Platteklip Gorge

Jul 4, 2012

Myself and 2 others went up by the great opening which the hill makes, being like a valley but wondrous steep, the rocks on each side upright like monstrous walls, from which there is a continual distilling water.” PETER LUNDY ON PLATTEKLIP GORGE, 1634

It’s not because I like Platteklip Gorge that I sit down to write about it. But as the most popular and well-known route on Table Mountain, it has to be done. I could keep it short and reel off a string of superlatives – oldest route on Table Mountain, quickest and shortest and most direct way to the summit, the least scenic and exciting way up the mountain – but in all fairness, it deserves a bit more attention and elaboration.

As a monotonous and fairly easy route, Platteklip Gorge has been the butt of mountaineering wit since the late 1800s, with the advent of rock-climbing on Table Mountain and the opening of harder, more challenging hiking routes. In the old days, those who used Platteklip Gorge (or ‘Platties’, as local climbers and hikers often refer to it) as their preferred route to the summit were called ‘Platteklippers’ by fellow mountaineers – and not affectionately so, I suspect. With that out of the way, let’s look at a few interesting facts about Platties and then go on to consider its merit as a hiking route.

Platteklip Gorge saw its first visitor as early as 1503, when Portuguese explorer, Anotonio de Saldanha, used it to gain the summit, becoming the first white man to climb Table Mountain. Platteklip in those days were an altogether different proposition than what it is today: the full height of the mountain (1060 meters or 3480 feet) had to be climbed, whereas nowadays hikers drive up to the trail head situated at 360 meters, reducing the overall elevation gain by a third. And needless to say, De Saldanha didn’t have the luxury of an open path, but had to fight his way through dense vegetation. Add to that the absence of a cable car for an easy descent and the existence of dangerous animals (lion, leopard and hyena), and you’d think twice about calling De Saldanha a ‘Platteklipper’ in the derogatory sense of the word.

Platteklip Gorge got tamer as more people settled at the Cape and climbed the mountain. Presenting no technical difficulties, no complex route-finding and no exposure to heights, and offering water along its lower reaches, made the gorge the obvious way of gaining the summit. The dangerous animals were shot to the point of extinction (the last lion falling to a bullet in 1802), while the dense vegetation were cut away and trampled. Things got even easier in the 1920s, with the advent of motorized transport and the building of the cableway along with its access road. It was round about then that someone coined the word ‘Platteklipper’…

In July 1797, Platteklip Gorge witnessed the first woman hiking up Table Mountain: Lady Ann Barnard. Accompanying her were Sir John Barrow, two Naval officers, and her maid as well as a couple of servants and slaves carrying meats and wine. The ascent took five hours and they stayed overnight on the summit, only descending the next morning.

An amusing story from the gold-fevered 1880s involving Platteklip Gorge tells of a shrewd Cape Town shopkeeper who displayed a gold nugget in his shop window, declaring its origin as Table Mountain. This unleashed a small gold rush that saw droves of fortune-hunters toiling up Platteklip Gorge. Great was their delight when they found the shopkeeper awaiting them halfway up the mountain, ensconced in a cave, selling beer and cold drinks and miners’ hardware like picks and shovels. No gold was ever found, and when the gold-seekers returned to the cave, the shopkeeper was gone.

Platteklip is both a Dutch and Afrikaans (modern Dutch derivation) word meaning ‘flat rock’. The name was given by the Dutch in the early 1600s, taken from the existence of a smooth granite slab low down in the gorge (where it resembles more a gully). The gorge slices diagonally up the north (front) face of Table Mountain, dividing the tabletop into two sections: the eastern and the western Table – the former about two-thirds as long as the latter. It’s also the only ravine that breaks the distinctive profile of the mountain, more visible when viewed from the northeast. More a slope than anything else along its lower reaches, the gorge comes into its own right about two-thirds up the mountain, where it narrows between impressive cliffs to a three-meter-wide corridor at its head known as Die Poort, Afrikaans for ‘The Portal’.

The stream that flows down Platteklip Gorge is barely perennial, dwindling to a seep in late summer (March). The winter rains – June to August – transform it into a torrent that floods sections of the trail. Curiously, the stream seems to flow underground along the upper reaches of the gorge – or rises from sizeable aquifers – emerging only further down at a point just above its junction with the contour path at elevation 500 meters.

As a hiking route, Platteklip Gorge does not do Table Mountain justice. It’s better than taking the cable car to the summit, but it ranks as the least attractive route on the mountain. Why? Because it’s basically a stone staircase that winds up a steep slope, providing little in the way of stimulation. Adjacent buttresses and the sheer sidewalls limit the views on the way up. It has its dramatic moments, when cloud spills down from the summit into the gorge’s upper sections, creating a spectacle of swirling and eddying mist. But for much of the time Platteklip Gorge is a heads-down slog – all 1800 steps of the way. Also, as the most popular route on the mountain (by virtue of the accessibility it offers to the summit), it sees a lot of hikers and therefore offers little in the way of solitude and an experience of nature.

Despite my negative sentiments on the route, Platties’s got a few redeeming qualities. The geology along the upper sections are impressive, especially when the Tablecloth cloud-formation blows in. Bonus points for serving as a quick, safe and hassle-free descent route on bad-weather days. Also, it offers uncomplicated access to the summit for those with little time or interest in nature, and whose only goal is to ‘bag’ Table Mountain i.e. ticking it off on their bucket list or as a peak climbed. Since the next easiest route to the summit brings into play either technical difficulty or greater distances / elevation gain, Platteklip Gorge comes in handy when you have doubts about your fitness level or general physical condition.

Although the easiest route up Table Mountain, Platteklip Gorge should not be underestimated. The route gains around 700 meters (2300 feet) over a distance of only 3 km (just under 2 miles), so the gradient is steep and relentless. Also, in summer the sun beats down directly into the gorge till mid afternoon, turning it into a furnace. If you start late on a hot day, you’re in for a hell of a hike. Cloud on the mountain can also complicate matters, when finding the trail from the head of the gorge to the upper cable station becomes tricky, as this excerpt from The Mountain Club Annual, 1894 attests:

During this month, after many vain attempts, the beacon at the head of Platteklip Gorge was erected by the efforts of Mr. Nash, and has been of good service on many occasions. A stranger, who had lost his way during a mist, described in feeling terms the delight with which he hailed this beacon, and how he had embraced it in his gratitude to those who had caused it to be there.”

Whatever route you end up doing, the most important thing is that you hike Table Mountain as opposed to taking the cable car. Hiking up gives you an appreciation for the mountain as well as the views, and leaves you radiant with a sense of achievement – neither of which can be experienced with the cable car.