Who Was the First European to summit Table Mountain?

Jul 28, 2023

Who was the First European to summit Table Mountain? At first thought I wanted to title this blog ‘The first man to climb Table Mountain’, but that distinction belongs to a traceless individual whose name we shall never know – probably a young Khoi herdsman or San hunter, the Cape’s indigenous people who lived around Table Mountain for hundreds of years prior to the arrival of Europeans. However, we do know the first European to climb the mountain: a Portuguese explorer by the name of Antonio de Saldanha.

Who was the first European man to summit Table Mountain?

Antonio de Saldanha from Portugal. The year was 1503, and Saldanha found himself separated from his fleet and unsure if they had rounded the Cape of Storms (Cape Point). He needed a vantage point from which to get his bearings and the lie of the land. So, when they espied a flat-topped mountain overlooking a sheltered bay, our intrepid explorer made a beeline for the coast and proceeded to climb the mountain via a deep ravine that slashed up the iconic front face. Lucky for him the summit was free of cloud, affording him clear views of Cape Peninsula and confirming their position. The climb proved helpful in more than one way, for they discovered a stream flowing down the ravine, enough to water his fleet.

Saldanha named the mountain Taboa do Cabo, meaning Table of the Cape. The ravine by which he gained the summit is now known as Platteklip Gorge (Flat Rock Gorge), and it is the shortest and most direct way to the top. It is interesting to note that, according to historical records, that Saldanha reluctantly climbed the mountain. He did it in the line of duty, for he had bigger fish to fry (establishing a trade route to India) and could ill-afford the time and energy to slog up a mountain. Also, it involved a certain measure of risk, since dangerous animals as well as potentially hostile tribes inhabited the area.

Exactly how difficult was Saldanha’s climb to the summit?

Unfortunately, he didn’t leave us with details of the climb, but we can still form a pretty good picture of what it must’ve been like. Let us contrast it with what the hike is nowadays. It takes the average hiker about an hour and a half to reach the summit of Table Mountain via Platteklip Gorge along a well-constructed path made. The elevation gain is about 700 meters – from 360 meters to 1065 meters. And you don’t have to hike down; the cable car is round the corner.

Back in 1503, Platteklip Gorge was a very different proposition. While we dodge traffic and pedestrians today on our way to the start, Saldanha and his men had to dodge lions, hippos, hyenas and leopards – all the way from the coast. Hiking Table Mountain in those days (until the early 1920s) involved an additional 360 meters’ elevation gain – half that of the actual route.

There was no path, so they had to battle through dense vegetation for much of the way. Most hikers nowadays opt to take the cable car down. Saldanha didn’t have that luxury; after a gruelling ascent, they faced an equally gruelling descent. One wonders what they had to say about the view on reaching the summit.

Who was the first female European to summit Table Mountain?

The first British woman to hike Table Mountain was Lady Anne Barnard. Along with Sir John Barrow, two naval officers, her maid, a couple of servants and several slaves (straining under the weight of cold meats, Port, Madeira and Cape wine), she set out up Platteklip Gorge in July 1797, dressed in her husband’s trousers, her shoes tied on with tape and carrying an umbrella. They reached the summit after a five-hour slog, feasted on their cold meat and drank a toast to the king.

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