With the Southeaster season fast approaching, let’s look at a few facts and realities about hiking Table Mountain in Cape Town’s famous, or notorious, wind. For those who don’t know, the Southeaster is Cape Town’s prevailing summer wind, blowing, as the name suggests, from the southeast from around mid October and fizzling out in February. It’s a consistent wind, often blowing up to 5 days non-stop, and often at gale-force speeds. Accompanying the Southeaster – affectionately known as the Cape Doctor – is the famous Tablecloth, a veil of cloud that engulfs Table Mountain, looking like a slow-moving waterfall spilling over the sheer front face of the mountain. It also looks like a cloth being laid over a table… All very pretty to look at from the sheltered and cosy confines of home or office, but quite a different beast when you’re on the mountain.
While it’s perfectly okay to hike Table Mountain in Southeaster conditions, with Tablecloth laid, it’s not very pleasant. For starters, the cable car doesn’t run, so getting to the summit brings you to only the halfway mark of your hike; and the walk down is strenuous. And with cloud scudding around the summit, views are not to be had. Add cold and damp conditions, and being thrown off balance by the raging wind, and you can understand why hiking Table Mountain in Southeaster conditions are not ideal. But it’s not all bad news: cloud on the mountain creates a very surreal environment. Devoid of people and views, the landscape takes on an almost eerie and otherworldly appearance. Also, the raw energy of the wind makes the mountain feel alive and charges the atmosphere with energy.
Some Table Mountain hikes are more sheltered from the Southeaster, so there are options if you are as averse to the wind as the average Capetonian. Ideally, you want to catch the Tablecloth in its early stages, as it starts to creep over the mountain. Watching the cloud creep over the mountain from the western side of the summit plateau – which typically gets the Tablecloth last – is nothing short of a majestic sight. No less dramatic and exhilarating is to watch from midway up the mountain as the clouds stream down the sheer cliffs of the mountain, swirling around pinnacles and buttresses, eddying into ravines and racing across the lower slopes.
The Southeaster along with the Tablecloth is part what makes Table Mountain unique. And if you’re prepared to get your hair ruffled, and to leg it down the mountain, it reveals a facet of Table Mountain hiking, and of the intrinsic character of Table Mountain, that will invigorate you and remain etched in your mind for a very long time. So while the discomfort level of hiking in Southeaster conditions might be high, the experience level is equally high. A cautionary note: hiking Table Mountain when the Southeaster is blowing and the mountain is cloaked in dense cloud can be dangerous if you don’t know the mountain and you don’t prepare well. It’s very easy to get lost in the cloud, and the combination of strong wind and moisture-laden air makes for cold and damp conditions. Do not be fooled by balmy conditions in the city center; the summit of Table Mountain generates a micro-climate that differs greatly from what is found at sea level. A few days a year, the Southeaster is so ferocious, and wet (known as a Black Southeaster), that it’s not justifiable to hike up.