A sailor turned survivalist on Table Mountain

Aug 10, 2012

Most people who hike up Table Mountain come back down the same day. Some overnight in one of the huts on the Back Table; and every so often, a lost hiker is forced to overnight on the mountain in a more primitive manner. But when American sailor, Joshua Penny, hiked up Table Mountain back in 1799, he only descended 14 months later.

Penny didn’t stay up there to botanize or admire the scenery. He was on extended AWOL – Absence Without Leave. Impressed into the British Navy (though certainly not impressed by it), Penny promptly deserted on arrival in Cape Town and took to the mountain with two loaves of bread, a calabash of brandy and a flint. In his own words (from his ‘book’, more a pamphlet, circa 1815):

“This appeared to me a good opportunity to improve for my deliverance, so that I resolved to counterfeit inability, if necessary to attain this end. I continued six months under doctor’s care, and he reported me incurable; but the captain said ‘the yankee feigns his sickness, so as to get at liberty – to run away from the hospital.”

The captain was right. Penny must’ve been a good actor, for so well did he feign illness that “I was put into a blanket, slung on an oar and carried by two men (to hospital).”

Penny wasn’t only a good actor but also a survivalist of sorts. Holed up in a cave about two thirds of the way up the mountain, “in a cavern which secured me from storms, near a spring of good water”, Penny lived off the land, hunting antelope and rock hyrax, collecting honey and grubbing bulbs, even brewing a herbal beer – and not seeing another human being for the duration of his exile from civilization.

“I had become perfectly reconciled to my condition – had abundance of meat, sorrel, honey and water: and every night could sing my song with as much pleasure as at any period of my life. In fine, I never enjoyed life better than while I lived among the ferocious animals of Table Mountain; because I had secured myself against the more savage English.”

The day arrived when, noticing only a trading ship in Table Bay and no British naval vessels, he considered it safe to descend the mountain. And so he did, not bothering with a wash, shave, haircut or change of clothes. Determined to secure a passage back to America on board the merchantman, he “marched through the town unobserved by any one except two or three servants, who continued to gaze obliquely at me as long as I could see them. The boat was coming to the shore as I approached it, with two men and the captain, as I supposed. I tried my power of speech to prepare myself. The captain landing advanced guardedly towards me, I stepped up to meet him and asked if he wanted to ship a man? He was surprised to hear me speak, and asked, What in the name of God are you! man or beast?

Penny’s cave was discovered in 1892 by a member of the Mountain Club of South Africa and contained several artefacts and pieces of clothing in a state of decay. In 1894, prominent mountaineers G.F. Travers-Jackson and J. Searle visited the cave and found a large piece of coarse canvas, a number of bones, a brass tinder-box, the neck of an old-fashioned bottle, the bowl of an old clay pipe, the remains of a calabash, large limpet shells, several pieces of iron, two round basket-tops and fragments of cloth. This confirmed the identity of the cave’s occupant as that of Joshua Penny.

In 1958, two members of the Mountain Club visited the cave to see if anything remained. Most of the items listed above were found (under a layer of hyrax droppings, owl pellets and dust) as well as some others like a brass belt-buckle and a piece of bone fashioned as a tool for scraping skins. All the smaller items are currently on display in the Mountain Club library in Cape Town, where they bear mute testimony to a tough and resourceful man who made Table Mountain his home in a time when few souls ventured onto the mountain.

As for the location of Penny’s cave, it can hardly be in a more inaccessible part of the mountain, even nowadays with so many trails crisscrossing the mountain: about 600 meters above sea level, in Fountain Ravine on the west side of the mountain. I visited the cave on two occasions and was surprised how open it was, exposed to the elements, especially winter storms blowing in from the northwest. There are ‘caves’, or rock-shelters, of similar size on other parts of the mountain that are built up with stone walls – but no sign of a wall were ever found in Penny’s cave, which is quite strange.

Hardly anyone visits Penny’s cave despite its recent inclusion in guidebooks on Table Mountain hikes. The area remains wild and rugged, with only one hiking route – a challenging one – traversing that part of the mountain. I think Penny would’ve preferred it so.

(c) www.hiketablemountain.co.za