It’s 3pm and we have been up since 6am in order to make it to Boulders Bay and back in time for lunch (which was delightful – I recommend the chicken salad at Table Thirteen, 78 Victoria Junction, Cape Town). We’re sitting in traffic, digesting, when Craig asks, “Do you want to go up Table Mountain?” I turn to him and reply, “Oh, we must.” It is a peculiarity of South African conversation that people do not recommend – they instruct – and this is exactly how Mike had answered my inquiry about the rest of our initerary: “You must take the cable car to the top of Table Mountain before you leave.” So it came to pass that despite the late hour and that we were improperly dressed in only shorts and t-shirts, and that we had neither water nor any food, we pointed the car toward Table Mountain with it in mind “just to see”.
When we reach parking lot, we can’t help but be impressed. The view from here – the bottom – is outstanding.
It’s windy out but the weather seems to be holding. “D’ya wanna?” I ask, and in unison Craig and I smirk: “We must.”
Our ticket-taker’s name is Blondie. “Up and down?” she chirps through the glass, and Craig and I burst into giggles. Craig is able to regain his composure long enough to gasp, “Yes, up and down.” “Oh, you are a very dirty man,” Blondie bats her eyes at Craig, “and I like that.”
We board the car with a handful of other sight seers and the door closes. An inexplicably seductive robotic voice comes over the P.A. and tells us to step away from the handrails at the side. We take a step towards the centre just as the floor begins to revolve.
We’re both afraid of heights, and despite the heavy cables and robust enclosure, we can feel the wind pushing at the car. As we are lifted higher towards the upper station, we begin to regret our adventurousness.
We make it to the top and for the umpteenth time since I arrived in Africa I laugh at the official use of the word “hooter” (a “hooter” here is a horn so instead of signs saying “No honking” they say “No hooting”; I have at least a dozen pictures of this.)
The top of Table Mountain is astonishing. It’s like Lord of the Rings meets the final level of Super Mario Brothers where you have to hop from cloud to cloud before the clock runs out.
We poke around just outside the cable car station for a while. Craig studies the map and we choose a path that appears to go in a manageable ring, marked as an “easy walk” that should take about 30 minutes. We set off.
It is gorgeous: I try and take in the clouds bumping up against the top of the rocks, the birds flying in graceful swoops, the large flat rocks, the trees and tall grasses. We dilly and we dally. I take a tonne of pictures.
Table Mountain is majestic and all, but really – some South Africans take these things so seriously! “Table Mountain,” my friend Callie warned me, “is not to be trifled with.” The way I see it, that is basically a dare and so trifle, trifle I did.
As we walk, Craig tells me the story of his friend Kim, who along with a couple of other people, got caught rock climbing on Table Mountain and had to spend the night in a cave. The next morning when they made their way down, he tells me, their tires had been stolen off their car and the Cape Times was splashed with the headline “Stupid Americans Caught on Table Mountain”. He digs in his bag and pulls out a mint he’d pocketed after lunch. “Want half?” I am not really a mint person but they’re outstanding in Africa – not the pasty saccharine jobbies we get in the West. Here, they are real toffee or fruit-based candies. Delicious. I nod my head yes. He bites off his portion and gives me the remainder… and we each savour the last piece of food that we have on our persons. Which leads into the following conversation:
Have you read Alive?
Well, if I die first you have permission to eat my flesh.
Thanks! Have you seen Into Thin Air?
No, what’s it about?
The mountain climber guy dragged himself off the mountain with two broken legs and the whole time he had “Brown Girl in the Ring” in his head.
It’s a Boney M song.
Boney M? What’s that?
You know! “Rasputin”?
No I don’t know it.
Yes, you do. Anyway can you imagine breaking your legs and having to crawl down the mountain but having a song stuck in your head?
And then I see a snake. Just a little guy – nothing to be worried about, I think as I get up nice and close to take its picture.
DANGER! I don’t stick around to argue. (Note: For a really graphic image of what a puff adder bite looks like, click here, but be warned: it’s gross.)
By now we’re far away from the cable car station. It’s just the two of us and the wind. It is very peaceful and I am enjoying the companionable silence. Craig walks ahead of me, leading the way as I stop every few feet to take photographs. At one point we pass a mound of rocks, obviously man-made. “What is that,” I ask. Craig replies, “It’s a cairn put together for all the dead hikers.” “Dead Hiker’s Pile,” I say sombrely.
Eventually we come to the far edge of Table Mountain. It is a spectacle and I take a million photos, none of which really capture the feeling of being there.
We peer over the ledge. It’s so high up you can see for kilometres in all directons. Cape Town is beautiful. We can see the new soccer stadium that they are building for the WC2010. It is impossible not to look, and we keep edging along, edging along, edging along…
And then a series of things happens very quickly.
1. I look up and realize that we have followed the path out to a place where my tiny 1 metre ledge is flanked on one side by a rock face and on the other, by a sheer drop.
2. I remember that I am terrified of heights. In a shaky voice I call out to Craig, telling him we’ve made a mistake. Craig (likely hearing the filament-thin barrier between me and arm-flailing panic) tells me to sit and stay. He crawls along the path looking for a place where we can pull ourselves back up onto the table.
3. Craig finds a spot about 100 metres down, but between he and I is 100 metres of terror. I am shaking. Craig comes back and does the sweetest thing: he escorts me down the path, placing his body between me and drop.
4. The hooter sounds. Craig and I look at each other, and half-laughing, half-screaming, we begin to move quicker. We reach our target and haul ourselves back onto the table. We start running through the grass, looking for a path.
5. The clouds overtake us on the mountain. It happens in under a minute. We cannot see, and it is cold.
6. A group of birds take off from a jutting rock. Their wings make a whumpa-whumpa sound that we can feel as well as hear.
7. We locate a path in the grass and begin to jog along it. Craig comes to a sudden stop and I can see over his shoulder that we are steps from a sheer cliff. The look on Craig’s face tells me that like me, he is considering the possibility of a night on Table Mountain.
8. The hooter sounds again.
I look over my shoulder to see if we’re in danger of a #9 (which would have to be a giant ball à la Indiana Jones rolling towards us) as we turn away from the ledge and begin to run back through the grass. My mind is a blender full of precipices, puff adders, and persistent hooting. Craig turns around and catches me stopped for a moment taking pictures. In disbelief, he flaps his arms, Come on! My thinking is twofold: if we don’t survive, the photos will serve as pictorial evidence of what happened; if we do, it’ll be great for the blog.
Then, out of the mist we see it: the Dead Hiker’s Pile!
Back on the path, we break into a run. The sweat on my body is chilling in the mist, but we must make it back before they close the cable car station. Still, we stop and take this photo:
When we reach the station it is closed. The door is shut and there’s a gate across it. Craig says he’ll break the window to get us in, but luckily, we see movement from inside. A worker opens the door and lets us in. There are three other shivering people, waiting for the cable car.
Thankfully, the cable car operators forego the revolving floor for the descent.