Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Table Mountain pilgrimage: disa-bound

Recently my friend Marijke and I met at Kirstenbosch to hike up Table Mountain by way of Skeleton Gorge. At 6.30am the security guards allow only Botanical Society members in, and the actual garden turnstiles are kept wide open for hikers and runners. I find this a beautiful testimony to a way of life I could happily lead. This mountain, a botanical hotspot in the middle of a teeming city of 3.7 million people, is extraordinary.

This is the green, eastern flank of a mountain whose iconic north face is much better known. The knobbly rock on the left is Castle Rock; Skeleton Gorge is the wooded ravine immediately on its right.

This rock-scrambling section (above) towards the top third of the walk up is actually much for fun than the endless uphill slog on a neat path that precedes it (my friend was very patient. I must have stopped 20 or 30 times to catch my breath, while she could have ploughed on). But here the route lies right in the bouldered stream bed. Straight up.

And then come the ladders. Famously, my mother once walked up here...with a corgi. A stranger took one look at this and carried the corgi up. Walking down again may have broken the corgi; my mother swears it broke her knees. More about that, later.

Above: The satisfying view of the Kirstenbosch parking lot below us.

Reaching the top of the gorge was a relief. We had hiked up with the requisite backpacks stuffed with water, warm windbreakers, maps (both of us had a map), snacks and, in mine, hot coffee for a breakfast treat. We quickly added an extra layer over our T-shirts. The sweaty climb in high summer had turned into a cold mist pouring over the top of the mountain.

We watched a party of panama-hatted tourists who seemed to be in the company of a guide (I wish I had asked questions as they passed us). They spent a lot of time at a beacon with basic directions. No map. The three visitors were wearing shorts and short-sleeved shorts and carried nothing more. The guide carried a tiny backpack, and they were on their way to the cable car, a good hike into the cloud.

Many visitors assume that the top of Table Mountain will be flat and easy to navigate. It is not, and it is not. As I have written before, there are mountains on the mountain and the weather turns on a dime. Most people who are hurt or who die on this mountain are not mugged (this is the main worry, even among locals who rarely set foot on this unique rock pile); instead, they come to grief because they are unprepared for the conditions, or wander off a cliff.

We stopped too, checking our maps for our route to make sure we were on the right path, and we opened the thermos of hot Illy, dipped biscuits, and watched the world from a rock.

The Smuts Track, above, hugs the eastern edge of the mountain here before swinging to the west and towards the aqueduct - a massive stone wall that bisects the fynbos along a stream, directing water into the Hely-Hutchinson reservoir.

Walking with a botanist, garden designer, and the author of the superb Indigenous Plant Palettes (essential reading for South Africans interested in indigenous gardening) is a privilege. My usual walking partner is the Frenchman, whose patience is endless - the many stops I make to take photos of flowers, or to scratch and sniff plants with edible potential do not bother him. Now, while I was slumming it with my beloved Samsung Galaxy S7 (NOT the one that blows up) Marijke had brought her proper camera and was assuming my usual role, calling for more stops than me, and able to identify just about everything en route.

Watsonia tabularis was in perfect bloom from the beginning to the end of our walk at this elevation. It is endemic to the Cape Peninsula and is named after the mountain.

Marijke noted that it is not available commercially locally, and a quick Google yielded a hit at California's Annie's Annuals, of all places [note that Annie uses photo stock from all over the world, so the flower pictured in that link was not grown by her - I am curious].

The bridge over the disa stream. We had come to find out if the red disas - orchids that grow only near rare perennial streams in these mountains - were in bloom, as they are further east. Disa uniflora grows thickly here, the pristine, tannic water dyed the colour of tea by the fynbos through which it is filtered. I have been lucky to see them several times.

But we were too early, and the disas were still in bud. 

We walked on, toward and along the aqueduct, finding botanical treats along the way.

After a waterfall, the route is filled with clean water which followed us all the way to the reservoirs, joined by other streams along the way.

Drip disas appeared, pale ghosts against wet rock faces, growing in the cool moss. 

Disa cornuta more than made up for their reticent red cousins.

A miniature lobelia, not identified.

Watsonia tabularis lit the way as we descended towards the middle of what is called the Back Table. 

Despite severe water restrictions in the city below, up here, in the mist, the mountain is its own green, wet world. We saw nobody, now.

The exquisite China flower, Adenandra villosa, with intensely scented foliage.

We followed the track between two peaks, Junction on the left, St Michael's on the right, the widening stream to our right, cliffs dotted with drip disas, soaring.

Marijke was now wearing Layer No. 2.

Erica abietina, I think.

While we both had bathing suits in our back packs, ready for a dip into the pools below, the nipping wind kept us firmly zipped up, hands in pockets. Vince has never quite got over the water in the Cape. For a Vancouverite used to turquoise snowmelt, Coca-Cola water was a shock. But to me this is the colour of clean.

The kloof behind us, we were poised above the reservoirs, which were brimming. 

We said goodbye to the last of the beautiful drip disas, our route heading into drier regions.

Whether it was the blinding sun or the howling wind, I took no pictures from here, right across the towering dam wall and the whipped water, past the the napping high altitude alien vegetation team, and the right angled hook we took to return due east, or even of the cedar and oak glade at the very top of Nursery Ravine. Marijke did, and I should borrow her pictures.

But after a lunch break for fruit juice and sandwiches in the shade we were back out here on the edge of the mountain again, and poised to descend via Nursery Ravine.

Sporadic cloud cover woke me up and the Samsung began snapping again.

The graceful and strange mountain dahlia - Liparia splendens.

And down we go.

Down - at least on a mountain - is better than up, I feel, and the view stunning.

There were still many plants to see. Above - not identified yet.

Remember my mother's knees? My knees were fine. But after a steady downhill slog my legs were jelly. Two days later I was stiiiiiiiiiiiiff.

Low on the slopes tree pincushions grow - Leucadendron conocarpodendron.

And then we were back in the most beautiful garden in Africa, where we had begun: Kirstenbosch. We had been on the mountain for seven hours - much longer than we needed to be, but very happy for it, and it was just past lunchtime.


  1. I felt I was hiking with you.Well, no, lagging puffingly behind, actually!
    But I did enjoy it. And ,of course, I loved those drip disas.

  2. it looks absolutely heavenly there.

  3. Just finished writing a letter to Coke, I think they should sponsor you. ;-)

    Ok, all jokes aside, what a beautiful walk! It's amazing to see the reservoirs this full in a drought. Thank you for the post, made my day, vicariously.

    Back to my thyme tea. I wish it smelled of fynbos...

  4. Your descriptions and photos of South Africa always make me yearn for a trip. Thank you for sharing.

  5. What a lovely trip. I was on the cable car, looking down at the hikers. Don't think I could have done what you and Marijke did. Brava.

  6. This post is so therapeutic. Happy 2017, Marie.

  7. Tannin in the water? I grew up and lived on a river that was brown-red clear.

  8. Hello- absolutely love reading though your blog- I was lucky enough to visit Cape Town for myself late last year and visited Table Mountain and Kirstenbosch BG so this post brought back happy memories- its a beautiful city I just wish I had the time to do the walk you had done- it looks beautiful!
    I wondered if you might be able to kindly help with the identification of a couple of plants I saw growing at the base of Table Mountain?
    The first I think was an orchid? It had pale green flowers about 12" tall- each flower had two backward facing "horns" plus a couple of tassels underneath like a beard- to be honest it reminded me of the head of a green goat! Sorry this is an silly description but I'm trying to describe from a photo that I took of it- I could send this to you if it helps? I would love to know what it was.
    The second plant has grassy foliage- and what stood out was it had a flower spike of 2-3ft with a simple star shaped flowers up it- each flower faced downwards- there were 3 outer petals of the star which were a butter yellow and inner petals formed a tube which was more of a creamy white colour.
    I hope you can help!
    All the best
    Owen, London UK.

    1. Hi Owen - thank you!

      A photo is best, but the first could be a spider orchid, Bartholina etheliae. Also try the Facebook group Plant Identification, as well as iSpot:

      Also, South African illustrated field guides are outstanding. Wildflowers of the Table Mountain National Park is a good one for Cape Town.


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