Quote of the week – November week #1: Hiking Table Mountain back in the day

“November 5th to 6th. – Peninsula week-end to the Southern Apostles, Table Mountain. Official climbs: Hairpin Route (‘C’ difficulty) and Victoria Gully (‘B’ difficulty). Nov. 5th was threatening. There were 25 in camp. A party of 16 ascended the Hairpin Route.”

Extract from the 1932 Annual Report of the Cape Town Section of the Mountain Club of South Africa.


I chanced upon this nugget of history the other day while perusing one of my vintage Mountain Club Journals. The content alone would’ve been enough to pique my interest, but reading the words from the yellowed and musty pages of the old Journal supercharged them with nostalgia and a sense of antiquity.

To appreciate the significance of the extract, one needs to know something about the routes mentioned therein. Victoria Gully nowadays is an obscure route, rarely done and rarely talked about. Prominent Cape Town climber and author of climbing guidebooks, Tony Lourens, recently included it in his new edition of Table Mountain Classics, the definitive guidebook on hiking and moderate climbing on Table Mountain. Prior to its inclusion, the route was an endangered specie, teetering on the brink of oblivion. And despite its inclusion, it will remain obscure and unfrequented due to its long and rugged approach. I have been up Victoria Gully on three occasions and look forward to another repeat.

But Victoria Gully’s obscurity pales before Hairpin Route. Opened in 1930 by D. Gordon Mills, M. Versfeld and H.G. Wood, Hairpin Route must rank as one of the most obscure and remote routes on Table Mountain. In fact, it’s debatable whether it still qualifies as a route, since it hasn’t been done in decades (and therefore languishes under a dense growth of bush). To even the most avid Table Mountain hiker and aficionado, the knowledge and details of Hairpin Route is about as important as (in the words of George Elliot) “…the surplus stock of false antiquities kept in a vendor’s back chamber.” It’s doubtful that the route’s existence is known to more than, say, half a dozen people – if that many. The mists of time has buried the route for perhaps all eternity. Yet, sixteen people made the trek out to the start of the route (located on a nondescript and remote buttress) way back in 1932 and proceeded to climb it! Those were the days when weekend trips were made to outlaying parts of the Table Mountain massif, and when you had no trouble signing up 16 souls on a questionable adventure up a far-flung corner of the mountain. And it wasn’t a shortage of routes that compelled the 1930s rambler to seek out the likes of Hairpin Route; lots of lines had been opened by that time.

I have trekked out to the start of Hairpin Route – an undertaking in itself – and gave it one look to know I wasn’t going to attempt it. Its location on a steep, bushed-up slope next to Disa Corner (a prominent corner on the Southern Apostles just north of Victoria Buttress) cannot be described as attractive. Still, I’m intrigued by it and might well one day find myself on a return mission to see what exactly induced 16 people to climb it back in 1932. So remote is the route’s location, you could sit around the start for years, decades even, and not encounter another person.

A further entry to that year’s Annual Report is of an ascent of the Hiddingh-Ascension route via the Ferny Dell variation – in my opinion, the most challenging hiking route on Table Mountain. A whopping fifty four Club members attended! Knowing the treacherous and exposed terrain in Ferny Dell, it’s hard to imagine a group of 54 groping their way up that forbidding gully. Like with the above routes, Ferny Dell rarely sees hikers, and for good reason.

If you’re looking for adventure, unspoiled nature or deep solitude, hiking Table Mountain will not disappoint. If you don’t know your way around the mountain, best to tag along with someone who does and who can assure your safety. Hike Table Mountain offers personalized and guided hikes and scrambles up all the routes on Table Mountain (except Hairpin Route!).

(c) www.hiketablemountain.co.za