Lion’s Head – A Classic Cape Town Walk

The city of Cape Town is situated in a natural amphitheater, formed by three mountains that embrace it. Of course Table Mountain on its southern side is the best known. However it is the mountain on the western edge of the city that is the darling of Capetonians. This is the mountain known as “The Lion”. It has been known by this name since the days of the Dutch settlement, and got its name from its resemblance to a lion lying on its belly. The tallest rocky section represents the head of the lion and the furthest and lowest part of the hill is the rump of the lion. Welcome to the Lion’s Head.

Lion’s Head is Part of Culture and Tradition

This mountain is steeped in history and tradition. Low down on the rump of “The Lion” is signal hill, from where a cannon is fired at noon everyday except on Sundays and public holidays. Many first-time visitors to Cape Town are shocked and frightened by the loud boom of the noon-day gun, only to relax when they notice that the locals do not react to the noise! There are in fact two canons. Both of them are loaded but only one is fired. The second is a back-up in case the first one fails to fire. These ships guns were manufactured in London in 1794 and brought to The Cape for the first British invasion in 1795. They are the oldest muzzle loaded guns in the world that are still in use.

It’s a Burial Place

Also situated on the lion is the tomb of one of Cape Town’s early Moslem spiritual leaders. This is the burial place of Sheikh Muhammed Hassan Ghabi Shah al Qadri and it is still visited by devout moslems seeking spiritual inspiration.

lion's head

In the early days of European settlement this area teemed with wild animals and in 1959 the journal of the first commander of The Dutch East India Company, Jan van Riebeeck, relates how the clothing, skull and bones of a missing soldier were discovered at base of The Lion mountain, presumably killed and devoured by a lion.

The Popularity of Lion’s Head

Lion’s Head is a favourite hike for Cape Town residents and has become a popular hike for visitors to the city too. The hike is relatively quick, taking less than 3 hours to ascend and descend. It is also considered easy, although it involves a fair amount of rock scrambling and people who are easily scared of heights do struggle.

When the the Table Mountain cable car is not operating, Lion’s Head is an excellent alternative hike for visitors wanting a good walk. The views from the top as well as during the ascent are spectacular, offering some of the best perspectives of Table Mountain and the 12 apostles, as well as great views on the city bowl, the waterfront, Camps Bay and Seapoint.

It has become very popular to hike up Lion’s Head in the late afternoon in order to watch the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean and then to descend by torchlight. In the summer months this expedition can be timed to coincide with the full moon, which rises close to sunset, and makes the descent more visible and navigable.

The Route

The route up is unmistakable and starts as a wide dirt track, which later narrows to a footpath. This path spirals around and up the mountain until it reaches the knife-edge and then goes straight-up the spine to the summit. Along the route there is an option to take a short-cut via a climb with chains provided for added security and assistance.

The walk also provides some geological, zoological and botanical treats. The route passes through three of the major geological formations of the Cape Peninsula Mountains and these very different rock types are clearly visible. In fact it is like walking through millions of years of history.

The lower slopes are covered in the beautiful but endangered protea known as the Silver Tree (Leucodendron argenteum) and on a breezy day these are magnificent to behold as they flash their silky silver leaves in the wind. At the top one regularly sees Rock Hyraxes (Procavia capensis), which never fail to delight. I have even seen a particularly beautiful Striped Harlequin Snake (Homoroselaps dorsalis)on this route.

What to bring:

Comfortable and sturdy walking shoes or boots are necessary. On the rock scrambling section you will be grateful for suitable footwear. It is very exposed on this route and can either be baking hot on a still day or very cold on a windy day or evening. So sun-screen and a hat are strongly advised, as is a warm layer of clothing. And in spite of its apparent ease never venture onto this route without sufficient water. The Lion’s Head trail is a deceptive walk. Treat it with respect and it will certainly be a highlight of your visit to Cape Town.