The Streams and Ravines of Table Mountain – Part 3/3

Jul 28, 2023

One of the many joys of hiking Table Mountain is encountering burbling streams, a secluded pool or a cascade pattering down on solid rock from up high. The atmosphere that these features create acts as an effective medium through which we connect with nature.

Few sounds instill as much serenity as the trickle of water on a mountainside or the clicking of frogs beside a backwater pool. Add to that the grandeur and floral extravaganza on display on Table Mountain, and you understand something of the mountain’s appeal. Table Mountain routes vary greatly in character and scenery, mood and vegetation, allowing you to customize your experience of the mountain.

Which Table Mountain streams flow all year?

Table Mountain’s waterways are in a constant state of fluctuation. Parched streambeds in summer transform into torrents in winter. Few perennial streams occur on the mountain. Some of the ravines that carry water throughout the year include:

  1. Platteklip Gorge (lower reaches only)
  2. Disa Gorge
  3. Window Gorge
  4. Skeleton Gorge

Even these often end up half-dry by late summer (February / March), their water reduced to an underground seep, only to burst into life again in June at the onset of winter. Some Table Mountain hiking routes leading up ravines become treacherous and nigh on impassable during the winter months. Skeleton Gorge is such a route: graded A (technically the easiest grade), it feels more like a C-grade after a winter storm.

Where do the Table Mountain rivers start?

Mountains are known to be the birthplace of rivers. Table Mountain with its flat summit catches a lot of rain that drains down the many ravines dissecting the mountain. The mountain’s proximity to the sea barely allows its streams to grow into fully-fledged rivers. During the winter months, a single deluge can transform a placid stream into a raging torrent. Runoff is fast and furious due to the steep terrain, and there is little water retention; less so in summer, when the mountain is parched and acts as a sponge.

Hiking Table Mountain in winter, one has the privilege of tracing streams right to their source, where they start their journey to the sea as seeps near the summit. Watching rainwater percolate out from the mucky soil to form seeps is a special experience. Hundreds of seeps merge to form a stream, in turn joining other streams and swelling into torrents that thunder down the mountain.

Where do the Table Mountain Waterfalls come from?

I often get asked about waterfalls on Table Mountain. These only come into existence during winter, when Table Mountain receives around 70% of its annual rainfall. Sizeable waterfalls occur in Disa Gorge, Skeleton Gorge, Blinkwater Ravine, Silverstream Ravine, Grassy Ravine and Window Gorge. The cascade down Grassy Ravine must rank as the tallest on the mountain, appearing as a white ribbon on the eastern slopes after heavy rain.

Located high up the mountain in an inaccessible area, no one bothers to make the arduous trek to its base. If you’re visiting Cape Town in winter (June to August), hiking Table Mountain provides the opportunity to visit one or more waterfalls. These ethereal spectacles occur along several Table Mountain routes.

Is Table Mountain water safe to drink?

A detail often remarked on about Table Mountain’s water is its amber colour. Streams in the Western Cape are also referred to as blackwater streams, as the amber water takes on a black appearance in deep pools. The colour is caused by chemical compounds (polyphenols, specifically tannins) leaching out from dead leaves. Plants on Table Mountain produce polyphenols as defence against herbivores, as it makes the leaves unpalatable.

The presence of polyphenols only affects the water’s colour, not the taste. And it’s perfectly safe to drink. Some streams on Table Mountain filter through clay soils, allowing the polyphenols to bond chemically with the surfaces of the clay granules, ridding the water of its amber hue. A good example is the Platteklip Stream, whose water emerges crystal-clear at a point just above the Contour Path.

Table Mountain Subterranean Streams

Which brings us to the existence of subterranean streams on Table Mountain. I know of three places on the mountain where water mysteriously emerges or disappears. No doubt, more such places exist. One is the Platteklip Stream, mentioned above, lifeblood of Cape Town up until the 1880s. Obvious along the gorge’s lower reaches, the stream appears a short distance above the Contour Path.

Even in high winter, with water flowing down all the ravines on the mountain, the middle and upper reaches of Platteklip Gorge remain virtually waterless. Aditionally In the Valley of Isolation on the Twelve Apostles hike, a small cave allows one to visit a stream that flows through the mountain, its outflow a mystery.

Is there water on the top of Table Mountain?

Another unique aspect of Table Mountain’s water is its presence on the upper plateau (the actual tabletop). For much of the year, large parts of the summit plateau are waterlogged. The eastern Table also contains extensive marshes, and even features a lakelet (a small natural pool).

About a meter deep during winter, the lakelet gets topped up by the moisture-laden Tablecloth cloud-formation during the long, dry summer months, when at times it dwindles to barely more than a marsh pit. As for swimming possibilities, it’s too cold to enjoy in winter and too shallow in summer, but fun and invigorating to wallow in on sultry spring days, when the water level is still high enough for a complete immersion. Be sure to take the lesser-used trail past the Lakelet when traversing across from Maclear’s Beacon.

Are there springs on Table Mountain?

Finally are the springs of Table Mountain: those rare places where a seep or drip occurs outside a watercourse throughout the year, even when the mountain bakes under a torrid sun. Several springs exist on Table Mountain, and no one can profess to know the location of all. Back in the early days of mountaineering, hikers and climbers relied on springs for their water supply.

Between the 1920s and 1950s, some were graced with small cement ponds to pool the water for convenient drinking. Nowadays, hikers and climbers carry their own water, only resorting to springs when their own supply run dry. Springs are rare and exist on Table Mountain as the equivalent to an oasis in the desert. Keen to see one when hiking Table Mountain in the mid-summer heat? Join the knowledgeable guides of Hike Table Mountain for a visit to one of these wonders of nature.

Why should I Hike Table Mountain?

The history of Cape Town and its people is inextricably entwined in the streams that flow off Table Mountain. The city has the mountain to thank for its existence. As hikers and climbers, we continue to draw sustenance from Table Mountain’s streams, sometimes to quench our thirst or revive the body, but more often to drink in the vitality and peace they bring to the surroundings. Table Mountain hikes offer a diversity of sights and scenes, and the burbling brook and backwater pool feature commendably among them.

Need Help?