The first European to climb Table Mountain

Nov 1, 2011

At first thought I wanted to head this blog with ‘The first man to hike Table Mountain’, but that distinction belongs to a traceless individual whose name we shall never know – probably a young herdsman or hunter from the Khoi-khoi tribe, indigenous people who settled around Table Mountain hundreds of years before the arrival of the white man. However, we do know the first European to climb the mountain: a Portuguese explorer by the name of Antonio de Saldanha.

The year was 1503, and Saldanha found himself separated from his fleet and unsure as to whether they had rounded the Cape of Storms (present-day Cape Point). He needed a vantage point from which to get his bearings and the lie of the land. So when they espied a flat-topped mountain overlooking a sheltered bay, he made a beeline for the coast and proceeded to climb the mountain along a deep ravine running diagonally up the front face. Lucky for him the summit was free of cloud, for he got clear views of False Bay to the southeast, confirming their position: they had not yet rounded the Cape of Storms. The climb proved helpful in more than one way, for they discovered a stream of fresh water flowing down the ravine, enough to water his fleet.

Saldanha named the mountain Taboa do Cabo, meaning Table of the Cape. The ravine by which he gained the summit is now known as Platteklip Gorge (Flat-rock Gorge), and it is the shortest and most direct way to the top. It is interesting to note that, according to historical records, Saldanha reluctantly climbed the mountain. He did it in the line of duty, for he had bigger fish to fry (establishing a trade route to India) and could ill-afford the time and energy it took to slog up. Also, it involved a certain measure of risk, since dangerous animals (lions, leopards and hippos) as well as potentially hostile tribes inhabited the area.

So exactly how difficult was Saldanha’s climb to the top? Unfortunately, he didn’t leave us with details of the climb, but we can still form a pretty good picture of what it must’ve been like. Let us contrast it with what the hike is nowadays. It takes the average hiker about an hour and a half to reach the summit of Table Mountain up Platteklip Gorge, along a well-constructed path made of rock-steps. The elevation gain is about 700 meters – from 360 meters, where you leave your car, to 1065 meters on the summit. And you don’t have to walk down; the cable car is round the corner.

Back in 1503, Platteklip Gorge was a very different proposition. While we dodge traffic and pedestrians today on our way to the start, Saldanha and his men had to dodge lions, hippos and an unknown indigenous tribe – all the way from the coast (and sea level). There was no path, needless to say, so they had to battle their way through dense vegetation for much of the way. Most hikers nowadays opt to take the cable car down. Saldanha didn’t have that luxury; after a gruelling ascent, they faced an equally gruelling descent. One wonders what they had to say about the view on reaching the summit.

Just for the record, the first woman to climb Table Mountain was Lady Anne Barnard. Along with Sir John Barrow, two naval officers, her maid, a couple of servants and several slaves (straining under the weight of cold meats, Port, Madeira and Cape wine), she set out up Platteklip Gorge in July 1797, dressed in her husband’s trousers, her shoes tied on with tape and carrying an umbrella. They reached the summit after a five-hour slog, feasted on their cold meat and drank a toast to the king. Unlike other early travellers who climbed Table Mountain, they opted to stay overnight on the summit, only descending the next day the way they had come, Lady Anne sliding down most of the way on her rear.

Although Hike Table Mountain offers hikes up Platteklip Gorge as their easiest half-day option, we only pack Port and wine on very special occasions.