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Climbing Cape Town

By Ilana Sharlin Stone
June 6, 2006
Hikers on a new cushy three-day trail can expect to encounter at least one tablecloth along the way

"This bush is called the Climber's Friend," said the guide, pointing at a plant on Cape Town's Table Mountain. The prickly bush certainly didn't look amicable. "Grab onto it if you think you're going to fall," he continued. "It might save your life." The scenario seemed awfully dire, but as a Cape Town local, I've read several articles about hikers in peril. So I took a close look at the bush, and hoped our relationship would remain a long-distance one.

I generally love seeing nature up close, but I'm a reluctant hiker. Cape Town's new Hoerikwaggo Table Mountain Trail was a good compromise. Introduced last December by Table Mountain National Park, the three-day, 16-mile hike lets visitors sleep over, for the first time, on Cape Town's flat-topped mountain. The hike begins near the Mount Nelson Hotel, on the the northern side, traverses the top, and ends with a descent down the southeastern side into Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.

"The goal is to connect all kinds of people to the mountain," says Hoerikwaggo Trails Project Manager Stephen Lamb--nature lovers, dedicated gearheads, even me. Part of the appeal is that hikers aren't exactly roughing it. Tour literature touts the hike as "unabashedly geared for comfort," with "mouth-watering catered meals."

There were five others in my group: two Americans studying international relations at South Africa's Rhodes University and three French landscape-architecture students who were working as interns at Table Mountain National Park and Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. We were led by two South African guides, Mxolisi Magwaxaza and Lulama Mzonyane, and their mentor, Ivan Goetz. The national park recruits guides from poor communities, then trains them in first aid and educates them about plant and animal life. Goetz, a grizzled mountaineer, is overseeing Magwaxaza and Mzonyane until they're formally licensed.

I was raring to go, but we spent the entire day touring around the city itself. Table Mountain loomed above us like a tease. The plan was to spend the night at the base of the slope and then take the cable car to the top of the mountain, where we'd begin hiking the next morning. On the second day, however, the cable car was out of commission due to high winds. As ready as I was to hike, I wasn't exactly prepared to scale the mountain.

We started the ascent, a mile-long staircase of stones and boulders. "When you're hiking, you can really feel the mountain," said Juliette Perez, one of the French students. I definitely felt it--in my thighs. It took 90 minutes to reach the peak. The reward was a short rest and a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean from 3,500 feet up. The landscape architects broke out into a spontaneous chorus of mon dieus. After only a minute, the blue sea disappeared under the "tablecloth," the white cloud that frequently hovers over the mountain. From below, I've always found the tablecloth beautiful. Once in it, however, I found it more ominous, like a mist moving at turbo speed.

For the next two days, we hiked across wetlands and through thickets of reeds. There are over 1,500 plant species on Table Mountain, and our guides frequently stopped to point out some of the more unusual ones. We passed heathery shrubs dotted with bright pink blossoms, and towering king proteas, South Africa's national flower, which resembles something out of a sci-fi flick.

The park has strict water regulations; the workers aren't allowed even to wash a dish. I was oblivious to any obstacles. In fact, the buffets exceeded my expectations. The highlight was a traditional Cape Malay dinner, with spiced Javanese chicken and carrot achar, a wickedly hot relish.

The first night, we slept at the Wash House, where city servants did their masters' laundry over 100 years ago. It's since received a significant modern African update: Simple concrete floors are decorated with ethnic rugs, and sleek wire chairs have pink, red, and black felt cushions. We spent the second night in the Overseer's Cottage, a renovated stone house that, ironically, is more monastic than the Wash House. The bedrooms are small but charming, with luxuriously thick duvets.

The most satisfying part of a long hike for me is usually what follows: a hot shower, a night in my own bed, real food. At the end of this tour, however, I wasn't craving a single thing.

How to book

Trips are scheduled year-round, depending on demand; a minimum of 8 people must sign up before a departure is confirmed. Contact booking officer Patricia Metsing by e-mail (patricia@sanparks.org) or phone (011-27/21-465-8515). You may book provisionally for any date, then wait to hear if other people sign up. This is most likely to happen during high season, November through April. Hoerikwaggotrails.co.za, three-day trip $318, double occupancy, includes meals, guides, cable-car tickets, accommodations, and conservation fee.

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