Brocken Spectres

Jun 19, 2012

For all that Table Mountain offers in the way of views and landscapes, it also serves up a little surprise every now and then. Of this, I was reminded on a hike this morning across the summit plateau.

Taking in the superb views from a rock perched on the eastern edge of the Table, I watched a fog bank engulf the rugged slopes, swirling past the buttresses and creeping across the summit. My location was off the beaten track, with sculpted boulders scattered around me, the silence intense. And with the approaching fog adding a sense of mystery and eeriness to the place, I couldn’t have been in a happier space.

But then a rainbow started to form in the vaporous void below me – a small, compact one bent back on itself to appear circular. That in itself would’ve been a memorable experience, but things just got weirder: with the sun  directly behind me, I watched my shadow project out into space and center itself  within the rainbow. A more superstitious man unfamiliar with the phenomenon would’ve had some profound interpretations for what he was beholding, and who could blame him.

Knowing that I was witnessing a Brocken Spectre, I still had the chilling sensation of being sucked into a time warp – or wormhole; of entering a portal into another world. Picture yourself alone on a mountaintop, mist wafting around you like restless spirits, a circular rainbow appearing out of nowhere, your shadow stretching out to meet it, legs elongated, body framed by a multicolored halo. Was the universe trying to tell me something? I mean, why else would nature wrap a rainbow around my shadow, beamed out before me like an apparition?

So how does the Brocken Spectre form? It usually happens when a person looks upon mist or fog from a height, with the sun shining from behind. The person’s shadow is cast on the fog, the apparent magnification of the shadow being an optical illusion, the rainbow resulting from diffraction of sunlight (same as with a normal rainbow). Depth perception is altered by the mist, causing the shadow to appear more distant and therefore interpreted as larger than normally expected. It can occur anywhere in the world where conditions allow for its formation.

First described in 1780 by Johann Silberschlag, the spectre got its name from the Brocken peak in the Hartz Mountains in Germany, where it is often seen. Legend recalls a climber who fell to his death in these mountains after being startled and terrified by the sight of his elongated shadow enclosed in a rainbow. If only he had read my Blog …

So whenever you’re on a mountain again and clouds threaten to blot out the view, remind yourself that you might be moments away from witnessing a spectacle of light few people get to see.

Join Hike Table Mountain on its unique Brocken Spectre hike, where we will trek to a secret location on the mountain that offers views onto a perpetual Brocken Spectre. Not really. But we can show you lots of other cool features and sights on the mountain.


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