While the weather in summer allows for some great hiking, there are two factors you need to bear in mind, and not at the back of your mind, but foremost. The first is the Southeaster and its vaporous sidekick, the Tablecloth. From around mid October through to February, a strong, at times gale-force wind tears across the Cape Peninsula, causing dense cloud to form on Table Mountain – the famous Tablecloth. Hiking Table Mountain in these conditions is unpleasant and difficult. While the wind takes the edge of the heat, it results in cable car closure, necessitating a hike-back down; in other words, when you get to the summit, you’re only halfway. And hiking down is not as easy as you might think. Because of the cloud, you also lose your views. Also, the wind is so strong, it throws you off balance and pushes you back on the uphill, making the hiking more strenuous. Certain Table Mountain hikes are more sheltered from the wind, but once you ascend above the lower slopes, you know all about it. The wind on the summit is cold and the cloud laden with moisture, even on days when down below the city bakes in the sun under cobalt-blue skies. No views, no cable car down, thrown off-balance, cold and often wet – that’s Table Mountain hiking in the Southeaster with an accompanying Tablecloth. The Southeaster is the prevailing wind in summer, so not a rare occurrence. It sometimes persists for days on end, during which time only the lower and maybe middle slopes of the mountain are visible.
The second factor you need to bear in mind when hiking Table Mountain in summer is the heat. You might think you deal well with heat, but hiking steep uphill across rugged terrain under a torrid sun will change your mind. November to February is Cape Town’s hottest time of the year, so you need to factor this in when planning your hike. Hiking in the heat is tough and unpleasant, sometimes debilitating. Dehydration and heat exhaustion is the single biggest cause for mountain rescues on Table Mountain. Also, you might be fresh out of a winter straight into an African summer and then climbing a mountain, which you might not (often) do back home, so your body is not adjusted to the heat; you’re not acclimatized. Heat can quickly turn what should’ve been a pleasant hike into a gruelling ordeal. Don’t underestimate the heat.
So what can you do to optimize your chances of getting pleasant hiking conditions, thereby ensuring a memorable experience? Firstly, book your hike early in your stay to allow for spare days in the event of bad weather. And secondly, start your hike at sunrise – or even better, 30 minutes before sunrise. Starting early beats the heat and minimizes your chances of getting wind and cloud. The Southeaster often (though not always) freshens in the afternoon only, bringing cloud over the mountain, sometimes within minutes, and shutting the cableway. The sun rises around 5.30 in summer, so starting out then will see you on the summit around 9.30am, depending on the route and your pace. That then also leaves you with the bulk of the day to do other stuff around Cape Town – yet another advantage of starting early. Starting late practically ruins the experience: you toil uphill in sweltering conditions, dripping with sweat, not caring about the views or taking photos, focused only on getting the hike done and dusted.
You get up at the crack of dawn for your game drive to optimize your chances of seeing more game, not questioning the ranger’s recommendation or game park protocol; and so it pays to get up at the crack of dawn for your Table Mountain hike to optimize your chances of having views, catching the cable car down and ensuring pleasant hiking conditions.