Climbing Table Mountain - Some Christmas Exercise!
Updated: Jul 30
Towering over Cape Town, you can’t ignore Table Mountain - absolutely dominates the skyline. And, the city has grown around this flat-topped massif, meaning it plays a central role in living, driving, and walking around Cape Town. Clearly, climbing Table Mountain was high on our list of things to do. What better day to do so than Christmas?
Thoughts of Archbishop Tutu - Christmas Eve Mass at St. George’s Cathedral
Neither of us qualify as, well, devoutly religious - more in the category of “Christmas Christians.” With that in mind - and just a we’re-overseas-away-from-family-during-the-holidays desire for some semblance of tradition - we wanted to find a place to attend Christmas Eve mass.
In a happy coincidence, our Greenmarket Square apartment was just a few blocks away from St. George’s Cathedral, the seat of Cape Town’s Anglican bishop. With a few years as an Episcopal altar boy under his belt, Chipp figured doing the Anglican thing, the English cousin of his Episcopalian upbringing, made as much sense as any other option.
We found St. George’s while strolling through Company’s Garden, and neither of us initially knew anything of its history. With a little research, we learned that the church stood as a bastion of anti-apartheid thought and political action during that period, and Desmond Tutu - Noble Prize winner and crusader against the evils of apartheid - served as archbishop there from 1986 to 1994. Coincidentally, at the time of his nomination to the post - Tutu, the first black Archbishop of Cape Town - was in Atlanta receiving the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize. With this sort of history, mass at St. George’s was a must.
As expected, the church itself is stunningly beautiful. But, what left the largest mark on us had nothing to do with what we saw and everything to do with what we heard. Attending a socially-distanced, mask-wearing Christmas Eve mass, the current archbishop’s sermon naturally focused on COVID-19 and the crushing impact it has had on South Africans. One line, in particular, still resonates. When discussing the pandemic, the archbishop described it as “the worst crisis in South Africa since 1994…”
It took a moment for the magnitude of this statement to sink in with us. 1994 - the year apartheid ended. The archbishop didn’t have to use the word apartheid, simply a reference to the year connected the dots for all present.
Growing up in America and Ukraine, so much of what we learned in school about the rest of the world seemed, for lack of better terms, academic. It’s one thing to read about apartheid in a book. It’s quite another to experience its legacy directly, hearing a reference to it in the middle of a Christmas Eve sermon - from the same pulpit where one of its strongest opponents preached.
The Strangeness of Christmas in Summer
On a lighter note, Christmas in Cape Town had another odd influence on us. Growing up in the northern hemisphere, Christmas for us means winter, snow, cold, hot drinks by a roaring fire - basically White Christmas. Why go outside when you can eat, drink, and be merry with family in the warmth and comfort of home?
In Cape Town on Christmas day, it was sunny, 80 degrees, and the middle of the southern hemisphere summer - strange for both of us, and definitely not Irving Berlin-esque. But, this seasonal inversion also had a knock-on effect - going for a Christmas day hike seemed like a great idea. Rather than curl up by a fire, we decided that hiking Table Mountain would be the perfect way to spend Christmas.
An Uber Ride to a Hike - “Cheating” to Table Mountain Purists
We wrote about our - slightly misguided - hike up through Kloof’s Nek, the pass between Table Mountain and Lion’s Head. This terrain feature is adjacent to and roughly the same elevation - around 300 meters - as Table Mountain’s welcome center. At this welcome center, you can A) hike, or B) ride a cable car up to the peak, coming in at a little over 1,060 meters.
Let’s be honest - we’re not currently in great shape… Considering this, we - briefly - dwelled on taking the purist’s route up Table Mountain, that is, starting back at the waterfront and climbing all the way from sea level to the peak.
Nope, we’d played that game. Knowing that we’d struggle enough climbing Table Mountain itself, we opted for the short-cut cheat of taking an Uber straight to the welcome center. Smart decision, as this would still leave us with ~760 meters of fairly steep hiking up the side of the mountain.
For the hard bodies out there, you can do the sea-to-peak climb. But, from a practical perspective, this just gives you some bragging rights. Until you get to the welcome center and inside Table Mountain National Park proper, you don’t have any sweeping views - just some Cape Town neighborhoods. Maybe that’s simply rationalization for being soft, but we don’t regret our decision!
Climbing Table Mountain through Platteklip Gorge
We went into our climb with a difficult-up, easy-down philosophy. We’d climb up, have some drinks at the top, and ride the cable car down. Another great choice, as it lets you A) feel like you’ve earned your drink at the top, while B) letting you lazily enjoy the cable car view on the way down. (NOTE: If so inclined, visitors can ride the cable car up and down, getting an incredible view without the associated struggle of hoofing it up the side of the mountain).
According to a helpful guy we met at the base, from the welcome center, two main routes up Table Mountain exist - the “hard” way and the “easy” way. To be clear, there’s no easy way up Table Mountain - it’s a tough hike composed entirely of steep switch-backs, regardless of route. But, the “hard” option takes you up an exposed, wind-swept path that’s essentially straight up. No way.
Alternatively, the “easy” route goes up through an absolutely stunning split in the side of Table Mountain - Platteklip Gorge. This also happens to be the path taken by the first European to climb the mountain in 1503, and the stream running down the gorge provided the original Cape colony’s first fresh water supply.
We say “easy,” but it’s still a hell of a climb. For two hours straight (minus some hands-on-knees-heavy-breathing breaks), we zig-zagged up through the local fynbos vegetation, hopping every now and again over the Platteklip stream. At about the three-quarter mark, you enter the gorge proper, where it cuts a clear split into the otherwise flat-topped Table Mountain. And, in true Christmas fashion, it was just about here where we saw a right-out-of-the-movie George Bailey act.
As we huffed and puffed our way to the top, Tony Perkis (i.e. Ben Stiller in Heavyweights) blew by us, likely on his daily exercise routine. About 10 minutes later, we rounded a switch back and saw this guy next to an older lady, clearly struggling with the climb. Getting closer, we realized this lady had run out of water - and she barely looked like she could finish the ascent with a full bottle of water. Our man poured the rest of his bottle into hers, gave her a smile of encouragement, and continued on his way.
Pretty sure that, without this little measure of generosity, the lady would’ve really struggled to finish the climb. And, despite this guy’s obvious level of fitness, it couldn’t have been easy for him giving away the last of his water. George Bailey, you old dog, you!
The Reward - Drinks on Top of the “Table Cloth”
After two hours of wow-we’re-in-awful-shape-so-the-view-better-be-worth-it struggles, we reached the top of Table Mountain. And yes, the view was absolutely worth it. During our ascent, we’d paused to sip on water and catch our breath plenty of times, looking out into Cape Town proper as we did so. But, it’s tough to really appreciate a view when you have the looming dread of the rest of a climb ahead of you.
Reaching the top, we could just smile and appreciate the view. And, in a stunning (meteorological?) twist, we reached the top just as the city’s maritime cloud layer, known as the “table cloth” for the way it lazily drapes over Table Mountain, reached the peak. Looking north down into the City Bowl, we had an incredibly clear view of the city. Looking southwest out towards Camp’s Bay, we couldn’t see anything, as we sat above the clouds.
While the view would’ve been spectacular without the clouds, the mountain-top cafe more than compensated. Sitting on the peak, beer (Chipp) and wine (Jenna) in hand - hitting quite heavily due to our massive level of dehydration - made for a perfect afternoon. No, we weren’t cozied up by a fire, with snow falling outside the window. But, all things considered, this was a pretty good way to spend Christmas.