Years ago, I found myself in Cape Town, South Africa, with an open itinerary and an eager determination to explore as much as possible. The imposing presence of Table Mountain, overlooking this stunning city, beckoned me. It might be that I have hiking in my blood, but there was certainly an underlying force calling me to hike to the top.
Standing at 3563 feet above sea level (Mount Everest stands at 29029 ft), reaching its summit would likely require hours as opposed to days. In fact, most hikers can conquer it in half a day or less, depending on the chosen route, which bodes well for its popularity as climbing and camping gear are not needed.
With a day dedicated to this upcoming hiking adventure, I ensured I took the time to explore other highlights such as the Cape of Good Hope, Kristenbosch Botanical Gardens, Cape Town’s city center and surrounding waterfront. I also delved into the history of Langa apartheid district and museum, and even indulged in some wine tasting in the regions northeast of Cape Town.
All fantastic choices for half day or full day trips depending on how granular one likes to get based on preferences. At the same time, the highlight I anticipated the most was the ascent of Table Mountain.
While some opt for the cable car—a convenient choice for many—the avid hiker in me knew that reaching the pinnacle was a journey best undertaken on my own two feet. Table Mountain, with its breathtaking backdrop to Cape Town, offers vistas that, on a clear day, are simply awe-inspiring. From the Cape of Good Hope to Robben Island, a place steeped in history for housing Nelson Mandela for 18 of his 27 years of incarceration, the scenery unfolds like a living tapestry.
There are a fair number of routes one can ascend to the top. With trailheads on all sides of Table Mountain, hikers have no lack of choice. For me, choosing the Platteklip Gorge route was a decision more out of convenience than anything else. Central and just a 20-minute drive from my downtown hotel, it made perfect sense.
I had visions of not being able to find parking anywhere close to the trailhead, however, making sure to get a relatively early start, and arriving around 8 am, I was surprised at the ample parking I found: a good start to the day. Hoisting my pack on my shoulders, with a good supply of water and some protein bars in tow, I set off for the start.
The only unpredictable factor at this point, was the weather. Cape Town and its environs are known for swiftly changing weather patterns. The day began bright and clear, but as I reached the trailhead, overcast skies loomed. Table Mountain’s position often invites clouds formed by the South Easterly wind. They rise against the mountain, condensing moisture and creating an ethereal cloud cover, sometimes culminating in rain, sleet, or even a touch of snow, depending on the season.
Undeterred, I pressed on, as I was well prepared with a light wind/rain jacket for my outer layer. I’m a proponent of always hiking in layers and adjusting to the hike as needed by adding or subtracting my hiking clothes. On this particular hike, I did not take trekking poles with. It was about a 50/50 split of other hikers using them from what I gauged. For longer hikes with significant altitude gain, I would have certainly brought them, but I considered this a shorter hike that I could manage without.
The hike itself, at 1.8 miles, isn’t long by most standards, but the 2339 ft elevation gain meant a steady incline throughout. As I climbed, a very light rain greeted me, gentle but persistent. Higher up, clouds enveloped the trail, creating an almost mystical ambiance, like ascending into the heavens.
The best photo spots along Platteklip Gorge I noted, were within the first 45-60 minutes of the ascent. As the Western ridgeline rose, views of Cape Town and the ocean below became obscured. A great reason to stop and take your photo ops within the first hour of the trek up.
For the international hiker, Table Mountain seemed like a magnet. Conversations in different languages filled the air. Passing fellow hikers, some ascending, some descending, a sense of camaraderie forged through shared pursuit of this remarkable peak. We often get wrapped up in our own worlds, but to see so many nationalities having accomplished and pressing on to the same feat as me was somehow invigorating. The trail was by no means busy, but I probably passed around two dozen other hikers either going up or down.
Near the top, visibility became nearly zero. I’d ventured into a cloud, and if there was a marked path to the Upper Cable Station, it eluded me. Following the trail, I eventually stumbled upon the station which lies roughly a 30 min walk from the top of Platteklip Gorge. While slightly disappointed to miss the panoramic views, I relished the exhilaration of having scaled Table Mountain.
I treated myself to a late morning tea and scone at the Upper Cable Station cafe. (Yes, there are washrooms located within for those wondering). As I sat with my late morning snack, I pondered the many tourists who took the cable car to the top. I’m sure the views are stunning through the cable car route (however not likely on this cloudy day), but realized I wouldn’t change a thing.
The original plan was to hike up Table Mountain, and take a cable car down. Knowing though that the visibility was poor, and I would need to get back to my car parked at the trailhead, the simple choice was to hike back down the same gorge. As previously stated, the top of Table Mountain was immersed in clouds and visibility was poor. There are multiple other tracks and paths on top of this mountain, and I nearly stumbled past the Platteklip gorge descent from above, even after having just come from it an hour prior, it all looked unfamiliar to me. Once I found it, the descent, as expected, was swifter. I encountered a few tricky steps due to intermittent rain, but no major mishaps. Back at my car, having completed the round trip with a 30-minute stop at the upper station, the entire journey took about 4 1/2 hours.
While numerous routes lead to Table Mountain’s summit, the Platteklip Gorge route proved to be a gratifying choice. Whether influenced by its proximity to my hotel or its directness, I was content with my decision. The ascent was not just a physical accomplishment, but a testament to the desire and ability to conquer a natural wonder on my own terms. It’s an experience I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone visiting Cape Town. The rewards, both personal and in the views it affords, are immeasurable.
Joel Speyers: Co-Founder of www.prep4travel.com