Table Mountain

The old part of Cape Town lies in a great amphitheatre formed by the rocky sandstone masses of Table Mountain, Devil's Peak and Lion's Head. The mountain looms over the city, embracing it and providing Cape Town with a unique setting and character. Devil's Peak, to the left of the mountain when looking up from the city, gets its name from the legend of Van Hunks, the pirate, who met the Devil there for a smoking contest. As the two great smokers puffed their pipes, they formed the white tablecloth of cloud that is a regular feature of the mountain when the Cape southeaster blows.

Lion's Head, at the other end of the mountain, might have been named because there were lions roaming there, but was more likely given its name simply because it looks rather like a lion, with the curved back and rump ending at Signal Hill, above Green Point.

On summer evenings powerful floodlights bathe the stone ramparts of the mountain in an eery blue light. In winter the slopes glisten with rain and mountain streams roar down the many narrow ravines, often carrying mudslides and trees in their path.

Hundreds of millions of years ago, when the Cape was part of the super- continent geologists call Gondwana, the feature that is now Table Mountain was a flat, empty plain. As the vast land-mass shifted and heaved, the plain slowly subsided under the sea. For 50 million years fine sediment built up, layer after layer. Then the earth's plates buckled again and the layers of sediment were thrust upward, first as an island and then, as the glaciers of the ice age tore and carved the solid mass, as what we now know as Table Mountain, Devil's Peak and Lion's Head. The layers of ancient submarine sediment can still be seen as horizontal lines across the face of the mountain.

More recently, the mountain and surrounding areas were the home of a rich variety of wild animals. Lions roamed the mountains, hippos wallowed in the swampy areas on the flats beneath the mountain. Most of the larger animals of Africa were found here, with one possible exception: the low fynbos vegetation was too short for giraffes.

Today almost all the wild animals have disappeared as man has encroached on their habitat. Only the smaller ones remain on the mountain - the little grysbok, porcupines, tortoises and the ubiquitous dassies, or rock rabbits.

An interesting addition to the mountain fauna is the Himalayan tahr. A pair of these animals, originally from the Himalayan mountains in northern India, escaped from the Groote Schuur Estate zoo in the 1930s and settled happily on Table Mountain. Today, only a handful of these shy, goat-like animals live on the mountain. The flora of the mountain is richly varied, with more than 500 species of erica and 100 species of iris. Botanists have long been fascinated by the incredibly wide variety of the Cape flora and estimate that more than 10000 plant species are found here. They range from regal proteas to minute, ground-hugging ferns. Most of these occur on Table Mountain. The red disa, aptly dubbed the Pride of Table Mountain, grows in the cool, damp valleys in a number of places on the mountain and bears its flowers in January and February.

No visit to Cape Town is complete without a trip to the top of Table Mountain. All year round, queues of sightseers wait for their turn to travel in a swaying cable car on one of the most spectacular rides in the world. The view from the top, 1 067 metres above the sea, is breathtaking, whether one is looking over the city bowl and further to Table Bay or over the 'back' part of the mountain across the Twelve Apostles to the Atlantic ocean beyond Clifton and Camps Bay beaches.

The cableway is a two-car service that has been in operation for more than 60 years without a single accident. This is in part due to the interesting three-cable system by which it operates. The main cable carries the weight of the car, a thinner one pulls the cars along, and a third cable is there purely as a back-up; in fact, this cable has never been used. The two cars counterbalance each other, one making the upward journey while the other travels back down. The cableway operates on a daily basis weather permitting, and should the weather change for the worse, visitors are alerted to make their way back by means of a siren at the upper cable station. There are hundreds of footpaths along the mountain's slopes and to the top for energetic hikers, as well as easy-to follow rambles on the summit, marked with animal silhouettes. However, utmost care must be taken when walking - the benign- looking giant of Table Mountain has a nasty streak and has claimed the lives of several people during the past 10 years. At the top of the mountain there is a souvenir shop, a post office where visitors can buy postcards and have them franked with a special Table Mountain postmark, and a rustic stone restaurant which serves light meals and refreshments. The summit is also a popular spot for picnics which are invariably interrupted by the fat, little rock rabbits - or dassies - some of which have become so tame that they will allow tourists to tickle them.

From the flat summit of Table Mountain the first-time visitor will get a better idea of the often confusing geography of this crooked finger of rock jutting into the stormy Atlantic Ocean, and of the layout of the city at its base. To the north and west is the vast expanse of ocean broken only by pinpoint islands such as Gough and Tristan da Cunha between the Cape and South America.

Directly in front of the mountain is Table Bay with the notorious Robben Island in its centre. This little island has a sorry history of use as a jail for political prisoners, the most famous of whom was Nelson Mandela. Robben Island is nowadays one of the top tourist attractions in the Cape.

The view of Table Mountain most often captured on postcards and popular paintings is the one from Bloubergstrand on the northern side of Table Bay. From here the three parts of Table Mountain - Lion's Head, 'the table', and Devil's Peak - can be most clearly seen.

With Table Mountain as a backdrop, the long, sandy beach at Blouberg provides a spectacular spot for a seaside picnic. Blouberg - or Blaauwberg in the original Dutch spelling - for many years consisted of just a handful of holiday shacks and fishermen's cottages dotted along the beach front. It was a remote spot where anglers could be alone to cast their lines through pounding surf, or relax with a soothing bottle of good Cape wine and watch the sun set over the sea. Today, Blouberg is a fast-growing 'dormitory suburb' where rows of townhouses and large blocks of flats offering 'spectacular ocean views' are springing up like mushrooms.

To the south-east of the mountain is the wide expanse of level sandy land known as the Cape Flats. The greater part of this area is given over to low-income housing and industrial developments. Other, large parts of the Cape Flats are home to hundreds of thousands of black people who have been driven to the city from unproductive rural land in search of employment. They erect their make shift homes from any material they can find, and so create the sprawling cities of plastic, wood and corrugated iron. These stand in sharp contrast to the more affluent 'white' suburbs of Cape Town with their gracious homes, shaded gardens, sports clubs and fine traditional schools.

From the stone restaurant at the top of the mountain, visitors look down on the pretty suburbs of Clifton and Camps Bay, where blocks of flats hug the seaside rocks and a series of sandy beaches provide sheltered swimming places. Further along to the south is the winding Marine Drive that takes travellers along the coast to Hout Bay past the row of buttress peaks known as the Twelve Apostles.

To make things easier for first-time visitors to the Cape, a detailed relief map has been set up on the mountain top, and this has helped thousands of people to unravel the puzzle of the Peninsula.

Table Mountain - a good illustration of how wheelchair friendly Table Mountain is that they even employ the disabled to operate the lifts.