"This is a pretty and singular town; it lies at the foot of an enormous wall (the Table Mountain), which reaches into the clouds, and makes a most imposing barrier. Cape Town is a great inn, on the great highway to the east." - Charles Darwin in a letter to his sister, Catherine, 1836
At 1085m (3559ft) high, Table Mountain may be way down the list of the world's tallest mountains but - for once - it truly deserves that overworked label, iconic. Table Mountain is a true icon, one of those instantly recognizable symbols that has placed Cape Town amongst the most beautiful cities in the world. It is obvious why it got its name. The original Khoi people were equally straightforward, calling it Hoerikwaggo - the "mountain in the sea". To the Nguni, the mountain is "Umlindiwengizimu" - the watcher of the south - placed here by the Creator, Qamata, as the custodian to protect all of Africa.
A Floral Icon
It has other claims to be iconic. This is an old mountain, a staggering 260-million years old. By contrast the Himalayas are mere toddlers at 40-million years old and the Alps are still in their pram at only 32-million. This is also home to a botanical phenomenon - the Cape Floral Kingdom. The scrubby looking fynbos which covers Table Mountain and the Cape Peninsula is one of the richest and most diverse eco-systems in the world with a stunning 8200 plant species, and over 1 460 of them on Table Mountain alone. With this wealth of flora comes a richness of birds and small animal life. This massively dense concentration of plant species means that the Cape has been designated the world's smallest Floral Kingdom, the only one to be contained within a country.
Table Mountain, much of the rest of the mountain chain of the Cape Peninsula, and around 1,000 sq km of the surrounding coastal waters were incorporated into the Table Mountain National Park (tel: +27 21 701 8692) in 1998. In 2004, the Cape Floral Kingdom was recognised as a UNESCO Natural World Heritage site. The park is split into four zones.
The mountain itself is free, if you wish to walk up, although most people prefer the less energetic Table Mountain Cableway (tel: +27 21 424 8181). The first cable car began operating in 1929, nearly 40 years after the first discussions on the subject. With a tin roof and wooden sides, it was a very different beast to the sleek revolving capsules ferries people up the 704m journey from the lower station at 363m above sea level, to the upper station, at 1067m. To date, some 20 million people have ridden the cable car including Sir Edmund Hillary (presumably on holiday), George Bernard Shaw and King George VI. For lucky locals, the new Cable Card offers year-round access to the mountain for the price of only 2.5 round trips.
Always check the weather before heading up and arm yourself with suitable clothing no matter how clear and inviting it may seem at first glance. The mountain weather is extremely changeable - and the stuff of legend. South-easterly winds blow across the mountains and as they are forced between Devil's Peak and Table Mountain they can reach ferocious speeds of up to 130km/h (81mi/h). Known as the Cape Doctor, they clear away the heat and the pollution and keep the town sparkling, but can also be brutal to any mountaineer caught without protective gear. It also stops the cablecar from running.
Meantime Table Mountain spends much of its life draped in a soft white cloud - "the tablecloth". One legend says that each summer a retired pirate, Van Hunks, has a pipe-smoking contest with the devil. The rheumaticky old man can't climb the mountain in winter, so the mountain stays clear! Another San (bushman) legend says that it is Mantis god using a giant white animal pelt to beat out the flames of a bush fire. Whatever the case, you need to avoid it if you wish to see the view.
Once up the top, there are three signposted walks, the fifteen-minute Dassie Walk, 30-minute Agama Walk and longer Klipspringer Walk along the edge of the plateau to Platteklip Gorge. There is also a wheelchair route. The cableway company runs guided walks daily at 10am and noon. There are numerous other walking and hiking trails within the national park from simple strolls, easily accessible to all, to the 5-day 97 km (60 mile) Hoerikwaggo Trail from Table Mountain to Cape Point. There are also various places to go mountain biking, climbing and abseiling with companies such as Downhill Adventures. If you want to discover more about the mountain's flora, you should visit the magnificent Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens on the lower slopes.
New 7 Wonders of Nature
This year, the South Africans have got very over-excited as Table Mountain has made it onto the list of finalists for a place on the new 7 Wonders of Nature, to be voted for by the general public. The list will be announced on 11 November (11/11/11).
Not that they are competitive or anything - but they are wheeling out the celebrity ambassadors including Archbishop Desmond Tutu who said: "It is important that South Africa wins as it's important for our psyche. And this vote is apolitical - Table Mountain belongs to us all - let's show we can win. If we win, we will all have a spring in our step." But the cause is a great one, so to register your vote for Table Mountain, click here.