Skeleton Gorge: To do or not to do

Apr 24, 2012

I’m often amazed at how many people, even non-hikers, know about the existence of Skeleton Gorge. In some ways, it has achieved brand status when it comes to hiking on Table Mountain. Certainly, most literature and websites featuring an article remotely related to Table Mountain hasten to sing its praises. This might explain why the words ‘Skeleton Gorge’ would ring a bell to even the most inveterate mall-rat or sofa-slug; and who then claims to have done it at some point in the distant past.

Let me first qualify what exactly constitutes the Skeleton Gorge route: Skeleton Gorge is a ravine on Table Mountain, the top of which is far from the actual tabletop summit of Table Mountain. From the head of this ravine / gorge, one latches onto a path known as the Smuts Track that leads to Maclear’s Beacon, the highest point on the mountain. And from there, one traverses the entire summit plateau to the upper cable station (by which time you readily opt to ride down in the cablecar as opposed to walking down). For the purposes of this article, ‘Skeleton Gorge’ includes all three segments mentioned above: the actual ravine known as Skeleton Gorge, the Smuts Track and the traverse across the summit. Many people assume the route name ‘Skeleton Gorge’ to include all three segments, as they are often strung together to form a single route. Nothing wrong with that; one just need to be aware of the distinction.

Rivalled only by Platteklip Gorge in renown, Skeleton Gorge ranks as one of the main routes up Table Mountain. In this article, which I intend to be definitive in its assessment of the route, I will cut through all the clutter and noise surrounding the route, from rose-tinted reviews to slapdash articles written by hiking neophytes and those professing to know Table Mountain.

Skeleton Gorge is like a good book in that you’ll find those who wax lyrical about it, while others dismiss it as so-so. But overall it’s a ‘good book’. Not for everyone, but a good read – a readable tale. The route has merit, no doubt about that, but it still might not be the best route for you. To gain some objectivity, let’s take a closer look at some aspects of the route and how they can be a determining factor in your overall enjoyment of it.

Length: Skeleton Gorge is a strenuous route. Starting out on the southeast slopes of the mountain and meandering across to the northwest corner, it covers a distance of about 6.2 km (3,8 miles) and gains around 930 meters (3100 feet) in elevation. If your fitness is below average, you will take some degree of strain. Even so, if you’re out to push yourself, then no problem. But if you have a leisurely walk in mind without breaking much of a sweat, then you’re in for a rude awakening.

Vegetation: The first half of the route (more or less) follows a forested ravine. If you’re not a forest person, or you live in a forested area back home and don’t care much for them while on holiday, or you want views on the way to the top, then half the route will be disappointing. But if you enjoy forests, or perhaps want to experience Table Mountain’s unique Afro-montane forest (reminiscent of some types of jungle in the Amazon rainforest), you will enjoy the first half of the route. Some people love forests, others find them claustrophobic, sinister and boring. If you’re the latter type, then the route is not for you.

Character: Skeleton Gorge takes in all the floral zones on the mountain. And by the time you reach the upper cable station, you will have had views in all directions. It also leads through some of the less-visited parts of the mountain and offers interesting asides like the Table Mountain reservoirs. If you’re a peak-bagger (someone whose principal goal is the attainment of a summit), or you don’t want to walk more than 3 hours, or you couldn’t care much about nature and solitude, then Skeleton Gorge will fail to impress. Furthermore, the route offers little in the way of scrambling and exposure to heights (low adventure factor), so if you’re an adrenalin-junky or something of an Indiana Jones, then Skeleton Gorge is bound to leave you disenchanted and dissatisfied.

But like Dan Brown’s best-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code (not everyone’s definition of a good read), Skeleton Gorge has mass appeal. It ticks most boxes of what the majority of hikers want out of a route. It’s a deservedly popular route that does justice to the beauty and diversity of Table Mountain. And the route’s positives (full range of views, all floral zones, relative solitude) measures up well against the negatives (no views along first half, strenuous and verging on monotonous along the middle stretches).

Not sure this route is for you? Allow the professionals at Hike Table Mountain to match you with the right route. We realize the importance of route-selection in the overall experience of Table Mountain and therefore take the time to learn more about you – your fitness level, experience, preferences, interests, sense of adventure, expectations, principal reason for wanting to hike Table Mountain, etc. – before suggesting a route.  Different strokes for different folks, as the saying goes, and we subscribe to that.

One question that begs to be answered is how Skeleton Gorge got its name. The anti-climactic answer is, no one knows for sure. Whereas we know the origin of almost all the route names on Table Mountain, this one remains shrouded in mystery. It’s a very old route and has been known by its present name since the late 1800s; so one can only assume that a skeleton was found somewhere in the gorge around that time. A German with a strong accent on a hike with me some time ago thought he knew the answer when he asked me if the skeleton of a man called George was discovered in Skeleton Gorge. Maybe we should just go along with that.