My breakfast table's a mountain... and there are no skeletons in Kirstenbosch Gardens!

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Africa » South Africa » Western Cape » Cape Town
August 25th 2009
Published: January 10th 2010
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1: Table Mountain 39 secs
2: Stepping stones in Kirstenbosch gardens 28 secs
I decided that a good start to my stay in Cape Town would be to visit Table Mountain. I woke up quite late and found the hostel buzzing with backpackers, none of whom seemed to planning anything more adventurous than visiting the local supermarket. I stumbled through to reception and asked how to get to the mountain and was recommended to get a taxi to the cable car. I briefly entertained the idea of walking, but decided severe amounts of trekking while ill probably wasn't the best plan. The people at reception looked quite disgusted when I asked if they could order a taxi for me. Obviously getting taxis is acceptable but part of the backpacking experience is being able to track them down yourself! I got ready and took the lift down to the ground floor, stepped out on the street and looked for these taxis that are apparently 'everywhere'. I couldn't see any so I turned right and just started walking thinking maybe there were taxis hiding further along the road. I had to cross a large road which I did so with trepidation, knowing the green man is not to be trusted. I was right to worry. Half way across the road the lights suddenly changed and the traffic surged forward causing me to sprint desperately for safety. I still couldn't see any taxis, and between feeling ill and having almost been run over I was tempted to just give up my plans for the day. I soon spied a safe haven from the chaos of the street and dived into the second hand bookshop to recover. After a few minutes amongst the well-turned-page-smell I decided to ask the man who worked there, on the assumption that anyone who works with books has to be lovely. I was right. The elderly gentleman not only found a number for a taxi company but called them on my behalf and then told me to wait in the shop and he'd keep an eye out for when the taxi arrived.
I was soon in the back of a taxi and driving up the steep hill towards the mountain. As we climbed higher the cool air rushed through the window and the views of the town below were beautiful. I reached the lower level of the cable car on Tafelberg Road and bought my ticket. Walking up the pathway and stairs to the cable car I passed previous cable car models on display before finally reaching the operating one.
I was herded into the small space with a large number of other people and told to stand back from the edges. I was surprised by this as usually on a moving cable car people are told to hold on. I soon realised why because as we made our ascent the floor began to slowly rotate ensuring we all got a good view.
The Cableway was first built almost 80 years ago. On 4th October 1929 the Cableway opened its doors to its first visitors. The opening ceremony, led by the then mayor of Cape Town, drew 200 guests. To date the Cableway has transported more than 19 million passengers to the summit with around 800,000 visitors from all over the world using the Cableway annually.
In less than 10 minutes we had reached the top and filed out onto the mountain top. The views were breathtaking. Pathways are set out around the top of the mountain and I began to follow one of these trails, soon realising it was a circular route around the mountain top. Glad to have a clear route to follow I slowly wandered along the pathway. The early part is well paved, and the edge of the mountain supports a wall, presumbably to keep tourists from falling but ultimately used as a perch for photographs. I managed to nab a nearby tourist to get a picture for me and was soon distracted by the first signs of wildlife. I found a lizard basking in the sun on a rock and then spied a Orange-breasted Sunbird silhouetted against a sea of cloud.
I continued my walk over the mountain. Although no-one can be sure it is believed that Table Mountain is one of the world's oldest mountains, being at least six times older than the Himalayas and five times older than the Rockies. Some 600 million years ago, a granite and sandstone mass, almost twice the size of the 1086m mountain we have today, was formed under the surface of the ocean. Carved flat by glaciers and honed by punding waves, the towering mass later known to the Khoi San as 'Hoerikwagga', the mountain of the sea, gradually rose from the depths, thrust up by tectonic forces. The new land mass remained an island for millenia, until eventually the sea receeded, creating the familiar landmark we see today.
Despite being on top of a mountain the flat top gave the illusion of an ordinary country trek, and only along the edges where Cape Town could be seen below the cloud could I appreciate the height I was at. Lots of other people were wandering the pathways. I met a couple of Japanese men who with a lot of smiling and 'Hola amigo' at me managed to ask for me to take their photo. Despite the fact I replied in English they continued calling me 'amigo' and then as I walked away called me again only to take my photo. Why? Are they going to show my picture to friends at home saying 'this is the English/Spanish girl we met on the mountain? I dread to think how many photographs of strangers they must have if they take pictures of every random person they meet!
I eventually came full circle on the mountain. I bumped into the Japanese people again on the other side and they waved and greeted me like an old friend. By the end of my walk I was feeling ill again so headed for the cafe for a brunch hoping food would make me feel better. I then bought a few postcards in the gift shop and sat writing them in the sun before returning to the cable car. I did stop briefly to look at the view once more. The cloud had risen up the side of the mountain, completely obscuring the view. Only two and a half hours after I arrived the mountain was completely covered in mist!
Back on the road I got myself a taxi and feeling up for a bit more sightseeing asked to go to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.
Kirstenbosch grows only indigenous South African plants. The estate covers 528 hectares and supports a diverse fynbos flora and natural forest. The cultivated garden of 36 hectares displays collections of South African plants, particularly those from the winter rainfall region of the country. It was founded in 1913 by Henry Harold Pearson, a professor from Cambridge University who came to South Africa in 1903 to fill the newly established Chair of Botany at the South African College. In February 1911 Pearson hired a Cape cart and, upon the suggestion of his friend Neville Pillans, visited Kirstenbosch to assess its suitability as a site for a botanic garden. On 1st July 1913 the wild and overgrown estate of Kirstenbosch was set aside by the Government with a grant of £1 000 per annum. Pearson was the obvious choice for a director but there was no money for a salary. He accepted the task in an honorary capacity. He later died from pneumonia at the age of 46 in 1916. Buried in the garden his epitaph is - "If ye seek his monument, look around".
Today Kirstenbosch is one of eight National Botanical Gardens in South Africa and offers many trails up to the summit of Table Mountain and is also regularly used to exhibit Zimbabwean stone sculptures. I saw many of these sculptures as I entered the gardens. I walked through the courtyard surrounded by gift shops and a large greenhouse, and then passed through the turn-style into the main gardens.
I didn't have much of a plan in viewing the gardens and mostly just followed the odd wooden sign pointing the way to something interesting. I crossed the open lawns and found myself in a small grove with large wooden carvings of gorillas hidden beneath the overhanging trees. I followed the path which soon turned into stepping stones along a small stream. I emerged by Colonel Bird's Bath. In 1811, a few years after the British took control of the Cape, the southern half of the Kirstenbosch estate was bought by Colonel Christopher Bird who was at the time the Deputy Colonial Secretary. He built the 'bath' to collect the natural spring water and let it stand and clarify before being piped to his house. The crystal clear water bubbles up from an underground spring at an average of 72 litres per minute all year round. Stone tools uncovered nearby showed that the spring had been used by people for thousands of years. More recently the spring has been vital for the botannical garden, especially during the dry summer months. The first nursery at Kirstenbosch, in use from 1913 until 1924, was established at the lower end of the Dell beside the Bath stream.
I continued exploring and found myself walking along a pathway with sunbirds darting to and fro from one flower to another. I tried to get a photo but not one would stay still for long enough and after realising a couple on a bench nearby were watching me with amusement as I chased the elusive birds I decided to move.
I reached the protea garden. Together with the Springbok Antelope, the Protea had been treated as a sometimes controversial national symbol in South Africa, both during and after apartheid. The genus Protea was named in 1735 by Carolus Linnaeus after the Greek god Proteus who could change his form at will, because proteas have such different forms. Many of these flowers are indemic to South Africa with 92% of the species occuring only in the Cape Floristic Region, a narrow belt of mountainous coastal land from Clanwilliam to Grahamstown. Although not the best time of year to see protea flowering I did see quite a few in bloom.
I was strolling back along the lawns when I saw a tiny wooden sign saying 'To Skeleton Gorge'. Looking at my map I couldn't see skeleton gorge marked on it and wondered what it was. With images of the vertebrae of a long extinct animal bridging a deep ravine I decided it sounded like an exciting place to visit and set off, feeling less ill and more adventurous than I had all day. The trail led me out of the careful flower beds and up the slopes. I walked down a woodland trail towards the sound of running water. I found a stream, the water tumbling over the stones. I clambered over the roots of the trees and sat by the running water for a time before returning to the path. The pathway was dark beneath the trees but a patch of bizarrely bright green grass grew along the edge. Further on I crossed a wooden bridge over a stream, wet with spray and followed a trail upwards. I began to wonder what skeleton gorge was as I seemed to be leaving the gardens behind me. I followed a set of steep steps, bordered with pretty flowers, and passed tiny clearings full of flowers, like tiny secret gardens where lizards basked on logs and insects hummed in the air. I emerged breathless on a road and looked down at the gardens below me. Wooden signs pointed me down to the nursery, or upwards to skeleton gorge. I turned right and followed the road upwards until I spied another steep upward climb. I stopped to read the notice at the bottom of the path the caution of 'cable car may not always be in operation' finally making me realise that 'skeleton gorge' was not part of the gardens at all, but one of the Table Mountain trails. Turning around to retrace my steps back to the gardens I comforted myself with the fact there probably wasn't any skeleton bridge and unless the signpost was in Disneyland there wasn't going to be anything more exciting than mountain views at the other end.
Back in the gardens the next sign I followed was sensibly labelled 'cafe'. I wound my way back to the main entrance when I heard 'Amigo!' and turned to see the two Japanese men from the top of Table Mountain running up behind me. They greeted me as entusiastically as before, but not having a word of language in common it was a short conversation! I briefly visited the greenhouse and then explored the shops, before finally catching a taxi back to Long Street. My taxi driver was a wonderfully chatty man who asked me what I thought of Cape Town and then burst into a kind of safety lecture, telling me how Cape Town is not as bad as everyone makes out and telling me all about various friends of his who have been mugged in London, or New York, or any other city in the world and how people just have to be sensible in big cities, especially at night. He backed this up by making sure I put my purse to the bottom of my bag, and zipped my camera up as well before letting me out of the car.
I was back in my room not long after 4pm and settled into the hostel for a long relaxing evening.

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