Climbing Table Mountain

“I can’t do it!”

Across a generational, cultural, and racial gap, I know exactly how this girl  feels.

I’m halfway up Table Mountain, and I am all over the views and the flora.  I hate Table Mountain because the path up is composed of blocks of stone many of which are a couple of feet high. My short legs are burning with lactic acid and resentment.

“Have a rest for a minute,” I say, patting the large warm rock next to me.

“Don’t tell her that! We’ll never get her up again,” says her irate youth worker.


“Err…just think what a great achievement it will be when you finish. And at least you are on your way down.”

The large lump of a girl rolls her eyes at me and almost collapses on my shoulder. It wasn’t a real collapse, but a universal teenage “whatevs” gesture to the irrelevance of the achievement of climbing a mountain to her life, and maybe to the irrelevance of me, too. I know how she feels. But she carries on down, and I carry on up. There is no alternative.

Given that we were in Africa there was a disproportionately small number of black people;  some families and some youngsters, some were with youth workers, some were with their mates. The taxi driver who took us back to the hotel climbs it every week.  My mum’s carer, Faith, who comes from Soweto, climbed it when she was twelve. It was a school trip and they got the bus, an all day and night journey, and then climbed the mountain the next day, with harnesses, so they must have gone on a different route.  But Cape Town is full of tourists from all over the world. There were hundreds of people from everywhere with us that day. If we weren’t on a mountain it would have been a United Nations madhouse.

I’m taking this photo, putting off clambering up this lump of sandstone.
I started writing this blog at dusk on the balcony of our apartment at the Mandela Rhodes Hotel in Cape Town. Below is traffic noise and the sound of a drum, maybe a steel drum, and above birds, redwing starlings, are piping to each other.  Directly opposite is a view of this crazy mountain, and left, a Cape Town version of Toworth Tower, my own local unlovely but loved lump of concrete and glass.  You can’t get away from Table Mountain when you are in the Cape. Everywhere you go it imposes a view of itself until “I’m Table Mountain, Climb Me” is etched on your retinas and you find yourself clamped to the side of it, with all the other people.
Table Mountain
We arrived at the bottom of the view from our window, thinking we’d climb it, and come down by cable car.
Climbing Table Mountain - 1 of 32 (5)
That will be a no, then.My husband and I had been warned by the staff at the hotel against going up alone, as there is a lot of poverty and crime in Cape Town. That was our biggest worry at the  start of our climb, that we were going to get mugged. We felt like we’d been mugged by the time we got down, but that was by the mountain, not by any ne’er do wells.

People are very pleasant on crowded mountains. Some give a big smile and say “Hello, how are you doing?” as you struggle up and they breeze down. Others will patiently wait behind you as you labour and when you give way to them by collapsing on a large stone at the side of the narrow route they will thank you for your generosity and tell you you are doing well, which you patently are not, and that you will get there, which seems doubtful. Small children dance up the mountain around you and young adult/goat hybrids bound up in their impatience at being bound to a narrow path by inhospitable scrub. But they are all very polite.

There were some fellow travellers also slowed down by load/fitness level/too many coats/sighing teenage girls/ being Japanese/French. The French party were a family of Mum, Dad and two teenage daughters. The Mum asked us the way in bad English at the bottom of the mountain and then got humpy when I replied in bad French. This just replicates my experience of being in France. My bad French is at least as good as their bad English, but they won’t give me a chance.

We overtook each other at various points as they took leisurely  brunch and lunch and photography breaks and I took my time, panting, during which time the French Mum’s attitiude changed from irritation to pity, which seemed to be emblematic of our recent Brexit history.

One of the things that kept me going was wanting to get to the top before the French. But no. They overtook me finally at about ten yards from the top. Yards, mind, not metres.

We met a Korean Missionary who asked us our age, and commiserated. He was a few years younger than us and said what a big difference those few years make when climbing a mountain. That did not make us feel any better, Man of God.

A guy dressed like a Japanese sumo walked steadily and sweatily past, broadcasting Japanese Temple kind of music from a boom box tied elaborately to his chest.

Four Japanese girls displayed exquisitely refined motor movements in a sort of tea ceremony, kneeling on a large flat stone about three quarters of the way up, breaking out a thermos of coffee and jam doughnuts. They did not look so at home scrambling up the two to to two and a half foot high stones. They wore thick coats in strong sunshine, and a couple of them were wearing brand new Burberry wellington boots. They looked mad.

I was wearing my hiking boots, which I’d bought for my “hoilday’ trekking up and down Albanian Alps. We would never have attempted the Table Mountain climb if we had not felt fully prepared by doing the Albanian Alps. We would never have done the Albanian Alps if we’d known what the Albanian Alps were actually like. Really and truly, we were not fit enough for either and yet we’ve done them both.

I exchanged pleasantries from an unfit guy from Boston Massachusetts, who was working for Nike. He was one of the few people I overtook on the way up, and seemed to be the only other person with my personal achievement level of unfitness and we commiserated on what an unpleasant experience it all was, this climbing up one of the most famous landmarks in the world. And did I know that it was designated one of the New Seven Wonders of the world? No, I didn’t. Amazing, eh? And shortly  we would  be  climbing down it again, this seventh wonder.

The views were of course breathtaking. They were breathtaking at the bottom of the climb as we started on Tafelberg Road, which is 300 m up and the spread of the bay is spectacular.


They were vertiginous and breath-taking nearer the top.

IMG_6665.jpgIMG_6433 2.jpgAnd this was when we noticed that the bit of the top we were aiming for, Platteklip Gorge, was filling with fog.

Climbing Table Mountain - 1 of 32 (27)  After a while the breath that we started to take was filled with that fog.

Everyone we passed started to say, “You are only 30 minutes from the top! It’s a great view up there! The fog clears away! You’ve done brilliantly.”. The passers by gave us the same time frame for about an hour, so I can only presume that the earlier ones were coming down much more quickly than the later ones.

When we got to the top, the fog cleared a bit and it was almost exactly like arriving at the middle of Hampton Court Maze. There was an area to sit, some written information, a couple of stone monuments, and an atmosphere of “Now what do we do?”. There was a little bird who seemed uncomfortable too. IMG_6651.jpgClimbing Table Mountain - 1 of 32 (30) At the top of the climb is an area no-one seems to know what to do in. Should one eat ones’ sandwiches here? Is this all there is to to see? Should we go back now? At least, on Table Mountain, unlike the middle of Hampton Court Maze, this is not all there is.

Then we found some more steps up onto the plateau and the viewpoint. These were the steepest steps and there was a chain to help pull yourself up this bit. At the plateau at the top people were appearing and disappearing into the fog.IMG_6644.jpgIMG_6654 2.jpg

IMG_6623.jpgWe did get some superlative views over the bay, and also of The Lions Head, which we found out later was the trek we really should have undertaken, it being much the easier option. Thanks for not telling us, folks.


Climbing Table Mountain - 1 of 32 (19)
The Lion’s Head, left, is the easier option. Nonetheless we heard reports of of a Canadian woman with vertigo curled up in a ball at the top, refusing to come down, the day after our own climb.

Not many of my pictures did justice to the views. The scenery emerged from the cloud cover, I admired it, and then the fog rolled in as I recovered my camera. My iphone had died in my pocket on the way up making random and numerous extreme heavy breathing  phone calls to people in the UK. No-one complained. Maybe it was the altitude which made the auto lock fail.

IMG_6616.jpgIMG_6637.jpgClimbing Table Mountain - 1 of 32 (7)

We saw dassies, rock hyraxes, which resemble plump delicious looking guinea pigs, supersized, nibbling in the foggy gorse among the dollops of granite magma rocks. They are actually related to elephants, sharing quirky and not unattractive features like not having a scrotum.

There were brilliant oily green and blue coloured little sunbirds,

Climbing Table Mountain - 1 of 32 (20)affectionate pigeons, and redwinged starlings, who weren’t only unafraid of us lumbering humans, but empathic in a way that was I’ve never encountered before in an animal apart from dogs. The way they looked at us was as if they didn’t see us just as a chance for an easy meal, but felt for us, and what we had just done, and more to the point, what we had to do next.

Birds South Africa
Here’s a scrotumless dassie, communing with a red-winged starling. Dassies spend 95% of their time just lying about. Maybe they are wondering, why, why are my testes tucked into my abdomen?
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The fog suddenly cleared to reveal this wild display. I took a photo and then noticed the French family, looking rather annoyed at the base of the plants. I was not taking a picture of the French Family.

We would have been really happy if the cable car had been running to take us down, but no, it was having an off week. We followed a couple of American girls who seemed to know their way back to the gorge and the descent, then, in the cold fog, the only thing that was perfectly clear was that they were lost, with us, at the top of the mountain. We walked around the surprisingly large terrain at the top,  possibly, probably, in large foggy circles. Eventually we came back to the incredibly steep steps with the chains and started our descent. The fog cleared. Half way down, we made a bad decision on a fork on the path and took a quicker but even steeper drop.IMG_6665.jpg

IMG_6680.jpgOh god, how I ached. Bajram is fitter than I am but I know he was glad of the rests I imposed on him. Then the wind set in and almost blew us down the mountain rather more quickly that was safe.

Lots of people pay a lot of money to learn mindfulness. It’s amazing how mindful you become with no training when descending a steep mountain track in an aching body when the wind is blowing and the rain starts to make the track slippery. You are mindful of every step, every breath, because it hurts to breath, every howling sound the wind makes, every splash of rain on your skin. You eyes are wide open for plants that might be handy to help you cling onto the side of that bloody mountain. And it’s all free!IMG_6678.jpg

At the bottom, on Tafelberg Road,  there is no bar.

I felt my shoulders weren’t my own. I came down Table Mountain like a robot who had come off worse in Robot Wars. We found a taxi to fall into to take us to our hotel and a beer. It took me two weeks to really recover from climbing Table Mountain, and for the next four days that I was in Cape Town, I kept a) complaining, and b) staring at the mountain in incredulity.  But I am glad I did it. I hope that girl is too. And I think we might have got down before the French family.

Now I keep meeting people who have climbed Kilimanjaro in a blizzard.  They ask me do I want to do that next.

Are they mad?


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