Summer’s around the corner, and that means hot hiking conditions that can ruin your Table Mountain hiking experience if not managed properly. With sunrise at around 5.15am in high summer, even setting out as early as 7.30am on a hot day (usually the case in December and January) results in tough and unpleasant hiking. Hyperthermia and heat exhaustion account for many Table Mountain rescues, most of them preventable by the simple decision of starting the hike at, or even before sunrise. I always find it amusing how rarely people question the predawn game-drives encouraged by game reserves, where failure to participate hazards neither health nor safety, yet rejects with disdain the suggestion of a predawn start to a Table Mountain hike.
Safety aside, hiking Table Mountain under the blazing African sun can be gruelling, especially if you’re not in great shape or used to heat. It detracts from the enjoyment of the hike through focusing the mind on your discomfort rather than the views, nature and dramatic surroundings. Far better to endure the fleeting discomfort of getting up early than the prolonged suffering brought on by a late start. It’s hard to appreciate the beauty and grandeur of Table Mountain when you’re dripping with sweat and feeling faint from exhaustion.
Another advantage of starting early is getting the soft dawn light for taking great photos – the ‘golden hour’ so valued by photographers – sometimes accompanied by a spectacular sunrise. After around 11am, the light often becomes washed out and hazy, not ideal conditions for capturing the views and topography.
Yet another advantage of starting your Table Mountain hike around sunrise is that you reach the summit before the prevailing summer wind freshens, resulting in cable car closure (which necessitates hiking back down – tough and unpleasant) and quite often bringing the Tablecloth, a thick mass of cloud that engulfs the mountain, taking with it the views. Known as the Southeaster, Cape Town’s notorious wind often springs up around noon, gaining strength in the course of the afternoon and peaking at sunset and early evening before abating in the early-morning hours. Hiking in the wind is not fun, especially in the absence of views, more so with the prospect of having to hike back down.
As if the above is not enough inducement to start early, yet another advantage of hitting the trail at dawn is that you’re back down by 10am (sometimes 11am, depending on the route and group pace), in time for breakfast and with still the bulk of the day at your disposal.
You do get cool days in summer, sure, when a 7am start wouldn’t ruin the hike, but high temperatures are far more likely and therefore it makes sense to plan for an early start.