Cape Town’s prevailing summer wind, the Southeaster, is now in full blow. Also known as the Cape Doctor (from a 19th-century belief that it cleared the air of the Bubonic plague), the Southeaster is not a crowd-favorite. But is does a good job of clearing the city of excess smog while taking the edge off the oppressive summer heat. When it comes to hiking Table Mountain, the Southeaster is more than just a literal force to contend with. The Tablecloth, a veil of cloud that engulfs Table Mountain, typically forms in Southeaster conditions. Moisture-laden air is blown against the mountain and forced to rise, where it condenses to form cloud. The Southeaster sometimes boils up in minutes, cloaking the mountain end to end and restricting visibility to a few meters. Loosing your way in the dense cloud is easy. The summit quickly becomes bleak and hostile: cold, wet and the wind tearing across the plateau.
Table Mountain hikes that are relatively straightforward in benign conditions become a lot harder in a raging Southeaster, with heavy cloud pouring over the mountain, leaving the rock wet and slippery, and obliterating topographical features that might have served as landmarks. Blindly following an unknown trail could well lead you onto steep, dangerous terrain; many Table Mountain hiking routes contain sections of awkward and exposed scrambling, even though they might start out with a series of innocent rock-steps. In the company of an experienced guide, hiking Table Mountain in the Tablecloth can be an exhilarating experience. They surroundings are charged with energy, and the sight of cloud scudding down the mountainside and across the rugged landscape entertains almost as much as uninterrupted views.
Though hiking Table Mountain in the Southeaster might not rank as the most pleasant way to experience the mountain, bear in mind that the Southeaster and Tablecloth are both integral to Table Mountain’s character. These atmospheric phenomena are part of the mountain, and they happen to occur during summer, from around mid October to early February. If you’re on the mountain and the wind picks up, or if you headed out in blustery conditions for lack of another chance, just go with the blow; don’t fight or curse it. Appreciate it as a facet of Table Mountain that has played a major part in the shape, topography and vegetation of the mountain.