South Africa’s Iconic Table Mountain in Cape Town

Landmarks & Icons

Table Mountain at Sunset, Cape Town, South Africa

If you are in Cape Town, on your South Africa vacation, you absolutely cannot miss the presence of Table Mountain. It dominates the city skyline just as does the Eiffel Tower in Paris or Corcovado Mountain in Rio de Janeiro. A UNESCO World Heritage site, literally hovering over the city and now officially recognized as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, Table Mountain is South Africa’s most photographed landmark. The rocks on the mountain are over 600 million years old, making it one of the oldest mountains in the world. Another interesting fact is that more than 70% of all the plants found on the mountain are endemic, meaning they are not found anywhere else. A mind-blowing fact is that it hosts the richest floral kingdom on earth, with more than 1470 floral species (someone actually counted!).

Table Mountain offers fantastic views of Cape Town, Table Bay, and Robben Island to the north, and the Atlantic seaboard to the west and south.

Cape Town Stadium and Table Mountain, South Africa
Cape Town

Why the Name?
Apart from its size, 3 kilometres/2 miles from side to side, Table Mountain has a flat top with edges consisting of steep cliffs (just like a table). When it is covered by a cloud bank, which sometimes it is, this is referred to as the “table cloth.” It is 1085 metres/3560 feet above sea level and is flanked by the Devil’s Peak to the east and Lion’s Head and Signal Hill to the west. It forms part of the Table Mountain National Park, previously known as the Cape Peninsula National Park, and also includes the Cape of Good Hope.

View of Table Mountain with Top Covered in clouds at Sunset, Cape Town, South Africa
View of Table Mountain with top covered in clouds (table cloth) at sunset

How to Get to the Top
The Table Mountain Cableway takes passengers from the lower cable station to the plateau at the top of the mountain. Construction of the cableway was first started in 1926, and the cableway officially opened in 1929. In 1997, the cableway was extensively upgraded and new cars were introduced, carrying 65 passengers. The new cars rotate 360 degrees during the ascent or descent, allowing you to have panoramic views of the city as you ascend or descend. Once up there, apart from gazing in awe at the views, you can hike along one of the walking trails or simply visit the shops or the restaurant. A word of warning, the cable car does not operate in severe weather, so always check if it is operating.

Table Mountain Cablecar at Sunset, Cape Town, South Africa
Table Mountain Cablecar at sunset

I am told that there are there are more than 350 paths up to the top of Table Mountain. You can “walk” up to the top but this is not a ramble. It’s a hike or climb, depending on the route. The most direct and popular hiking trail up Table Mountain is Platteklip Gorge, which is a well maintained and has been compared to a giant stair-master because it is a strenuous and often sun-baked climb straight to the top. You can always stop and catch your breath while taking in the views. To give you an idea, it can take anywhere from 1 to 3 hours to reach the top depending on your ability. Other popular hiking routes start at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. There is the Skeleton Gorge, which will have you climbing up ladders and through shady indigenous forest. The slightly less strenuous but longer, Nursery Ravine, is often used as the downward route back.

Hiker Climbing Table Mountain via Platteklip Gorge, Cape Town, South Africa
Hiker climbing Table Mountain via Platteklip Gorge

Hiking at the Top
The four Table Mountain hiking trails are called the People’s Trail, Table Mountain Trail, Orangekloof Hiking Trail, and Top to Tip Trail. It is highly recommended to take a guided hike with a qualified and highly-experienced mountain guide with a sound knowledge of the environment. There are half and full day hikes and climbs customized to your needs and interests, from leisurely strolls to adventurous expeditions off the beaten track.

Hiking routes vary in length, nature, and difficulty. The easiest ones follow well-defined paths, with minimal scrambling and exposure to heights. The hardest ones travel through bushy and broken terrain and involve lots of scrambling and exposure to heights.

Hiking Trail and View of Lion's Head at Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa
Table Mountain hiking trail and view of Lion’s Head

What to See on the Top
There is animal life up here. A common mammal on the mountain is the dassie or rock hyrax, although they are declining at a rapid rate. It resembles a small rabbit but is actually a hoofed mammal related to the elephant. Table Mountain is also home to porcupines, mongoose, snakes, lizards, tortoises, and a rare endemic species of amphibian that is only found on Table Mountain, the Table Mountain ghost frog.

As for bird life, there is plenty to spot including the peregrine falcon,  Verreaux’s eagle, the Jackal buzzard, the rock kestrel, and many more species too numerous to mention.

As for flora, the most common is fynbos, an Afrikaans word meaning “delicate bush.” It is scrubby vegetation that is particular to the Cape and is found in abundance on the mountain slopes. The Cape Peninsula has in excess of 2,500 fynbos species. Fynbos is highly endemic and some species are only found in specific areas.

Capy Hyrax or Dassie on Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa
Dassie (Cape hyrax) on Table Mountain

One More Claim to Fame
Table Mountain is the only feature on Earth to give its name to a constellation which is called Mensa, meaning, “The Table.” The constellation is seen in the Southern Hemisphere, below Orion, around midnight in mid-July. It was named by a French astronomer during his stay at the Cape in the mid-18th century.

Although you cannot miss seeing the view of Table Mountain from Cape Town, it is definitely worth an exploration on your next South Africa vacation.

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