If there is one aspect about Table Mountain hiking that fascinates me more than any other, it’s the diversity. Specifically, diversity of landscape and terrain, and as a result, mood.
Most people know (and recognize) Table Mountain only by its famous front: that broad expanse of vertical rock towering over the city of Cape Town. This was the face that greeted explorers as they approached from the north, and over the years it has become the iconic face of Table Mountain.
But Table Mountain is far more than its distinctive façade or tabular summit. The mountain extends far to the back, encompassing many buttresses and peaks, defiles and hanging valleys, micro-climates and micro-habitats, views and vegetation. And you can experience this diversity on most Table Mountain hikes.
Let’s take a closer look at the four sides, or faces, of Table Mountain, starting with the famous front, the north face.
Apart from its iconic outline, as well as its position overlooking the city of Cape Town, the north face possesses historical significance. The first ascent led up the north face; and for centuries, sailors celebrated the end of their voyage from Europe when sighting the insular mountain take shape in the hazy distance. And when rock-climbers first braved the seemingly impregnable cliffs in the 1890s, when rock-climbing was in its infancy, it was on the north face.
Sun-baked crags characterize the north face. It’s the hottest, driest and sparsest side of Table Mountain – and arguably also the most formidable. Was it not for a gaping ravine that cuts into the ‘Table’, offering uncomplicated passage to the summit plateau, Table Mountain would never have been first ascended from the front. Now known as Platteklip Gorge, the gaping ravine has been the standard route up Table Mountain for centuries. It’s the quickest and easiest route to the summit, and therefore also the most popular.
Few other hiking routes penetrate the formidable front. India Venster dispatches with about four-fifths of the Table’s elevation before sheer cliffs necessitates a traverse round to the gentler back of the Table and from there up to the summit. Left Face B, an adventurous scramble route, carries the distinction as the only hiking route that tackles the full heights of the front face. No experience required, just a decent head for heights and a sense of adventure.
Moving round to the west side of the mountain, a whole new world opens. It starts with the western buttresses of the Table, from where a string of seaboard peaks extends along the Atlantic coast. Known as the Twelve Apostles, this dissected bastion of Table Mountain offers decades of hiking and climbing. With more lines of weakness, more hiking routes have been pioneered. The quickest and easiest route, Kasteelspoort, leads up a broad, open ravine. From the Apostles plateau, or Back Table, several well-defined trails lead up to the upper plateau (the Table).
With the city out of sight, Apostle routes offer a distinct wilderness feel. It’s easy to get perfect solitude – to wander off the beaten track and experience pristine nature. Sea views are a given on each of the many routes on offer. In my opinion, the Apostles offer the best Table Mountain hiking, especially if you appreciate nature.
The back (south) of Table Mountain couldn’t be more different than the front. Carpeted with indigenous forest, secluded, unfrequented – you could be forgiven for thinking yourself on a different mountain. There are fewer cliffs, more water, less sun, more peace and quiet. A large valley known as Orange Kloof dominates the landscape. The valley is a restricted area and access requires a permit from Table Mountain National Park. Three routes exist: Disa Gorge, Frustration Ravine and Intake Ravine.
Table Mountain’s fourth face, the eastern side, also known as the Suburban side, resembles Orange Kloof in lushness. Afro-montane forest, reminiscent of the Amazon jungle, cover the lower slopes and extend up the large ravines. The difference: grandeur. Table Mountain’s eastern buttresses rise magnificently over Cape Town’s sylvan neighborhoods. Bristling with cliffs, they soar to the full height of Table Mountain’s upper plateau. They present a forbidding and primeval face, turning benign towards the south as slopes fall back and the summits decrease in height.
Skeleton Gorge leads up at the junction between the forbidding and benign halves. A Table Mountain classic, it’s the most popular route up the eastern side. The route follows a forested ravine before breaking out onto shrub-clad slope, eventually reaching the highest point on Table Mountain. Ferny Dell – one of the most challenging Table Mountain hiking routes – tackles the imposing buttresses and ravines to the north. The route offers ample adventure, wilderness and challenge.
Then there’s the Back Table, an undulating plateau bound by the four faces and located behind the tabletop summit. Tucked away in its folds and hollows can be found micro-faces: peaklets, marshes, defiles, boulder fields, rock labyrinths, with the historic Table Mountain reservoirs set in between. Several trails traverse the area, linking the forested eastern slopes with the craggy seaboard peaks of the Apostles; and the tabletop summit with the back edge of Table Mountain overlooking secluded Orange Kloof. This edge is honeycombed with caves, some very deep, and enchanting pockets of indigenous forest grow in the fissures and hollows.
As you can see, Table Mountain is far more than the side often depicted on photos. Diversity in landscape and views is the hallmark of Table Mountain hiking.