Know Your Country - Table Mountain, Cape Town

Last updated: Jul 06, 2015

The first person we know about to have climbed this mountain was a Portuguese sailor called Antonio de Saldanha in 1503. He didn't climb it because of its beauty or to stretch his legs, he just needed to figure out where on earth he was. He'd gotten lost on a trip around Africa and decided that a certain table shaped mountain would make an ideal vantage point.

Despite what Eurocentric history would have us believe, Antonio de Saldanha wasn't the first person to climb Table Mountain. The Khoi people had lived in the Cape and explored it for hundreds of years before the Portuguese arrived. They named Table Mountain Hoerikwaggo! which means "The Mountain in the Sea".

Table Mountain is one of the New7 Wonders of Nature and it's quite easy to understand why. This beautiful towering mountain stands surrounded by Cape Town and the blue Atlantic Ocean. The only problem is when Capetonians are at a dinner party in Joburg and they start talking about what they think is a very interesting subject, the beauty of the mountain and the wonderful hiking trails and how close it is to the beach, but some people hate mountains and call the other people smug, and then I don't get invited back again...

The first ascent by a woman was made in 1797 by Lady Anne Barnard, a lively Scottish woman with rumours circulating about her skinny dipping in the Fort fountain. She made the ascent dressed in her husband's trousers with her shoes tied on with tape. On the top the hiking party had quite a picnic with cold meats and good lashings of Cape wine and port, and before they headed down made sure to raise a toast to the King.

The mountain has been home to a number of people over the years. One of the most famous of which is Joshua Penny, an American sailor who had been press-ganged into joining the Royal Navy. When he got to Cape Town on board HMS Sceptre in 1795 he escaped, grabbed a few supplies and headed into the mountain where he lived off of wild honey and hunting dassies. He used animal skins as clothing and often had to fight off hyenas. He found shelter in Fountain Ravine in Table Mountain, afraid of returning and being found as a deserter. After more than a year Penny decided to take his chances. There was only one ship in the bay. He crept down and managed to get a spot on board a ship. The captain famously remarked "What in the name of God are you?! Man or beast?" It was only once he got on board the new ship that he found out that HMS Sceptre had been sunk a few weeks after his escape and he could have come down much sooner.

Another interesting ascent was made by James Holman in 1829 when he rode up the mountain on horseback. What makes it remarkable is that Holman was completely blind. They ascended via Nursery buttress above Kirstenbosch, and then rode along the top with Holman's friends explaining the views. That's quite a lot of trust he placed in the horse and his friends to guide him.

Over the years Table Mountain has attracted a lot of legends. One of the most famous is the story of Van Hunks, a Dutch pirate who went up the mountain to smoke his pipe. On the mountain he met a cloaked stranger who challenged him to see who could smoke the most tobacco. The competition started and after a while the air became thick with smoke. People saw the plumes rising off the mountain. Eventually the stranger was forced to give up and as he leaned forward his cloak fell and Van Hunks saw that the stranger was in fact the devil himself. Every time the cloud comes over the mountain, it's said that Van Hunks and the devil are at it again.

Devil's Peak was probably not named after the devil and Van Hunks but was probably a mishearing of the name Duiwe Piek, and so the story probably arose to explain the name. Whatever the case, it's still a great story. Devil's Peak was also called Windberg by the Dutch and if you've ever experienced the wind below Devil's Peak you'll know why.

The number one tourist attraction in South Africa is the Kruger Park, but just behind it is the Table Mountain Cableway. In 1926 a Norwegian engineer named Trygve Stromsoe put forward the plan to construct a cable way up the mountain. Construction began and a temporary ropeway was connected to the top so that an open box-carrier called 'the soapbox' could transport materials and people to the top.

During the construction the foreman, Vernon Hendrikse, and his wife lived on top of the mountain in a small flat. Mrs Hendrikse fell pregnant and when the time came was forced to give birth to their child on the mountain. A midwife came up via 'the soapbox' and helped deliver Yvonne Hendrikse the first recorded birth on the mountain.

In 1929 the cable way opened, but unfortunately tourism would take a hit over the following 20 years with the great depression and WWII. Eventually the cableway would pick up steam and become one of Cape Town's biggest tourist attractions. Since opening it has seen many upgrades and restaurants and walkways have been built on top of the mountain. Probably its most famous visitor was King George VI who visited in 1947.

You can easily understand why they would have persevered to build a cableway up the mountain. The mountain stands as one of the great natural beauties in the world. It has provided the backdrop for the millions of people who have lived under her shadow working, living, loving, arguing, and laughing. Table Mountain will always be the beloved jewel of the Cape. Just don't harp on about it at dinner parties. Apparently it's annoying and you won't be invited back.

To watch our previous video in the Know Your Country series about Woodstock and its beach, click here.