rome and Nice, but all these are fairly recent innovations.

Did you know?

The name 'Silvermine' is a complete misnomer. Although shafts were sunk in the area between 1675 and 1685 at the behest of the Lords Seventeen in Amsterdam, not one ounce of silver was ever found in the area. To carry on for 10 years without success, they were either stupid or very determined. Or was it perchance a way of soliciting funds from Amsterdam?
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