Table Mountain hiking in Southeaster conditions – 15 September 2015

Cape Town’s four-seasons-in-a-day weather becomes even more erratic and capricious on Table Mountain, where the higher altitudes generate orographic weather that mostly operate independently from predictions ventured by the erudite folks at weather offices. Furthermore, the mountain’s expansive summit area give rise to micro-climates that further complicate weather-forecasting. Since weather conditions impact greatly on hiking Table Mountain, let’s take a brief look at a major Cape Town weather occurrence that can be predicted with an unpredictable measure of predictability: the famous, and equally notorious, Southeaster – the city’s prevailing summer wind.

As the name suggests, the Southeaster blows from the southeast, often for days on end, usually at gale-force speeds. Once believed to clear the city of the airborne bubonic flue, and nowadays doing a great job clearing the air of smog, it acquired the name of the Cape Doctor. It blows from around late October to late January, typically generating the Tablecloth, a bank of cloud that engulfs Table Mountain. Pretty from afar, the Tablecloth does not serve the needs and preferences of the average hiker. In wind- and cloudless conditions, Table Mountain hikes appear much more tame than in Southeaster conditions, when the wind moans around the rocks and dark cloud pours down from the summit. Seen as a scourge by most local hikers, the Southeaster possesses a few esoteric positives that most locals would dismiss with a wave of the hand. But annoying as the Southeaster may be, it forms an integral part of Table Mountain hiking as well as its formation.

In exactly what way does the Southeaster impact on Table Mountain hiking? The Tablecloth typically forms when the Southeaster blows, complicating route-finding and blotting out views; often also dampening the rock, creating slippery conditions. The cable car does not run in windy conditions, necessitating a walk-down – an extra 2 hours of hiking, and tougher than you think. Hiking against the wind, or across it, requires more balance. Routes that involve scrambling become harder and in some cases dangerous. The Southeaster allows for little conversation, so you’re hiking mute or with speech marked by monologue.

But since the Southeaster blows most days in summer, it makes sense to resign yourself to its impertinence and prepare adequately to maximize safety and enjoyment. Book your hike early in your stay to allow for spare days in the event of bad weather / Southeaster conditions. Start your hike early in the morning: the wind and cloud typically appear later in the day. Pack a warm layer of clothing and a rain-jacket. Know your route; if you don’t, go with someone who knows it well – or make use of a competent Table Mountain guide. Lastly, keep in mind that the Southeaster and Tablecloth form an integral part of the character of the mountain – so don’t curse it. You might lose your views, get your hair ruffled, forego the luxury of a cable car descent, get damp, hike with the unsteady gait of a Saturday-night drunk, but the mountain has its moods like all of us, and it’s not always pleasant. Besides, experiencing Table Mountain’s wild side – the landscape and atmosphere rendered otherworldly and foreboding and mystical by wild wind and scudding cloud – is nothing less than a privilege.