Skeleton Gorge


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Africa » South Africa » Western Cape » Cape Town » KIrstenbosch
August 28th 2015
Published: September 14th 2015
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Skeleton Gorge and Nursery Ravine


One of the things Lindsey and I were really keen to do since we came to Cape Town was to climb Table Mountain. We have been to the top in the cable car before but that doesn't give the same sense of satisfaction as dragging yourself up. We have been busy with so many things and had so many people to catch up with that we had to postpone our hike four or five times. We decided we just had to do it on our next available day.

The day dawned with fog - the "Table Cloth" covering the mountain. This was not ideal since the mountain is dangerous in inclement weather and the views would be rubbish if we were stuck in the cloud. It looked like the fog deck was lifting though so we gave it a bit of time.

After a while we decided the fog wasn't low enough to give us any trouble. We headed to Kirstenbosch Gardens and paid our R50 entrance fee each. I've never had to pay to walk a mountain before. We walked up through the gardens which are always beautiful. The Erica Garden particularly caught our eyes this time. Erica is a subspecies of fynbos, the wild flowers that cover the Cape. Surprisingly, given the size of the flowers, Wikipedia informs me that it is related to heather. We also walked across the Boomslang ("tree snake") which is a raised walkway in the canopy of the forest. It was something we'd wanted to do for a while but to be honest I wasn't that impressed.



Ascent - Skeleton Gorge

We left the gardens on a red path which turned to a set of stairs. We came to a junction at the top - one path would take us up Nursery Ravine and the other up Skeleton Gorge. We had set out to climb Skeleton Gorge so that was the route we opted for. However, we decided that we would take Nursery Ravine on the way down. With hindsight this turned out to be a good decision.

Walking up the hill I couldn't help but think of the part of the Lord of the Rings where Frodo climbs the mountains to enter Mordor. Whilst the scenery was undoubtedly much more pleasant, the arduous nature of the ascent had some similarities.

First we encountered the wooden steps - beams of wood laid to give the path solidity and help climbing. These went on for a long, long time, climbing steeply through the forest. Eventually they gave way to stone steps which were a bit harder on the feet but less steep. Not much further on the stone steps started to get steeper and then were replaced with a set of six slippery wooden ladders. By the time we got to these we were absolutely exhausted.

When we had rested a little we looked up and saw more stone steps, this time much more uneven and steeper, as far as we could see. Tiredly, we started moving again. We soon realised there was water running down the rocks. We Looked for an alternative path but couldn't see one - we would have to climb the waterfall.

This was my first experience climbing a waterfall and it wasn't as unpleasant as I expected. It was quite difficult though as the stones had moss and lichen growing on them which made them slippery. Also, some of the boulders in the waterfall were huge. With my size 14 feet, trying to find a suitable foothold could be difficult at times. We climbed a little higher and came to a boulder which was too large to get up so we had to cross the waterfall. This was a good test of our walking boots - thankfully we didn't get puddles in them. The water was cold but as we were getting very warm by this point it wasn't too unpleasant.

Not far beyond the crossing the boulders were getting bigger and bigger. It was tough to scramble up and I wasn't sure I was going to be able to do so but perseverance got us there. Beyond the boulders, the obstacles changed again - this time tree trunks that had been washed down and had been there long enough to be rotting but not so long that they didn't pose a formidable challenge. Their surface was slimy and they shifted disconcertingly as we put our weight on them. We made it beyond these without mishap and were relieved to see a mesh-covered wall at the top. This engineering was the first sign we were on the right track since we'd climbed the ladders and was a relief as it revealed the path continuing up the hill.

Whilst we were leaning against the wall panting to get enough air after the strenuous ascent we became aware that someone was climbing behind us. Frustratingly, the gradient and obstacles didn't seem to be making him break a sweat or raise his heart rate. He stopped and we spoke for a little while. As he was climbing solo he wanted to exchange mobile numbers just in case anything happened so we did... but then he told us he had no credit anyway. He went on ahead of us and was soon beyond our sight.

Joining the path again we were presented with another long set of wooden steps which we lumbered up slowly. After another couple of hundred metres we came to an overhanging rock which I was absolutely certain I couldn't get under. I started to worry our climb was finished. What I couldn't see until I was right on top of it was that the path turned to the left and continued up. The wooden steps soon changed to uneven stones again.

We kept going until the path levelled out and we rose above the canopy of the trees. For the first time we had views out from the mountain and they were very impressive. It felt like we were looking out not just at Cape Town but at South Africa. The cliffs of the V-shaped hill we were on loomed above us. If it wasn't for the view we'd have been quite disheartened. We were tired and hungry but decided to press on as we wanted to reach the top for lunch. Inevitably there were more wooden steps.



The Summit - Castle Rock

We slowly climbed until an imposing rock appeared in front of us. The path split around it and we had no idea which path we were supposed to take. The rock provided good shelter and we were nearly at the top so we decided to stop for lunch. Never have cheese sandwiches tasted so good. Whilst we were sitting there an old man came past us and made a joke about us having breakfast. It went completely over our heads until that evening when I discovered that the outcrop is called Breakfast Rock.

It was difficult to motivate ourselves to move from our sheltered spot but we noticed the clouds were rapidly getting lower so we decided we had to go on. We chose the route we thought would take us to Nursery Ravine but unfortunately there were no signposts. We walked along the flat white rocks on top of the mountain until the path ran out with a sheer drop below. Retracing our steps we found another path which appeared to go further but we discovered it just looped back to the path we'd first taken. At this point we got quite worried. The cloud was getting lower and we didn't know the way home. Going back down Skeleton Gorge was not a prospect we wanted to contemplate. We walked back to breakfast rock and took the other path. Very soon we came to a little engraved map which was a big relief. Our relief turned into confusion though when we realised we had previously taken the right route.

We prayed a quick prayer and then went back down the path wondering where we had gone wrong. I spotted a little channel through the grass which looked like a rabbit trail rather than a proper path. I almost walked past it but something made me turn back and explore it. I clambered up a rock and found at the top that the path continued. We still weren't sure we were on the right trail until we bumped into a woman coming the other way. We pointed her to Skeleton Gorge and she pointed us to Nursery Ravine. Finally we could feel relief again.



Descent - Nursery Ravine

We crested the hill and suddenly felt how exposed the other side was. The wind was strong and chilly. The view below was amazing though so it was worth it. The walk down the hill was jarring on the knees. The path was mainly wooden steps though with the occasional rock scramble thrown in for good measure. Part way down I went over on my ankle which distracted me from the pain in my knees.

We descended steadily and eventually got back to the shelter of the forest. Once the wind was out of our faces we warmed up quite quickly. We carried on descending down the wooden steps, this time by the side of a waterfall rather than in it. We did have to cross the waterfall at a little pool but we did this quite easily. We got to the point where each step was a sheer act of will but eventually descended from the forest back to the red contour path which led us back to Kirstenbosch.

As we walked down through the gardens our legs felt like they'd turned to jelly. We took short cuts across every lawn, following intermittent signs for the tea rooms. We had kept ourselves going from the top of Nursery Ravine by imagining a steaming mug of hot chocolate so we had to fulfil this desire. The drink was very expensive but hot, rich and chocolatey which was exactly what we needed. Standing up again afterwards felt very difficult. Our legs would be aching for the next few days.

That evening we couldn't rest as we had tickets for the theatre. By this point I was really aching and had a bad headache from dehydration. Going to the theatre was the last thing I wanted to do. It turned out to be an amazing show. The play, "Sizwe Banzi is Dead", explores the themes of racial oppression and disparity in the standard of the lives of Blacks and Whites under apartheid. The show was very cleverly written and had just two actors who were absolutely outstanding. It was really entertaining and even made me forget the sufferings my body was enduring.


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