Hiking in the Southeaster

After the rain-bearing northwesterly winds of winter and the languorous spring weather, it’s the time of the Southeaster – Cape Town’s prevailing summer wind.

As its name suggests, the Southeaster blows from the southeast … and blows and blows, and then goes on to blow some more. And at supersonic speeds – almost. Most locals detest it, even office workers! who, from the sheltered confines of their work-station, have to bear the agony of hearing it moan around the buildings and watching it sway trees and double-up pedestrians. Spare a thought for those working out-of-doors.

If the Southeaster is bad in the city bowl, it’s worse on the mountain, where it forms wild micro-climates and wreaks havoc with hikers’ hairdos. And its vaporous offspring, the Tablecloth, complicates route-finding. For those who don’t know, the Tablecloth is a veil of cloud that engulfs Table Mountain whenever the Southeaster blows. It forms when moisture-laden air blown against the side of the maintain is forced upwards, where it cools and condenses to form cloud, which the Southeaster then promptly drapes over the flat-topped summit of Table Mountain, giving it the appearance of a tablecloth.

Also known as the Cape Doctor (in former times, believed to clear the air of disease; nowadays, its role in ridding the city of smog perpetuates the name), the Southeaster sweeps across the Cape Peninsula from around October through to early March. If you’re planning on hiking Table Mountain during these months, chances are pretty good you will end up doing so in the company of the Southeaster. Generally speaking, it can’t be described as a pleasant experience: lurching through dense cloud on a wind-swept mountaintop, with no views, rarely amounts to fun. Most people – even mountain stalwarts – avoid hiking up Table Mountain on days when the Southeaster is blowing a gale, stating rhetorically that they’d rather hike in the rain than the wind.  While I have to admit that it takes a masochistic streak to enjoy hiking in a raging wind, being up there in the teeth of a Southeaster adds a certain spice to the hike: feeling the raw energy of the mountain; watching the Tablecloth plunge down the front edge of the mountain (requires good timing); sheltering in a secluded nook and listening to the warped and surreal sounds of the wind whipping about – all these add up to a special experience.

In summer, the Southeaster often blows for days on end, so unless you’re a local or in town on an extended visit, odds are you will have to brazen it out with the blustery conditions. A big advantage of the Southeaster is that it mitigates the summer heat; excessive heat can be a debilitating factor on a hike, and nothing cools more than the movement of air over your body and through your hair.

Hiking Table Mountain in Southeaster conditions calls for prudence. The mountain is not to be trifled with at the best of times, so you need to know what you’re up against when tackling the mountain in adverse conditions. Below follow a few facts about hiking in the Southeaster:

– The Tablecloth boils up within minutes, restricting visibility and complicating route-finding.

– The Tablecloth sometimes precipitates a fine rain.

– Strong wind and dense, moisture-laden cloud at altitude means cold, even on days when it’s warm and sunny at the foot of the mountain.

– Strong wind closes the cable car, necessitating a walk-down.

– Once the Tablecloth engulfs the mountain, there is little chance of getting any views.

– The Southeaster often freshens in the afternoon, peaking at dusk, therefore best to start your hike early in the morning.

– Certain routes are partially sheltered from the Southeaster.

– Routes that involve exposure to heights are more dangerous in Southeaster conditions.

In the company of a competent mountain-guide, hiking Table Mountain in the Southeaster can be a rewarding, safe and enjoyable experience.

(c) www.hiketablemountain.co.za