Hiking in Table Mountain National Park
MOUNTAIN MEANDERERS | Sharon Henry
A somewhat misplaced reputation as ‘intrepid’ walkers led to an invitation from the ‘Mountain Meanderers’ of Cape Town, South Africa, to join one of their weekly Friday hikes; so here we are. Our new walking shoes need breaking in as do my legs again after five languid days on the ship from St Helena.
Today’s excursion has been arranged by our friend, Billy Leisegang. The Mountain Meanderers are a group of retirees refusing to succumb to the ‘old age’ stereotype preferring instead to maintain their fitness with weekly jaunts up the local mountains.
Constantia Nek, part of the Table Mountain range, is being assaulted today by the group of nine, plus Darrin and I. We start at moderate pace, following a neatly cut path that is soon heading upward quite steeply. It’s a beautiful day and getting acquainted with everyone as we walk helps the climb.
From the get-go the group proves that 60 and 70 is obviously the new 40. Ian, a quiet 77 year old, tells me he runs ultra marathons; races that go beyond the traditional 42k. He is also an active member of a Tuesday walking group, so he hikes twice a week.
The African sun is a bearable 23C today with no wind, in complete contrast to the sizzling 42C temperatures a few days ago, the hottest day on record in almost a century.
After about 30 minutes we take a breather overlooking the thriving Constantia vineyards. Sadly, a feature across the distant landscape is the smoke from wildfires which have been plaguing the Cape Peninsula for a few weeks, closing many walking trails as a consequence.
Having only recently hiked Constantia Nek, the group decides to split: the main group will continue on the scenic route via a concrete jeep track, but Darrin and I will go with Billy on an adventurous trek via Eagles Nest and Camel Rock. We agree to meet at the summit in two hours.
Our alternate trail is a much more vertical climb up large boulders and through brush. I hardly have time to take photographs; both hands are required for grip. These new trainers are getting well and truly tested.
Somehow after each section we climb, there seems to be another above us, each offering magnificent bird’s eye views. We can see False Bay in the distance and the Constantia valley, the tip of Hout Bay in the opposite direction and ‘table cloth’ cloud formations clinging to the mountains. Although the route is more of a vertical climb than we’re used to, the terrain is firm so it doesn’t feel as perilous as some of the Post Box walks on St Helena.
Vegetation up here in the Eagle’s Nest area is similar to St Helena; geraniums, reedy grasses and a cabbage-like tree. A variety of Cape Town’s tropical and exotic protea flowers are growing along the pathway, colours ranging from dusty pink to bright fuchsia. (No, we didn’t see any eagles)
Billy tells us there’s a threat of muggings and other crime whilst hiking on the mountains. He carries mace or pepper spray as a precaution. Park rangers routinely patrol the area. Encounters with baboons are also possible and we’re advised that if they show interest in backpacks, it’s best to hand them over. They’ll rummage through for food and move on. Yikes! Other hazards on the mountain are snakes; cobras and adders. Hopefully these critters will keep well away from us.
Exertion from the steep climb is taking its toll and I’m starting to flag. Desperate for a sugar fix we stop in a shady area where I devour an energy-boosting Snickers bar. Feeling like Popeye once he’s swallowed spinach I practically sprint up the last giant boulders to reach the summit.
We’ve climbed approximately 560m in an hour and 45 minutes. The views from the top, approximately 730m above sea level, are spectacular as we take one last look back in the Hout Bay direction before heading off across the green plateau that is strewn with large rocks of all shapes and sizes.
It looks like we’ve stepped into a stony Jurassic Park. The rock formations resemble weird sculptures that could resemble exotic creatures –with the use of a little imagination.
Camel Rock is appropriately named and the light is superb for photos.
Soldiering on we finally rejoin the main group who are having lunch at De Villiers dam. It’s taken 10 minutes short of two hours since we split up. My shoes performed brilliantly and legs are still working.
There are five reservoirs on top of Table Mountain, constructed between 1896 and 1907 to supply Cape Town with fresh water. De Villiers dam is the smallest; we also walk to Alexandra Dam.
Having taken the ‘easy’ route up, the group decides to take the ‘not so easy’ route back down. With magnificent views of Constantia below, we make our descent. Full concentration is required as we delicately pick our way down over smooth boulders. I often find walking downhill worse than going up; it’s a strain on joints and increases the chances of slipping.
Totally unfazed is 76 year old Delene Stamper, who only four years ago underwent a knee replacement operation yet continues to hike. Even arthritis now can’t keep Delene away from the mountains. Only with some prompting does she tell us she’s crossed a glacier in Pakistan, scaled Mount Kilimanjaro and hiked K2’s base camp in years gone by. Today she’s in a hurry to get home to bake a birthday cake for her god child’s daughter.
We stop periodically, captivated by the drama of helicopters and crop dusting planes tirelessly fighting a smouldering wildfire on a neighbouring hill. Grey smoke lingers as the aircraft dump water or some other fire suppressant over the affected area.
Eventually the path trails out and we trek the last hour quite comfortably back to the car park.
We’ve just completed a six hour hike, including breaks and photo calls. It’s been the most wonderful day out. The Mountain Meanderers have taught me age really is just a number and doesn’t always have to dictate our lifestyle choices. What an inspirational bunch of people.