Hiking Lion’s Head - like its Table Mountain counterpart - is a must for any Cape Town visitor. And, when you find yourself in South Africa in the middle of a country-wide prohibition on alcohol sales, you can even make the climb on New Year’s Day without a hangover!
A Dry New Year’s Dinner
With a few-day turnaround between the imposition of South Africa’s prohibition and New Year’s Eve, we didn’t have much time to connect with the local bootleggers… Instead, we had our first dry New Year’s dinner in quite some time.
Though neither of us would volunteer for this sort of situation, it ended up working just fine. Jenna found an awesome sushi restaurant, we arrived around 7pm, ate a ton of food, and were home by 8pm - practical and efficient, if not overly adventurous.
And, while drinking a soda water (Chipp) and a cup of green tea (Jenna) at dinner doesn’t qualify as a “rager,” there is a definite upside to this approach: we both felt nice and sprightly on New Year’s Day. Enjoying this rare, early-morning energy, we opted for something a little more involved than hungover, takeout Chinese food (a good tradition in typical times).
Hiking Lion’s Head
Part of Table Mountain National Park, Lion’s Head sits on the other side of the Kloof’s Nek pass from the iconic Table Mountain. But, despite not seeming as popular as its larger counterpart, Lion’s Head is one of the most beautiful features in the Cape Town area.
Rising up like a naturally-occurring Sphynx, Lion’s Head dominates the terrain separating Cape Town’s City Bowl on the east from Camp’s Bay and the other beachside neighborhoods to the west. In a significant portion of the city, you fall under the watchful eye of this rocky outcropping.
With such a central location, it makes sense that hiking Lion’s Head is such a popular activity - had no choice but to do it ourselves. So, mentally girding ourselves for more physical activity, we took an Uber to the base of the park. Yes, like Table Mountain, hard bodies can start the Lion’s Head hike all the way from the waterfront. But, we were looking for a little exercise and some beautiful views - not a self-induced coma. Bottom line, just take an Uber to the start of the official trails, a couple hundred yards up the road from the Kloof’s Nek pass. There’s a great little coffee truck there, and you still get all the experience of climbing Lion’s Head.
Coffee in hand, we looked up at the Sphinx-like figure towering above us and started our hike.
Chutes and Ladders
From a physical perspective, hiking Lion’s Head is far less taxing than climbing Table Mountain. You can comfortably make it from where we got dropped at the base of the park to the peak in around an hour. And, the first 30 minutes of that is more or less a nice stroll, as you wind up and around the gradually sloping base.
That gradual slope quickly becomes a precipitous, rocky peak, though. And, eventually, you have to address that rocky peak. What begins as a leisurely stroll becomes a game of Chutes and Ladders - narrow ledges, steel ladders and chains to help with climbing, and metal staples secured to the rocky wall to help in particularly steep stretches. This adds a whole other technical element to the Lion’s Head climb. Rather than simply hike up trails, you need to quite literally climb up the rocky face of this terrain.
But, this level of technical difficulty clearly didn’t prevent all sorts of folks from making the climb. We saw dogs in backpacks, guys and gals in flip-flops, and one older lady in high heels, all of whom - somehow - made the ascent. In other words, yes, you climb, but no, you’re not throwing on gear and Free Solo-ing the thing - really more like an adult jungle gym.
Some People Do This At Night?
Despite that caveat, the climb can still get pretty hairy at a few different points. A loose rock here or a misstep there can send someone tumbling over the edge pretty quickly - which makes one local tradition seem like absolute insanity.
Once a month during a full moon, locals climb Lion’s Head at night. And, as one may expect with such a seemingly ludicrous activity, there’s typically some booze involved. Neither of us had any interest in undertaking this - sober or not. But, here’s how it works: get some friends, throw a few bottles of wine into a backpack, climb Lion’s Head under the (kind of?) bright moon, drink a bunch of wine on the summit, then descend - healthy buzz and all.
All Worth it for the View!
The last 100 yards of the ascent, you need to climb a final ladder then scramble over and around a boulder field making its way up to the peak. As a result, you (should) pay close attention to every step and handhold along the way - not looking at the greater surroundings. This hyperfocus makes reaching the top an even more incredible experience.
When you ultimately arrive on the mostly level Lion’s Head peak, you’re rewarded by stunning, 360 degree views of Cape Town. Personally, we’d both argue that it’s an even better view on Lion’s Head looking at Table Mountain than on Table Mountain itself. With a relatively small peak, you can move from one side to the other, each of which presents a different panorama of Cape Town.
We probably spent just under an hour up top, taking in these unbelievable views. But, as we began our climb back down the mountain, it was hard not to wonder: how do people do this at night... with a bottle of wine in the system...?
Apparently, we’re both maturing!