Going to Cape Town without scaling the heights of Table Mountain would be rather like weekending in Paris without photographing the Eiffel Tower or long-hauling to Sydney without posing in front of the Opera House. Put simply, it’s got to be done.
Being a reckless competitive sporty type, my first instinct was to hike. You can take her up the front or up the rear (no sniggering at the back) but the most popular route to the summit is Platteklip Gorge which is fast, direct and oxygen-grabbingly steep – you should do it in about two and half hours max. However, the official South African National Parks website soon put me off the idea: “Please be aware that more people die on Table Mountain than Mount Everest”. Right, ok, thanks for that. It also advises you should be in a group of four minimum, not to leave paths and fall into ravines, and to turn back immediately if the weather seems to be changing – and it does, rapidly. So I binned the certain-death-or-injury option and went for Plan B, cable car.
1,085 metres at its highest point, Table Mountain’s flat top was created by glacial movement before a spot of tectonic activity thrust it upwards. It has been officially protected for over one hundred years and hosts the richest, yet smallest floral kingdom on earth with over 1,470 floral species as well as a large dassie population (more on them later). Opening way back in 1929, The Table Mountain Aerial Cableway runs a vertical distance of 765 metres and takes you to the top of this New 7 Wonders of Nature (as announced on 11 November 2011) in just four or five minutes.
Now, before you scamper on down to Tafelberg Road cable car station, there’s some stuff you should know. First, to avoid the queues, it’s recommended to buy a ticket online. I did, at the princely sum of 240 ZAR (13.89 euros at today’s rate) for an adult return. You will get sent a bar-coded confirmation but don’t panic, Table Mountain won’t go all Ryanair and insist you print it off or get sent to the Tower, they can scan the code from your smartphone.
You’ll also note that, despite booking for a specific day, your ticket is valid for seven in total. Why? Because the cable car closes in high winds, and believe me there are dozens of blustery days in Cape Town. In fact, by pure coincidence, I just checked the official website and it says “THE CABLEWAY IS CLOSED: ADVERSE WEATHER CONDITIONS”. So there we have it, point proven.
In preparation for my trip I religiously checked several weather websites simultaneously (Accuweather, WindGuru, the South Africa Met Office) and made as informed a decision as I could. I was lucky. It was perfect with great visibility BUT it was super cold on top. Even if it’s shorts-and-t-shirt 25 degrees at the V&A Waterfront, it can feel like winter 1,000 metres up, especially when that wind bites. So pack a mac.
You should also know that at the bottom of Tafelberg Road is a big car park with a free (no ticket, no pass, no nothing) number 110 MyCiti shuttle bus that will take you to the cable car station. Use it. If you reckon you’ll find a space near the entrance, reckon again. You’ll end up parking precariously by the side of the road a kilometre’s walk away – wishing you’d got the bus.
Top tips aside, I should save some words for the experience itself. The cable cars (there are two, both constantly going up and down) are big. They take 65 passengers (that’s 800 people an hour) and are both brilliantly and disastrously designed. Brilliantly because the floor rotates 360º so everyone can see everything on ascent and descent. Disastrously because the grab rails don’t rotate 360º in line with the floor so you’re unable to steady yourself if a little nausea kicks in.
At the top (mac on, goose bumps out) the views are perfectly mesmerising and there are three walking paths to follow. I say “follow” but they’re not desperately well signposted and it’s sometimes hard to tell ‘path’ from the crazed quartzitic sandstone that makes up the top layer of the Mountain. I recommend following the crowd, and your nose, using commonsense not to stray into anything steep or unstable. There’s also a restaurant, gift shop and loos. I used none of the above as I had seen and snapped what I wanted and was ready for the return car in around an hour.
And yes, I did snap a dassie or two. Time for a quick word on dassies. I was reliably informed that they were the closest living relative to elephants so had my eye out for large plodding things with wrinkly skin and oversized noses. Instead I should have been looking for a brown guinea pig. Disappointed dot com. Although they are rather furry and friendly and pose happily for photos.
Speaking of photos, the biggest disappointment was the ‘official’ picture everybody is subjected to as they join the queue. “Just you madam?” “Yes, just me” “If you could just stand in front of this green screen, smile, great!” As I exited an hour or so later my photo was in a rack marked ‘one person’ (alongside racks for couples, families of three, families of four etc) and they had green-screened me into a cable car all on my own. A solo grinning inane face in a cable car designed for 65 people. It was quite possibly the saddest photo I had ever seen in my life.