Table Mountain National Park

You wouldn’t call me a big city-person. I do like to see cities–admire their architecture, take in a bit of their culture and absorb a sense of them–but frankly, the faster I can do this and get out into greener pastures, the better.

Dramatic colour and texture at Kirstenbosch

Dramatic colour and texture under low cloud as we started our Table Mountain climb

And so given the opportunity to spend one of our Cape Town ‘city’ days in Table Mountain National Park, I leapt at the chance. Paul and I both love hiking and so walking up, as opposed to taking the Cableway, was an easy (at the time) decision. Having earnt our lunch, we thought we’d then descend by cable car, obviously purely in the interests of variety and keeping the tracks clear for other hikers.

Setting off to climb Table Mountain

Setting off to climb Table Mountain with our guide, Irene Vermeulen

We met our guide, Irene, bright and early at 7.30am and weren’t too upset to find the hike started in the Kirstenbosch garden. Despite spending a good four or five hours there the previous day, we found there were still vast areas we hadn’t even touched. Stopping–as I occasionally do–to take the odd photo, I was quite blasé about the climb ahead of us.

A family of Egyptian geese at Kirstenbosch

A family of Egyptian geese on the path at Kirstenbosch

I wasn’t too worried about being slowed down by large families of geese crossing the path or by a single-minded determination–if not success–to jump, skip, hop and wait out the vast, rotating, early morning sprinklers and avoid getting wet. We were seasoned hikers, we had a guide looking after us and life was full of wonder.

Tall and healthy Leucospermum shrubs at Kirstenbosch

Tall and healthy Leucospermum shrubs on our Table Mountain climb

One of these wonders was trying to figure out where the garden finished and the natural wilderness began. Every time I thought we’d passed the last planted specimen, I found another that I couldn’t quite believe hadn’t been placed there by man.

Soft colours of drought tolerant plants line the climb up Table Mountain

Soft colours of drought tolerant plants line the climb up Table Mountain

Eventually, I convinced myself I was indeed just looking at bog standard South African fynbos. Nothing special. Except bog standard South African fynbos is hard to put into the ‘nothing special’ category.

Pentameris curvifolia (Curly fiveawn grass) was the prettiest thing

Pentameris curvifolia (curly fiveawn grass) was the prettiest thing

Everywhere you look, something incredible jumps out at you. It was almost impossible to comprehend. The most confusing thing of all was that this was low season for plants. It was the hot, dry summer–the period of dormancy in arid regions–not vibrant spring, mild winter or damp autumn. What on earth would it be like then?

Summer is extremely dry in Cape Town, but dew from the cloud caught in this spider's web suggests how some plants survive

There had been no rain on Table Mountain, but drops of dew from the cloud, caught in a spider’s web, help to make sense of plant survival in such a hot, dry location

Having Irene by our side was wonderful. I learnt so much more and it was a real treat to not have to think about navigation or potential hazards. All I had to do was safely put one foot in front of the other and enjoy the ride.

Nursery Ravine, way up on Table Mountain was the site of a tree nursery from 1893 to 1910

Nursery Ravine, way up Table Mountain was the site of a tree nursery from 1893 to 1910. Oaks were grown for wine barrels, but in the heat they lacked winter dormancy, meaning the grain was insufficiently tight

Although, there was perhaps one disadvantage of being guided. I’m not sure I had quite realised that Table Mountain was 1,085 metres high. That’s over three and a half Eiffel Towers. And I’d perhaps forgotten just how flat Hyde Park–my only walking trail for the past ten months–was. And maybe I hadn’t done all that much research into just how often the Cableway had to be closed to high winds.

The lichen in this tree fuschia was magnificent!

The lichen on this tree fuschia was magnificent!

I was blissfully unaware of what loomed ahead of us, as I stopped and I photographed, looked back at the view and thought how lovely this beautiful country we had just landed in was. How pleasant all these gentle walks were going to be.

I didn't manage to identify this plant with gorgeous curled up tips. If anybody knows it's I'd love to be enlightened!

I didn’t manage to identify this plant with gorgeous curled up tips. If anybody knows, I’d love to be enlightened!

I was lost in a daze of wildflowers and fynbos, taking everything in and hungrily learning as much as I could. I learnt that Fynbos is characterized by the presence of three plant groups:

1. Restio family (Restionaceae)
Stately restios form a strong backdrop to a mix of indigenous South African flowering plants at Kirstenbosch

Stately restios form a strong backdrop to a mix of indigenous South African plants on the Table Mountain walk

Restios and sedges generally form the greatest proportion of fynbos cover, taking the place of grasses on nutrient-poor soils, especially in areas of high winter rainfall and strong winds. They have reduced or absent leaves and tough, wiry stems and I instantly recognised them for their distinctive colouring: in most cases, bright green stems contrasting with dark brown bracts. They provide the vertical definition to fynbos and indeed the material for the many thatched roofs we saw in the Cape.

2. Erica family (Ericaceae)
Erica plukenetti growing in a gap between rocks

Erica plukenetti growing in a gap between rocks on Table Mountain

The ericas make up by far the largest number of species in fynbos and the locals delighted in telling me that over 80% of Erica worldwide are from South Africa, way surpassing the number of British heathers. We looked at them under a microscope and it was fascinating to see their small, narrow, rolled leaves, clearly perfectly adapted for this hot, dry climate. I’ve never got overly excited about heathers before, but the range, colour and sheer quantity of them on Table Mountain was enough to get even the biggest Ericaphobe on the rethink.

3. Protea family (Proteaceae)
Protea cynaroides (King protea) is the national flower of South Africa (I've got some great shots of out of season flowers to come later). You can also see 'witch's broom' bottom centre, which is distorted growth caused by a bacterial pathogen

Protea cynaroides (King protea) is the national flower of South Africa. You can also see ‘witch’s broom’ bottom centre, which is distorted growth caused by a bacterial pathogen

Finally, we get to the proteas: probably the family that I most associate with South Africa, despite this being the least common of the three fynbos groups. Proteas provide gravitas to the landscape, with large, broad leaves, the showiest flowers imaginable and invariably the greatest height. South Africans are most upset that when it comes to the Protea family, Australia beats South Africa hands down, with a far greater range of species. I advised them to just keep quiet about this, feeling quite confident most Australians would be none the wiser if they didn’t keep bringing it up!

These stunning red colours were described to us as 'stone roses'; I've failed to identify them but I guess it's some kind of lichen

These stunning red colours were described to us as ‘stone roses’; I’m guessing some kind of lichen

Whilst these are the only three plant groups that must be present for vegetation to be defined as fynbos, there is another group of plants that are very often seen. Fynbos–as much of the Australian bush–regenerates well after fire, with many species adapted to get ahead of the competition under these conditions. Where bare soil is exposed and light maximised, one of the first plant groups to appear are the geophytes.

Geophytes
An Ornithogalum, I believe Ornithogalum thyrsoides; so exciting to find, having grown these in my Canberra garden

An Ornithogalum, I believe O. thyrsoides: so exciting to find, having grown these in my Canberra garden

Simply put, geophytes are plants with an underground food storage organ. Most of us (either lazily or ignorantly) call them bulbs, but strictly speaking there are also tubers, corms and rhizomes which are quite different in form. We didn’t see any areas of recent fire on Table Mountain, although we were lucky enough to see spectacular after-effects of fire at Helderberg, later on in our trip. We did, however, still see plenty of geophytes on the mountain.

Watsonia tabularis (Table Mountain bugle lily) certainly made itself at home on the top of Table Mountain

Watsonia tabularis (Table Mountain bugle lily) certainly made itself at home on the top of Table Mountain…

After much oohing, ahhing, stopping and photographing we eventually arrived at the top of the mountain, me feeling pretty pleased with myself at completing such a strenuous climb on the first full day of our holiday.

But when you look up close there is so much more than just Watsonia; so many plants and flowers all packed into the same piece of ground

…but when you look up close there is so much more than Watsonia; so many plants and flowers all packed into the same piece of ground

It turns out, however, there’s a lot more to see on top of ‘table’ mountains, compared with your average, ‘peaky’ mountain and our walk had only just begun.

Every time you bend down you'd find something amazing, like this Disa cornuta, an indigenous orchid that I almost trod on

Every time you bend down you’d find something amazing, like this Disa cornuta, an indigenous orchid that I almost trod on

We went on a very successful Disa (a type of orchid) hunt, we walked along the wall of the enormous Haly-Hutchinson reservoir, a feat of engineering which is hard to comprehend in its location, and we stopped by a stream of noisy frogs for our lunch. It was just perfect.

The water on Table Mountain is brown with tannins from the fynbos, but pure enough to drink

The water on Table Mountain is brown with tannins from the fynbos, but pure enough to drink

That is, it was just perfect until we discovered the cable car was cancelled for the day. We had a very big descent, on foot, ahead of us.

Everlasting daisies (Helichrysum family) pop up providing a floriferous foreground to False Bay beyond

Everlasting daisies (Helichrysum family) pop up providing a floriferous foreground to False Bay beyond

I shouldn’t complain. It was wonderful being outside, in fresh air, with beautiful surroundings, but it wasn’t quite what I had in mind for our first day. I’m not a confident descender and about five minutes in my legs had turned to jelly, as I gripped the uneven ground somewhat over-zealously.

I adored the colour of this Erica (E. cerinthoides?)

I adored the colour of this Erica (E. cerinthoides?)

Perhaps the fact that we chose a different track for our descent didn’t help. Despite being assured that Skeleton Gorge wasn’t named after a long list of long-lost hikers, the dry creek bed–which felt more like a dry waterfall bed–did have me wondering. I’ve since learnt that more people have come to their fate hiking Table Mountain than Mount Everest.

Selago serrata seems to start a dusky pink and open out to mauve: the combination of both colours on one plant is a real delight! You can see some white Lobelia here, too

Selago serrata seems to start a dusky pink and open out to mauve: the combination of both colours on one plant is a real delight! You can see some tiny white Lobelia here, too

The good news is, we did survive to tell the tale, despite the somewhat sore legs for several days in my case. I have rather a lack of photographs of the descent, as I concentrated on my footing with all my might. But our Table Mountain hike was a very special experience of a very special landscape and I’m super glad we did it.

Such pretty scenes and soft colours on Table Mountain

Pretty, soft colourings on Table Mountain

Perhaps blissful ignorance and a lack of research may take me to further destinations that might otherwise be put into the ‘too difficult’ pile.  On this occasion it certainly helped me see things I wouldn’t have missed for the world; it’s a strategy I might just employ some more!

Leucadendrons in the Protea garden at Kirstenbosch

Leucadendrons on the Table Mountain climb

20 thoughts on “Table Mountain National Park

    • jannaschreier says:

      I’d so recommend it, Kate. As for being thrilled, I’m not sure that was the word most on my mind when we got to the bottom! But looking back, it was certainly a solid bit of exercise and we couldn’t have done it in a better place.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Can’t beat a good yarn, Kim! That sounds so delightfully Australian to me…I do miss you all.
      The mist was quite dramatic wasn’t it? I’m very happy to have a compliment from an expert photographer – thank you!

  1. rusty duck says:

    Geese!
    And there was me thinking I was doing well completing the 12k Uluru base walk. And that’s all on the flat.
    I was considering trying restios down here. They grow well in Cornwall but perhaps borderline for me. I do love them though. They really set off the other plants in that pic.
    The view from the top of the mountain is amazing!

    • jannaschreier says:

      Yes, Mrs Goose was decidedly unworried about us trying to get past her gooslings (sounds so much better than goslings).
      You WERE doing well to complete the 12km Uluru walk. I’ve never made it all the way round. We had an advantage on Table Mountain of it being a high of 24 and no direct sun – I can’t imagine you had those conditions.
      Look forward to seeing some Devonshire restios! Your slopes must help move frost along?

  2. Adriana Fraser says:

    This is so amazing – stunningly beautiful and gorgeous photos — Is that unknown plant Schizea pectinata Janna?

    • jannaschreier says:

      Oh, you are clever, Adriana. We saw Schizaea pectinata in its fully opened form, but I didn’t connect the two for some reason. I’m glad you’ve figured it out and you’ll see the quite different stage (which I’m sure you’re also familiar with) later on in our trip! Thanks very much!

  3. Louise Dutton says:

    Nature at its best – gorgeous! I have a friend who owns and runs a protea farm and has many varieties. They actually do so well that they export them as well. South Africa is one of the destinations! The farm has grown bigger and bigger over the years to meet the demand. Glad you survived the walk to share with us 😀

    • jannaschreier says:

      It’s lovely, isn’t it? Is your son still enjoying getting out into nature, too? How amazing to have a Protea farm. We can buy them fairly easily over here too, as cut flowers. In fact I have some sitting to my left (although they are a bit old and brown now – I dried them a long time ago!). I love them even more now that I have seen them in the wild.

  4. fionacotton says:

    Hi Janna, Really enjoyed reading this post. I don™’t know why but I always thought proteas in Australia had originated in South Africa. Now I know we have our own varieties and can safely paint them as Australian natives. Lots of love Fiona

    • jannaschreier says:

      Hi Fiona! Thanks for your comment. So glad you enjoyed my yarn! I’m very much looking forward to seeing your paintings of Protea. I love them. However, you will need to stick to the ‘Protea family’ to put them in the Australian bucket: things like waratahs, grevilleas and banksias. The Protea proteas are still South African, I’m afraid! Very, very much hoping to see you later this year.

  5. Suzanne says:

    What a stunningly beautiful place Janna. I’m so glad you took the time “to take the odd photo”. Your photos show such gorgeous vistas, and the King Protea, fynbos, lichen…what can I say! Even the Watsonia doesn’t have that malevolent look it takes on here in Perth. But does this area really qualify as arid? One of my work colleagues came from The Cape [I can’t remember exactly where] and she would say how the gardens were always damp. She couldn’t cope with Perth’s DRY summer and would water three times a day…until she got her first water bill for over $600 [and that was more than 20 years ago]! Very much looking forward to your next instalment.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Oh, you are another smart one, Suzanne! You are quite right that where I have shown today isn’t Perth-arid at all. According to Wikipedia, Perth has 731mm of rain a year and Cape Town has 515mm, both are Mediterranean in their rainfall pattern and Perth just has a very slight upper hand on temperatures. Overall, I would say there’s not much between the two, and you’ll see real, proper arid fynbos when we get to Helderberg and Fernkloof. The Western Cape had a particularly dry 2016 and everyone was worried about water levels. However, as you quite rightly spotted, Kirstenbosch and Table Mountain are quite a different ball game. Kirstenbosch gets a whopping 1310mm of average rainfall, sitting in the lee of the mountain, and then as you climb, temperatures cool and cloud cover increases. So glad you coped with the Watsonia, by the way!

  6. Diana Studer says:

    (have been saving your posts to enjoy)

    I take my hat off to you. Last week we tried to walk up to the contour path – too hot and steep for me. And I have NEVER walked all the way up Table Mountain (which has claimed two more lives sadly)

    We have a waratah at Kirstenbosch – one of the seeds Kew sent to a fledgling garden a hundred years ago.

    Kirstenbosch climate is deceptive for Cape Town. The garden is there because of the mountain streams. And only Nursery Stream was flowing last week. The Conservatory was built to protect the succulent collection from our winter rain. Perhaps it was ‘your’ geese that had lunch with us – two teenagers.

    • jannaschreier says:

      It’s certainly a challenging climb but we were fortunate with the weather. I’m sad to hear two more lives have been lost.
      It’s interesting to hear about your waratah…I’m going to have to come back to see it! And I do hope those streams start flowing again soon. What a worry.
      Glad to hear you said hello to my geese friends. Please pass on my regards next time you see them!

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