Travelmag published this story “. . . the clothing, skull and bones of the soldier given up for lost on the 30th of last month were found at the extremity of the Lion Mountain, about 300 roods* from the beach. The cranium was half bitten off, so it is presumed that he was devoured by a lion” – journal entry of the governor of The Cape Colony, 12 September 1659.
No longer do lions roam the foothills of Table Mountain but its proximity to the bustling urban fare of cosmopolitan Cape Town is disingenuous. Exploring the iconic massif remains an inherently and steadfastly wild experience.
Indeed, the mountains that make up the Cape Peninsula, stretching from Table Mountain to the Cape of Good Hope, look much as they did when the Khoisan people occupied the lowlands below. Covering a good slice of the region, the 25,000 hectare Table Mountain National Park – proclaimed in 2004 – is sandwiched between oceans carrying the cold Benguela current originating in Antartica and the warm Aghulas current from the tropics. The environment and weather they help create contributes to one of the most diverse botanical zones on the planet, boasting 2285 plant species, of which about 70% are endemic to the Cape Botanical Kingdom. Add magnificent scenery and world class walking and it’s easy to gather why I specifically designed a five-day walk to penetrate and explore this unique mountain spine hovering between two seas.
Europeans first saw the Cape five hundred and twenty years ago, when Bartholomeu Dias was swept passed the Cape of Storms in a tempest of Shakespearian magnitude. However for millennia before this historically significant event, which ultimately resulted in European colonisation, the Cape had been home to other cultural groups.
For at least 10,000 years prior, Indigenous cultures subsisted below the imposing cliffs alongside a vast array of wild animals. From Dutch settlement in 1652 Cape Town itself grew dramatically to become a large, modern commercial centre. Table Mountain, however, has remained essentially unchanged, indifferent to the progress bustling at its feet.
Maclears Beacon (the highest point on the mountain) towers 1087m above sea level and is still subject to sudden and dramatic changes in weather. In spite of the rush of humanity around it, the Mountain remains defiantly wild. This may sound obvious, but it is clearly not apparent to the hundreds of people who get themselves into difficulty or die on the Mountain, victims of thinking that the proximity of Cape Town means that it is a tame place. Not always so: the Table Mountain Rescue service performs approximately 170 rescues per year.
A trek through the park is invariably graced with sightings of wildlife that one would not expect to see so close to a major city. Not long ago we watched a pair of majestic Black Eagles teaching their fledged chick to fly by repeatedly
taking away the Rock Hyrax that they had hunted for it and removing it a short distance so the chick had to fly to earn its meal. On the same trek I was amazed to come across a 67-strong herd of Eland, the largest antelope in the world as well as a family of Ostrich having a dip in the sea!
On the macro-scale (between July and November) we regularly see Southern Right Whales close inshore, sometimes immediately behind the breakers. These behemoths can weigh in at 80 metric tons and measure up to 17 metres. On the other end of the wildlife scale, yet equally fascinating, we have watched female spider-hunting wasps carrying their immobilised prey, which are many times larger than themselves, back to their nests to provide fresh food for their offspring.
We almost always see the pretty Angulate Tortoises. The males have an extended lower shell, which can act as a lever during territorial disputes when they overturn rivals onto their backs. In the dry summer months these tortoises ingeniously obtain water during misty periods by pushing their snouts into the sand, raising their rear legs and drinking the water that condenses on their shells and trickles down to collect around their head.
The walk through the Park is varied to say the least. We climb mountains, cross beaches and spend time traversing rocky shores, which of course provide an insight into a whole different world of nature. Here we see those rugged creatures that make a living within the harsh limits of the inter-tidal zone, having to cope with extreme heat as well as extreme cold, desiccating dryness as well as being submerged and exposure to aquatic as well as terrestrial and aerial predators. It’s a rough life hanging-out at the seashore.
A few times every year we are fortunate enough to see Cape Clawless Otters. Normally these secretive, crepuscular animals live in fresh water streams, but here they have adapted to living and hunting in the ocean and only periodically venturing into fresh water. Recently we sat on a low cliff and watched one of these graceful animals hunting amongst the kelp in swimming-pool clear water. It caught a fish and came ashore, where we watched it consume its meal.
Of course, it’s not all wildlife and hard walking in the wilderness. Wind downs from the walking are a treat with evenings in Cape Town’s beautiful lodges, famed cuisine, outstanding wine and hospitality. One thing that has remained the same since the Khoisan people foraged for food along these seashores: the seafood is still abundant and excellent. I do, however, suspect the quality of the wines has improved in the intervening millennia.
* A “rood” is an old measure of length equivalent to approximately 7 metres.