Table Mountain, a 1087-metre flat-topped massif with dramatic cliffs and eroded gorges, dominates the northern end of the Cape Peninsula. Its north face overlooks the city centre with the distinct formations of Lion’s Head and Signal Hill to the west and Devil’s Peak to the east. The west face is made up of a series of gable-like formations known as the Twelve Apostles; the southwest face towers over Hout Bay and the east face over the southern suburbs. The mountain is a compelling feature in the middle of the city, a wilderness where you’ll find wildlife and 1400 species of flora. Indigenous mammals include baboons, dassies and porcupines.
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Reckoned to be the most-climbed massif in the world, Table Mountain has suffered under the constant pounding of hikers – although the damage isn’t always obvious. Every year the mountain strikes back, taking its toll of lives. One of the commonest causes of difficulties is people losing the track (often due to sudden mist falling) and becoming trapped. If you plan to tackle one of the hundreds of its walks or climbs, go properly prepared. There are also full-day guided hikes tailored to your level of fitness. You may choose to come back the easy way by cable car, or partially abseil.
The cable car
The least challenging, but certainly not least interesting, way up and down the mountain is via the highly popular cable car at the western table, which offers dizzying views across Table Bay and the Atlantic. The state-of-the-art Swiss system is designed to complete a 360-degree rotation on the way, giving passengers a full panorama. Cars leave from the lower cableway station on Tafelberg Road. You can make a real outing of it by going up for breakfast or a sunset drink and meal at the vamped-up eco-restaurant; the upper station is an incomparable spot to watch the sun go down.
The outsized fluffy guinea pigs you'll encounter at the top of Table Mountain are dassies or hyraxes (Procavia capensis), which, despite their appearance, aren't rodents at all, but the closest living relatives of elephants. Their name (pronounced like "dusty" without the "t") is the Afrikaans version of dasje, meaning "little badger", a name given to them by the first Dutch settlers. Dassies are very widely distributed, having thrived in South Africa with the elimination of predators, and can be found in suitably rocky habitats all over the country. They live in colonies consisting of a dominant male and eight or more related females and their offspring.
Dassies have poor body temperature control and, like reptiles, rely on shelter against both hot sunlight and the cold. They wake up sluggish and seek out rocks where they can catch the early morning sun – this is one of the best times to look out for them. One adult stands sentry against predators and issues a low-pitched warning cry in response to a threat.
A number of Muslim holy men and princes were exiled from the East Indies by the Dutch during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and brought to the Cape, where some became revered as auliyah or Muslim saints. The kramats, of which there are nearly two dozen in the province, are their burial sites, shrines and places of pilgrimage. The Signal Hill kramat is a shrine to Mohamed Gasan Galbie Shah, a follower of Sheik Yusuf, a Sufi scholar, who was deported to the Cape in 1694 with a 49-strong retinue. According to tradition, he conducted Muslim prayer meetings in private homes and slave quarters, becoming the founder of Islam in South Africa. Sheik Yusuf's kramat on the Cape Flats is said to be one of a sacred circle of six kramats, including one on Robben Island, that protect Cape Town from natural disasters.