A Wonderful Travel Guide to Table Mountain for Your Cape Town Day Trip

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Cape Town: a picturesque South Africa coastal city with a lot of charm and character. Table Mountain, 2010 FIFA World Cup, southernmost Cape of Good Hope, African Indigenous culture, and jackass penguin are the keywords that pop up in my mind when I was planning my visit. Of course, Table Mountain is the first on my list and I am sure everyone would tell you it’s a place not to be missed.

Cape Town - Table Mountain 5

Why Table Mountain?

The mountain is simply unique. Table Mountain is a flat-topped mountain and a prominent landmark overlooking the city of Cape Town. Nelson Mandela once declared Table Mountain ‘a Gift to the Earth’, on World Environment Day, in 1998. Table Mountain (among others like Ha Long Bay, Komodo, Iguazu Falls…) is declared one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. True, Its unique shape and flat surface form a perfect backdrop to the city’s skyline. It could be seen basically anywhere in the city, even from the plane… given that the mountain is not covered by clouds.

The mountain offers a panoramic view of Cape Town. The range of mountains is located in the center of the city. The city center of Cape Town is nestled in the North, facing the ocean. The south side is the suburbs with houses sprawling at the feet of the mountain. At the top of Table Mountain, the highest point of Cape Town, you will be able to see the cityscape with no obstruction.

The natural environment is enchanting. The mountain is home to a lot of wild animals, including the adorable dassies. It is rich in floral biodiversity and is part of the Cape Floral Kingdom World Heritage Site. Over 8,200 plant species can be found in TMNP. fine bush is one of the most commonly found plants in the area, plus many are actually endemic.

For active travelers, Table Mountain has a number of hiking trails at different levels; while you want to take a leisurely hike, or to take a challenging route, the national park has the options for you. More, the scenery of Table Mountain has an exciting diversity: it has a lush and green lower part and it gets rocky moving to the top. Apart from Table Mountain, the nearby Lion’s Head and Signal Hill are also in interesting shapes that are worth exploring.

Seven Natural Wonders of the World

I had a great time on a boat trip in Ha Long Bay.

Same as the Seven Wonders of the World, the list was run by a New 7 Wonders campaign and the voting took place in 2007. More than 100 million votes were cast, and the results are:

  • Amazon Rainforest and River, South America
  • Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
  • Jeju Island, South Korea
  • Iguazú Falls, Brazil and Argentina
  • Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, Philippines
  • Komodo Island, Indonesia
  • Table Mountain, South Africa

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Table Mountain 101

Table Mountain got its name because of its flat top. The mountain is part of the Table Mountain National Park (TMNP), and the park was established in 1998. It was known as the Cape Peninsula National Park before that. The national is about 25,000 in size, and it could be seen as your flight landing at the Cape Town International Airport.

While there are 21 national parks in South Africa, TMNP is one of the most well-known, and most-visited in the country. One unique feature of the park is that it is surrounded completely by the city of Cape Town. The mountain receives over 4.2 million visitors annually, and many of them came here to enjoy the view, but also to go hiking, trail running, horse riding, and mountain biking.

Table Mountain, do you know?

More, let’s explore some fun facts about the mountain that you probably don’t know:

  • As I mentioned earlier, the type of plants in the mountain is incredible. while over 1,400 plant species are endangered, and 29 species have already become extinct.
  • Table Mountain is believed to be one of the oldest mountains in the world; the mountain is 240 million years old, while the rocks of the mountain are over 600 million years old (To give you a perspective, the Alps is just about 40 million years old.)
  • Table Mountain was once three times in height than it is today, which was eroded.
  • Originally, the mountain was named by the indigenous Khoisan people of the Cape as “Hoerikwaggo”, meaning “Mountain in the Sea”.
  • Table Mountain is featured on Cape Town’s city flag and logo.
  • This tourist attraction is the main draw to travelers around the world and also plays a major role to boost the city’s tourism. The mountain alone contributed to US 25million of tourist income from 1998-2003.

The Table Cloth Effect

Cape Town - Table Mountain - Table ClothOnce we landed at Cape Town International Airport, we took our rental car and in merely 20 minutes we were in the city center, checking in to the Airbnb apartment we booked. The apartment is a charming building on Strand Street surrounded by cafés (I will talk about that later) and local shops, and the highlight was a balcony with two chairs facing the Table Mountain!

It was May and Cape Town was a bit chilly when the sun was not coming out. When I was on the balcony I was thinking: “Oh, shoot!” Table Mountain was covered with thick clouds since we arrived and I had pre-purchased the Aerial cableway tickets in the afternoon online.

When the clouds are gathered on the top of Table Mountain, it’s called the “table cloth”. It is caused by the South-eastern wind that are moists, and thus form a layer of cloud when the water droplets met a colder layers of air at the top of the mountain. The cloud would eventually roll over hte mountain and move down towards the City Bowl, and gradually dissolves when they reach the warmer air in the lower air. It’s an interesting sight, yet it would not be a good time to reach to the top of the mountain when the clouds are gathered, and the clouds may form at different time of the day, usually during summer.

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The best time to visit

If a question was asked. It was my strategy: pre-purchase the ticket and go to Table Mountain the first day I arrive. Not only because Table Mountain is the number one attraction in town, but also in case of any unexpected situation happens (like weather), we would still have time for plan B. There are lots of discussions in travel forums regarding the best time going up the mountain… and honestly, my day could not turn out any more perfectly. So, I have a few tips about visiting Table Mountain:

Best time of the year

Well, it’s difficult to predict weather and I am sure there’s always be a chance of a gorgeous day any time of the year. I visited in May and it was a bit chilly up there, but it wouldn’t be a problem if you are dressed warmly. I was told that December is the busiest month of the year. In general, the best time of the year would be from March to May, and from September to November (a.k.a. Autumn and Spring). These shoulder seasons boast enviable weather, fewer crowds, and lower prices.

Best time of the day

The “Table Cloth Effect” is caused by the winds from the Southeast in summer. The moisture condensed on a cold layer at the height of 1000m, forming thick clouds that cover the peak of the mountain. Actually, the Table Cloth Effect could happen at any time of the day, usually in summer, depends on windiness.

The mountain’s steep and thick sandstone layer is North facing, and the “City Bowl” is located on the north side of the mountain, thus visitors would always enjoy the city view with great lighting, no matter in the early morning or late afternoon. To beat the crowds, I recommend getting there in the early morning (there are tours valid as early as 7:30 am) or late afternoon – particularly late afternoon, because the sunset was absolutely magnificent.

Avoid Fridays

The Table Mountain Cableway offers South African pensioners and students a concession every Friday – therefore it’s not the best time for tourists as the station could be quite crowded.

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Going to Table Mountain

Pre-purchase online

Unless you are planning to go up the mountain on foot, pre-purchase the tickets online and it would save precious time standing in the line for tickets at the ticket office. If you are lucky, you might find special offers or discounted deals on the site from time to time.

Use free shuttle service, if parking is a bitxh

Finding a parking spot near the station during busy hours could be a nightmare. We were lucky enough to find a parking spot as soon as we arrive at the station. But in case if you have no luck, instead of driving up and down waiting for a spot, consider parking at the Lower Tafelberg Road parking and then take a free MyCiti shuttle to the station.

Cape Town - Table Mountain Cableway

Table Mountain Aerial Cableway

Cape Town - Table Mountain Cableway 9The Table Mountain Aerial Cableway is an easy way to go up the mountain. The cableway officially opened to the public in 1929, and it had a major upgrade and redesign in 1997, in which new revolving cars were installed and each cabin could hold up to 65 passengers. Starting from the Lower Cable Station (363m), it slowly ascends to the Upper Cable Station (1067m). Don’t worry, the cabin would rotate as it goes up and so all passengers could enjoy a panoramic view from the ride.

Table Mountain Cableway website

Table Mountain, what NOT to miss

The top of the Mountain is well paved with walkways that cover different sides of the mountain. The Lion’s Head, Signal Hill, Robben Island, City Bowl, Table Bay, and Devil’s Peak could be viewed on the north side; and the “Back Table” (a rugged plateau that is an extension on the south side of the Table Mountain), and the Twelve Apostles, could be viewed on the south side. In between, is home to a large array of fauna and flora.

Cape Town - Table MountainRock Dassie

The Table Mountain is part of the Cape Floral Kingdom and home to an astonishing 1,470 plant species in an area of 57 square kilometers: Blue Disa, Cluster Disa, Erica, Watsonia, Yellow Margaret, Cape Reeds and more. More, it is also home to a variety of fascinating animals which depends on each other: like southern rock agama, black girdled lizard, klipspringer, Verreaux’s eagle, rock kestrel, and of course, the rock dassie – and absolutely adorable creature freely roaming in the Table Mountain walking trails.

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Cape Town, AMAZING TABLE MOUNTAIN. I mean, really. No joke. I mean I did meet dassies, witness sunset, have a great city panorama, and have fun in the cable car… It was a humbling experience  #take-my-breath-away

Table Mountain is a big area with a big view that you should take tons of photos of. On a clear day, you can basically see the entire city on both sides of the cliffs. Apart from the cityscape, spot the birds in the tree, or look for dassies (which is not that difficult to find). There are a number of viewing decks and viewpoints on the mountains, but some of the rocks are open that allows you to take everything in without a fence. Watch your steps and stay within the guided area, they are generally safe to explore.

Walks and Hikes

I took “the easy way” to get to the top of the mountain, but as I mentioned, it is possible to take a hike to the mountain top if you are physically fit and want a challenge. The fastest trail takes about 1.5 to 2 hours, depending on your speed. However, this is the least scenic trail among all the possible routes, if you want the have an immersive experience, pick Kasteelspoort or Skeleton Gorge route that needs about 4.5 and 5 hours respectively. You will get to see the rocks and dramatic cliffs at the back of the Table Mountain.

There are a few shops at the top of Table Mountain, the shops feature some local specials, including the King Protea. The restaurants there are exciting too. The buffet is located at the Upper Aerial Cableway cafe and serving delicacies like biltong (a South African version of beef jerky).

Lion’s Head and Signal Hill

Cape Town - Lion's Head 2 SunsetComing back down from Table Mountain, we also visited Lion’s Head and Signal Hill, right on the west side of Table Mountain. These mountains are very close to the city center and they are part of the city’s dramatic backdrop. There, we enjoyed an intimate sunset at the Atlantic Ocean, while watching the adventurous ones went for tandem paragliding.

Cape Town Table Mountain Lion's Head

Giant Yellow Frames

To honor this New 7 Wonder of Nature, the city of Cape Town placed giant yellow frames at 7 different locations in the city to “capture” the beauty of the mountain from different angles – it is part of Cape Town’s World Design Capital 2014 project and it hopes to help visitors capturing this enormous monument from different part of the city. These yellow frames could be found in V&A Waterfront, Signal Hill, Cape Town Station, District Six, Silo District, Blouberg (Eden of the Bay), and Khayelitsha Lookout Hill. Try to look for these frames as you are exploring different parts of the city!

The first day in Cape Town was fulfilling and filled with wonders. Up next, we explored a lot more in the city of Cape Town, and experienced the untamed beauty of the Cape of Good Hope, Boulders, Silvermine, and more! Stay-tuned ~

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