Peak condition: climbing Cape Town's Table Mountain

Craig Platt finds that climbing Cape Town's iconic landmark is no walk in the park.

Drenched in sweat, swarmed by mosquitoes and gasping for breath – this is not the easy morning hike I was expecting.

It's my last day in South Africa and I'm in Cape Town, halfway up the city's iconic Table Mountain.

Although it's possible to take a cable car to the top of the mountain, I felt that I couldn't really say I'd "done" Table Mountain if I hadn't climbed it myself. But at the moment I'm wondering if this was such a good idea.

The most popular track leading up the mountain, the Platteklip Gorge trail, begins just near the cable car station on the north western side and, I'd been told, only took about 90 minutes to climb from base to top. Although I'm not as fit as I should be, I figured it couldn't be too hard, given its short duration.

Turns out Table Mountain has a reputation for surprising travellers with how difficult and unpredictable it can be. Perhaps it's the mountain's proximity to central Cape Town, a city of 3.5 million, that makes people think climbing it is like a stroll through a botanic garden. Despite cutting an imposing figure, Table Mountain feels like part of the city, dominating the skyline.

But sitting as it does, close to where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet, puts Table Mountain at the centre of a highly unpredictable (and occasionally treacherous) weather system.

Indeed, those visiting Cape Town for only a day or two can find they never get the chance to reach the mountain's summit, by cable car or foot. Bad weather will see the mountain and the cable car closed to the public, whether it's from low cloud forming around the mountain peaks or high winds sweeping in off the ocean.

I've been fortunate. When I awoke this morning the sun was shining brightly and there was little wind or cloud, making it a near-perfect day for walking up to the peak.

I'm staying at the Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa, which is set in spectacular surroundings inside Table Mountain National Park. It sits on the edge of the Atlantic ocean, while behind it lies the mountain range for which the hotel is named. The result is terrific views from both the front and rear of the building.

The hotel is also isolated, sitting alone amid the rugged beauty, but only a short taxi or bus ride from Cape Town's beachside resort suburb Camps Bay or to the highlight of the range — Table Mountain itself.

I take a taxi to the base of the walk. The driver knows exactly where to go, given the popularity of the activity. As we pass a large queue of people waiting for the cable car, he points to the opposite side of the road. There are a second set of railings set up for peak times when the cable car queue will stretch across both sides of the road.

My driver also offers a word of warning — only a couple of days ago, he says, a couple of British tourists wandered off the trails on top of the mountain as low cloud rolled in. Soon they were lost and were forced to spend the night up there.

Then there are the human dangers. For a time, muggings were quite common on the hiking trails. Ranger patrols have been stepped up in an effort to clamp down on the crimes and I'm told by locals that this has been effective — particularly if you stick to the most popular trails.

As I set off up the track — which mainly consists of well-maintained stone steps, I see a middle-aged woman coming down ahead of me. It's still early, so I'm curious as to whether she's already been to the peak and back and I ask her.

“No,” she says in an English accent, “I got about 15 minutes in and decided I had to turn back.”

Although it's only mid-morning, the temperature rises rapidly and I am quickly drenched in sweat. In addition, while I feel reasonably well-prepared with water, food and suitable clothing, I realise I haven't brought any insect repellent and have discovered the mountain is popular with some form of daylight-loving mosquito I've never come across before.

I persevere and find that even after completing only a short part of the climb the views are becoming quite spectacular.

Although I've breached one of the guidelines for climbing Table Mountain by doing it alone (a sign warns against this at the start of the trail), I find regular company on the climb as others come down or (most of the time) overtake me on the way up.

Eventually I reach a height where the insects cease bothering me, but I find my rest breaks becoming more frequent. They started at 20-minute intervals, now I'm barely climbing for five minutes before I need another break.

Still, there's no real rush to reach the peak. The surroundings are incredible, as the views stretch out over the city, including the bowl-shaped Cape Town Stadium built for the FIFA World Cup, and to the ocean. Behind me the trail leads up into a fissure between the rocks.

I reach the top and discover that while Table Mountain isn't quite as flat as it seems from a distance, it is still pretty damn flat. It has only taken the about the 90 minutes advised but it has been a tough, draining hour and a half.

With the weather so fine, I'm not surprised to find the top of the mountain swarming with tourists who have come up via cable car. Fortunately, most of them stay close to the cable car station, leaving the trails on top of the mountain quiet and peaceful.

I take a seat on a rock, drink some more water and soak up the incredible vista. Cape Town stretches below to the north and east, the Lion's Head peak lies to the west, while to the south are the spectacular Twelve Apostles and Camps Bay.

After a wander around the top of the mountain and a meal in the cable station's cafe, I opt to head back down the easy way after an hour or two. As the packed cable descends, I feel like I'm the only one on board who is really a king of the mountain.

The writer travelled as a guest of South African Tourism, South African Airways and Red Carnation Hotels.

Fast facts

Getting there

South African Airways flies daily from Sydney and six times a week from Perth to Cape Town via Johannesburg. Return air fares from the east coast (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane) start from about $2236 and from Perth about $2117. See www.flysaa.com

Staying there

The Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa is a beautiful white building located on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in Table Mountain National Park, flanked by the Twelve Apostles mountain range. It features a terrific restaurant, spectacular views and luxurious rooms. There's also two pools and an award-winning health and beauty spa. There are several hiking trails behind the hotel offering excellent views of the surrounding landscape and mountains. Rooms start from $448 and suites from $952 per night for two adults. See www.12apostleshotel.com for details or book via Creative Holidays on www.creativeholidays.com or 13 12 22.

Hiking there

The Platteklip Gorge trail can be reached by taxi, about a 15-minute ride from the city centre. A hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus also stops at the cable station, with one-day tickets starting from R110 (A$12.60). See www.citysightseeing.co.za for route and timetable details.

For more information on the mountain and its hiking trails, visit the South Africa National Parks website http://www.sanparks.org and click here for a map of the mountain.

The weather can be unpredictable — check the forecast before setting out. If hiking in warmer weather, ensure you take a hat, sunscreen, insect repellent and plenty of water.

For a good report of weather on the mountain and to check whether the cable car is open visit http://tablemountain.net

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