Table Mountain hiking in the Southeaster – 12 January 2016

Cape Town summers are marked by the occurrence of a strong wind known as the Southeaster, locally known as the Cape Doctor. It blows from around early November to early February, sometimes for days on end. As a fair-weather wind, it typically brings clear skies to the Cape with hot conditions prevailing, but its consistency and ferocity tends to get under your skin, making it the scourge of the Cape Town summer. Irritating as it may be, it clears the city of smog and also takes the edge off the often oppressive heat. As far as Table Mountain hiking goes, the Southeaster is a force to be reckoned with.

Hiking Table Mountain in the Southeaster can be an unnerving experience, with the wind moaning and whistling down the craggy slopes, and dark cloud pouring down from above. The first thing you should understand about Table Mountain hikes in these conditions is that it’s not abnormal: you’re not experiencing bad luck. As Cape Town’s prevailing summer wind, it buffets the mountain relentlessly, generating cloud on the summit that pours down the sheer front face of the mountain – an atmospheric phenomenon knows as the Tablecloth.

Tackling the mountain in Southeaster conditions makes for more challenging conditions. It’s harder to maintain your balance, especially on rugged and exposed terrain; cloud on the mountain makes route-finding much harder (not an issue if you’re with a competent mountain-guide); and the cableway doesn’t operate in windy conditions, necessitating a hike-down – tough for most people. But the rewards are there: fewer people on the mountain, often majestic cloud-formations, the chance the experience a wilder side of the mountain.

Table Mountain’s ecology and formation are inextricably entwined with the Southeaster. The wind is part of the mountain’s character. Table Mountain owes much of its shape and unique rock formations to the erosive action of the Southeaster. Many rare orchids species exist only in the mountain’s mist belt, generated by the Southeaster. Many plant species rely on the wind for their seed dispersal. The mountain would’ve been very different in the absence of the Southeaster.

If you really can’t stand the wind, several Table Mountain hikes lead up sheltered slopes. However, the famous Tabletop summit usually gets the brunt of the wind. Square your shoulders and take off your hat, as wind speeds of around 120 km/h occur on the summit plateau at times. If your timing is good, you get to witness a rare and most impressive sight: the Tablecloth racing across the summit plateau and plunging down the sheer front face of the mountain.

Windy conditions shouldn’t surprise you when hiking Table Mountain in summer, much like finding a market or mall to be crowded. Being high up on the mountain in the teeth of the Southeaster and with the Tablecloth engulfing the mountain is nothing short of an exhilarating experience.