To The Top of Table: Platteklip Gorge Hike Review – Part 1

On October 24th, despite having succumb to an irksome bout of flu that’s been doing the rounds, I was determined to hike to the top of Table Mountain via the Platteklip Gorge Hike.

My older brother recommended it to me after I gushed to him about my Lion’s Head hike and, as advised, I waited for a hot Saturday (roughly 26-28 degrees) when I knew there would be quite a few hikers out, thus making it safer to hike on my lonesome.

What with the my second-year studies drawing to a close and the hot spell persisting, I knew it would have to be now or never, at least for 2015.

So, I got up bright and early, when it was relatively ‘cool’ out, and made the idiotic decision to walk from the CBD to Lower Table Mountain. (If you need alternate transport from the inner city and have more sense than I, you can opt for a hired taxi, join a sightseeing/tour bus group or catch the reliable MyCiti buses.)

Although weaving my way through the suburbs was a bit of a schlep, I loved exploring the city’s upper reaches and managed to find two pretty awesome cycle routes (the first being in Higgovale), the second of which offered some pretty amazing photo opportunities, first of Lion’s Head and later, of Table Mountain, with blooming cerise blossoms and pale pinkish-purple geraniums (and some guinea fowl, which I discovered with a nostalgic pang, reminding me of my ‘farm life’) and pine cones lining the footpath.

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Further up, the ground grew steeper as I approached the Table’s slopes but the views of the city below were quite spectacular and the breathtaking forward thrust of ‘The Table’, with nearby Devil’s Peak, made this mildly tiring but completely wonderful detour so worthwhile and though I only encountered a cyclist and a dog-owner, despite the overgrown shrubbery and trees walling me in, I felt relatively safe.

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I was even more chuffed with this route when I discovered first, the most perfectly positioned bench imaginable (it’s the ideal place to take a breather and soak up the scenery) and then, a bit further on, a magical little pathway, which saw me through to the road-hugging car park.

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IMG_20151024_195943From there you can see the Tafelberg Road, which feeds into Lower Tafelberg from Kloof Nek. I paused there for a moment to admire Lion’s Head and the colourful tour buses carefully taking the bend. (Note: The path is closed to vehicular traffic but open to hikers and cyclists.)

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IMG_20151024_195824Although I have been up Table Mountain, now an official new 7th wonder of Nature, once before, when my family caught the cableway both ways, it’s been so long that I am sure much has changed since then. For one thing, the cableway has been revamped quite a bit and is even better these days; I love the cable car’s bright VISA colour schemes.

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The world-class facilities cater for the large crowds who swamp the area every day. There’s an idyllic wooden walkway, which leads from the car park up to the lower cableway point, where the ticket outlet and opposite visitor’s centre (a combination of curio shop, kiosk and toilet facilities, which are well and truly spotless) and further on, some much-needed VISA umbrellas lie.

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There’s also a pop-up food & drink caravan and the MyCiti bus stop, closer to where the tour buses park or idle, exhaust fumes lacing the air as you approach the steps which lead up to the hiking routes. There, you will find a sign welcoming you to the Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) and loosely marking out the route distances and necessary crossings you should take, as well as some mandatory guidelines and obvious restrictions (like no smoking and fires).

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From there, you briefly enjoy a brief, shady respite, protected by the last tree coverage, as you climb up the stony pathway, beginning your first real ascent up Table Mountain’s lowest slopes.

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IMG_20151024_200627As you make your way uphill, the cableway behind you, the strong 1200 metre-long cable strung across the skyline, as cable cars, each crammed full of roughly 65 excited visitors, take turns coming up and down the mountain with steady constancy, short breaks in-between.

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Once I was about half-way up this initial climb – which is, admittedly, pretty steep and personally, I found it the second most taxing sections of the entire hike (even coming down, the somewhat loose rocks covering the much harder ground, test one at times) – I pulled off to the side of the path, as a few early-morning hikers (I started around 10:11 a.m.), red-faced but victorious, made their descent, and rested against one of several large boulders, which edge the road.

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Shortly after this, a very athletic (and presumably, an old hand at ‘Platties’, as it is affectionately called) man passed me and concernedly asked whether I had water with me. When I replied in the affirmative, he ordered me to drink it, adding, before he briskly nipped downhill like a human klipspringer, that the mountain water was perfectly safe to drink if I needed more.

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I thanked him and, after gulping down some water, as cable cars passed overhead, battled on, feeling slightly light-headed and decidedly flushed thanks to my cold after merely fifteen minutes of steepness.

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I feel it is vitally important to stress that one needs lots of water if you hike this year-round route, especially on a hot day. I took a 500ml bottle and it was a pathetically insufficient amount – next time, I will definitely be taking a minimum 1 litre bottle, preferably containing iced water.

Also, generously apply a strong sunscreen – I made sure that my upper body, arms and neck/face were well-covered but foolishly neglected my legs, which ended up with a suitably good and rather smarting tan after roughly five hours in the baking sun. A sun hat/peak cap and a light top are also strongly recommended – although you might be hot hiking, once you get to the top of the mountain, the temperature drops a few degrees (sometimes even 6, in fact). This was more a relief than anything else on that particular day and I definitely didn’t need the top I had packed into my backpack but this will not always be the case, so come prepared.

As far as footwear and clothing are concerned, most people hike in takkies, t-shirts and shorts (your legs don’t actually get scratched, despite overreaching foliage) but I did see some people hiking in Converse All Stars so it’s quite relaxed, as long as your shoes have a decent grip. I would, however, advise wearing thick socks because your feet really take a pounding after a while, what with all the stone steps (according to http://www.tablemountain.net, there are apparently 800 steps to tackle; it honestly feels like far more than that, but I trust their estimation) and hard ground underfoot.

The Platteklip Gorge Hike is considered the ‘easiest’ to hike, mainly because, unlike some of the other routes, you don’t need to use ladders, steel staples or chains to make the climb and although it is the most direct, that does not mean it isn’t challenging in its own right, for it can certainly get very steep and although the views are famously better on the other routes, I wasn’t remotely disappointed with the breathtaking, 360-degree views of the city and its mountainous surrounds afforded to me – in fact, I was suitably awestruck at times.

As fittingly described by www.hiketablemountain.co.za, Platteklip, both a Dutch and Afrikaans word meaning “flat rock”, was so named, “by the Dutch in the early 1600s, taken from the existence of a smooth granite slab low down in the gorge (where it resembles more a gully). The gorge slices diagonally up the north (front) face of Table Mountain, dividing the tabletop into two sections: the eastern and the western Table – the former about two-thirds as long as the latter.”

What’s more, it is also the oldest hiking route. In fact, www.hiketablemountain.co.za historically explains that Platties, “saw its first visitor as early as 1503, when Portuguese explorer, Anotonio de Saldanha, used it to gain the summit…”, thereby becoming the first European man to climb Table Mountain. They also go on to say that: “In July 1797, Platteklip Gorge witnessed the first woman hiking up Table Mountain: Lady Ann Barnard.” She was accompanied by Sir John Barrow, two Naval officers, her maid and some servants and their ascent took five hours, though they stayed overnight on the summit. (Something you can also do, by staying in one of four tented camps… Please contact SANParks on +27 (021) 487 6800 or email them on sanparks@capetown.travel for more info.)

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Once you reach the top of the Lower Cableway section, a TMNP sign greets you as the road converges into two separate pathways. The left one, if you wish to hike Platteklip Gorge, is the one you need to stick to and it will tell you that “via Platteklip Gorge +/- 2 Hours”, whereas, heading back down from whence you’ve just come, can take “+/- 30mins”, it took me about 37, with my pause and stop-start photography so this is fairly accurate, though, as always, it’s dependent on your desired pace and overall fitness.

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The other path, which I believe to be the trickier but apparently far more scenic ‘Indian Venster Route’ (this route is not the recommended for the descent), curls around a cliff face, heading right and does look somewhat narrower but I only walked a few steps along it to see what it was like before heading back in my intended direction.

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At this point, I came across a young Australian lady who asked if I had seen a “tall Asian/Chinese person”. Somewhat surprised by this question, I sympathetically assured her that I had not before I slowly headed down the path. A short time later, I passed her friend and told him, as several people had already done apparently, that she was looking for him and their other friend.

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Sometime later, they passed me again, as I kept stopping to take photos and admire the scenery. The pathway isn’t particularly narrow, though we walked in single file, and only occasionally do you have to navigate over rocky terrain so it’s quite a welcome relief after the first section but be careful all the same in the narrower or rockier sections.

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I found this section – which, as the next weathered, green-and-white TMNP sign will inform you, is estimated to take “+/- 55 mins” to cover – decidedly easy, at least until you hit the little stream where people rest in the coolness of the trees before tackling the next great and ultimately, final stage(s) of the climb. I loved the views of the city, the rising ridges of Table Mountain and Devil’s Peak around you, as Lion’s Head and Signal Hill are somewhat left behind, diminishing from view.

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Aside from the gorgeous blooming flora (including national flower, Cape Protea species) and fynbos, I really loved the smooth, orangey cliff faces and crags, frequently covered by climbing geraniums, which hug the right-hand side of the path as you hike up the route.

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IMG_20151024_202805Also, keep an eye out for colourful, sunbathing lizards that peer out at you from these rocky ledges. I got particularly excited at one point when a fellow hiker called her companion over to see one of these chilled little dudes… For me, it was a case of ‘mistaken dassie identity’ when my mind automatically latched onto the word “dassie” (rock hyrax) as opposed to “geitjie” (gecko)… I’m not even sure how I managed it now. Still, you will see dassies (and more lizards) later on… but generally only once you reach the summit.

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It’s also cool to see the endless silver sliver of road, stationary cars glinting in the sunlight, which leads from Table Mountain across to Devil’s Peak. There are so many hiking routes to choose from in this area – we’re well and truly blessed here in the Mother City and it’s only once you expose yourself to the possibilities that you fully realise this.

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After a short time, you will come across the first hint of trickling water; in summer this really is little more than a trickle, but apparently in winter, it gushes down. From there, the pathway becomes really beautiful and you do occasionally find patches of shade. You can progress quite quickly along that stretch – it took me about half an hour to cover it from the official start of the ‘Platties’ route to the rocky stream section and I did pause quite frequently for photos.

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This is when the pathway becomes somewhat busier so, although people said I was “brave” to hike up alone, I really felt perfectly safe. I stayed with my Australian acquaintances and was glad of their company. In fact, at no point after the initial Lower Cableway section was I ever hiking alone going up.

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The streambed is truly pretty and from there, you can really see the start of Platteklip Gorge proper, as the mountain looms above you like Jack’s fabled beanstalk leading to the castle in the clouds… in principle, the climb is often just as daunting. If you need a moment to rest, this is the best spot you’re likely to find for some time, as there is deliciously cool, running water and ample shade throughout the day. I honestly didn’t drink any of the naturally flowing water but it was certainly great to splash my face and hands with its coolness.

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As www.sanparks.org states, “However, it is steep, and the best way to tackle Platteklip is slowly – don’t try to rush it, and frequent stops will give you a chance to look back at the great view of Cape Town and Table Bay below,” taking things slowly is advised, especially up the steepest section – which snakes ever upward, as you will it to end and allow you to embrace the top of the flat, expansive mountaintop, which, at its height, apparently stands some 1 086m above sea level.

This will undoubtedly be the most taxing part of the entire 3km-odd route going up, especially the higher you go, as if the majestic gorge’s pathway is gently mocking you, making you believe you’re almost there… but not quite. Take it as slow as you need to and don’t try it when you are under the weather like I was – it will be hard enough on your body and legs as it is.

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(Note: Much like with Lion’s Head, most people take their time enjoying the hike or mustering strength for the more trying sections, with brief rests in between, but you do get people who are out to finish as quickly as possible. Try be considerate by allowing them to rush past or go first because it’s better for all concerned as you each get to achieve your personal goals without being hindered or alternately, rushed.)

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Having recently hiked Lion’s Head, it was easy to compare the two hikes and I can honestly say, that, although Lion’s Head gave my arms a better work-out and remains undoubtedly more nervy, Platteklip certainly conditions your leg muscles, especially your calves (mine were bruised and sore the next day) and you cannot rush up there in an hour unless you are insanely fit. Most people take two hours, sometimes three, going up. According to www.sanparks.org, older children can attempt the route (but you really don’t see many doing so, I think I saw two) but dogs less so and what’s more, dogs cannot go on the cableway if you wish to catch the cable car back down as many people do. (This is about R100 p/p for a one-way ticket, I think.)

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As I climbed higher, the hard, dusty ground mercilessly beating away at my ankles, my companions slowly dropped out, stopping for rests and water breaks. In retrospect, I should have done the same, but I plunged on, with the aim of reaching the summit by 12:00 p.m.

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I did pull off to the side a few times, joining a few weary stragglers, a combination of locals and foreigners (though I have to say, there were more foreigners, especially Europeans, hiking than locals on that particular day, making me wonder whether South Africans are less appreciative of our own free outdoor pleasures or whether they were just wiser than the tourists and knew better than to tackle it on a hot day…) perched on smooth, whitish boulders but I tried to carry on and get as high as possible for as long as I could, feeling my ability to motivate myself and my woozy body would be less fractured if I doggedly kept at it.

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As you climb, take in the views of the imposing gorge, which gradually begins to protectively enclose you amidst impressive, smooth-faced cliff faces and the sights of the snaking, yellow road and valley far below and allow yourself a moment to appreciate not just how far you have already come, but also to savour the natural, timeless beauty of all that surrounds you. It might not be the most scenic hiking route but hell, it’s pretty damn spectacular all the same and not for one moment was I thinking, “Oh, if only it was more beautiful…”, it was more like: “This is truly amazing and if I wasn’t so tired and eager to reach the top, I could happily stay here all day.”

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You will have to take turns allowing others to climb down as you wait your turn but for most of the route, even at the steepest parts, the pathway is quite wide and sometimes 2-3 people can simultaneously pass in either direction. Also, the road, though well-used is equally well-maintained and although some of the barbed wire fences look rusty and rickety, neat, tight-packed gabions align the road, keeping it safe and secure.

The higher you climb, the more deceptive it becomes. In desperation, hikers heading up ask how much further it is and truthfully, you can only say that once you are right underneath the cable suspended across the narrowest part of the gorge that you are about 15-25 minutes from the summit… until then, don’t bother to get your hopes up. There’s still a lot left to climb. At one point, I passed a group listening to The Weeknd’s ‘Can’t Feel My Face‘ and jokingly muttered as I clambered past, “I can’t feel my legs…”, resulting in a chorus of understanding laughter.

(The cable might be for the abseil adventurers, though I’m honestly not sure… all I know is sometime later, when I was directly below them and close to the top, I shook my head and said in mutual agreement with those around me, “Those guys are crazy.”)

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Descending hikers do their best to encourage you, feeling your pain and when you see others staggering drunkenly uphill behind you, pausing more frequently than you yourself, you realise you’re not the only one finding this tiring. One German lady behind me in particular was battling but eventually, we both ended up on Table, chatting and congratulating each other on our small victory.

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When I was getting particularly hot and drained, my energy levels dangerously low thanks to the heat, giddiness and nausea rising up inside me, two guys hurried past me and tried to reassure me by saying, “Don’t worry, almost there…” before adding with a guilty laugh, “Actually not quite… but yeah.” I muttered my thanks and battled onward, until finally, my stops became more frequent and I started to doubt if I would be able to make it to the top in my sickly state. (Somehow, my cold and cough had seemed a lot less serious back at home… again, I say: don’t try this when you’re even slightly sick.)

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The only thing that seemed like a welcome treat at that time of day (there’s no doubting it is much shadier and cooler in the gorge later in the day) were the cool rocks and grassy outcrops nestled beneath the western cliff faces and the cool air that blew through them, refreshing and reviving us.

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By this point, my now-lukewarm water was up, my head was pounding and I was seriously having a time stopping myself from retching so I had no choice but to take frequent stops, barely going five metres before the next mini-break until I gave up entirely and allowed myself 5-10 minutes in the shade along with some other equally weary hikers, who, considering they’d started far sooner than I had, I still beat most of them to the top afterwards.

Once I had recovered sufficiently, I grittily struggled onwards and I am pleased to say that I began to enjoy the hike again, feeling much better, my alarming nausea and fear that I would embarrassingly pass out, clearly averted and from there on out, whether you look up or down, the views can’t get much finer…

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This time, I believed my fellow hikers when they assured me I was almost there and after climbing the final, now-proper stone steps, I finally emerged onto Table Mountain, my tiredness instantly forgotten as I realised I had done it (it was 12:30 p.m. by then so I still managed to do it in just over two hours) – I was here, back on top of the Table for the first time in 14 years and my, was it breathtakingly beautiful and oh-so-worth it!

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For Part 2 of my review on my time spent on top of the Table and my downhill descent, please check back soon.

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Many thanks to:
http://www.sanparks.org, http://www.southafrica.net, http://www.hiketablemountain.co.za and http://www.tablemountain.net for the additional info. used in this post.

For more info., please contact SANParks on: +27 (021) 487 6800 or call Table Mountain Aerial Cableway on: +27 (021) 424 8181, email them on: info@tablemountain.net or check out www.tablemountain.net and/or their social media feeds.

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