Photo of the week – October week #4: Table Mountain's built-up caves

Old built-up cave in the region of Fir Tree Ravine

One of the built-up caves recently discovered.

Hiking Table Mountain is first and foremost an experience of nature. Large parts of the mountain remain pristine, the environment unaltered, the peace and solitude undisturbed. The indigenous tribes of the Cape – the Khoi and San – lived on the plains around Table Mountain; if they did leave any rock art or shelters on the mountain in the course of hunting or gathering excursions, none of it has survived the passage of time. Runaway slaves inhabited the mountain during the 1700s, and the odd recluse and deserter took refuge on the mountain, but otherwise Table Mountain remained unpopulated. Archaeology is practically nonexistant on the mountain: no rock-paintings or ruins have ever been discovered and no sacred burial sites have been unearthed. Although the mountain is steeped in history, it’s recent rather than ancient or prehistoric.

In the late 1800s, with the population of Cape Town growing exponentially, an ever increasing number of people took the the mountain and began a systematic exploration of its ravines and buttresses. With the inception of the Mountain Club of South Africa in 1891, new routes of increasing difficulty were opened on all sides of the mountain. Early mountaineers often stayed overnight on the mountain in built-up caves: natural rock overhangs partially or wholly enclosed by a wall of stacked rocks. Built-up caves exist all over the mountain, some with collapsed walls, other in perfect condition, perhaps lovingly restored by later generations of mountaineers. These caves became the haunts of mountaineers; gathering places where tea were brewed and plans for an assault on a new ridge or buttress were drawn up. They can be found in the most out-of-the-way places on Table Mountain, long forgotten and never visited, built in a time when routes were opened in inaccessible parts of the mountain, nowadays shunned by climbers.

Don’t expect to see a built-up cave round every corner; they are far from common. One of the rare joys of hiking Table Mountain is coming across one of these relics in a far-flung corner. Seated on a rock at the entrance, you can’t help but wonder about the names, faces and characters of those long-dead mountaineers who constructed the walls; about their fireside conversations and their mountaineering ambitions.

Many articles in old Mountain Club journals mention built-up caves, often in the context of a pre-or post-climb tea-brewing ‘ritual’. Built-up caves exist on just about every buttress on the mountain, and several Table Mountain hikes lead past one. They offer shade from the scorching summer sun, the howling Southeaster, the driving rain or a cold, cutting wind. It’s easy to linger, to soak up the history of the place and contemplate your surroundings from the gloomy interior, ideally with a mug of tea. Barrier Cave at the base of Barrier Buttress on the 12 Apostles ranks as one of the oldest and most used. These’s an old built-up cave on Spring Buttress, another at the base of Corridor Buttress (known as Oudekraal Cave), another along the Ledges-Silverstream traverse – a popular climbing crag in earlier days of Cape mountaineering. I know of a built-up cave on Woody Buttress, on the eastern edge of the summit plateau above the Traverse Face route, in Cairn Ravine (ship-shape and ready for occupancy) and a few other obscure locations – all of them a single structure, in rare cases featuring what one could call an antechamber.

On a recent Table Mountain hike off the beaten track, I chanced upon a complex of built-up caves strung out along a rock ledge on the side of a cliff and adjacent to a perennial stream. Intrigued by the discovery, I read up on old climbing routes in the area and learned that a popular Mountain Club route dating back to the 1890s led up the adjacent crags. I noticed no graffiti or engravings – no definitive clue to the builders’ identity or the date of construction – but it’s safe to assume they were built in the 1890s by members of the Mountain Club.

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