Monday, August 31, 2009

Up – Relentlessly Up! Platteklip Gorge, RSA

Table Mountain looms like a huge, stone castle over the city of Cape Town, South Africa, dominating the skyline of the city, and protecting the route south of the city towards the Cape of Good Hope. The summit is the most visited location in the city, most tourists and African school groups reaching its summit via a cable car system. The summit is often obscured by cloud, so on a clear afternoon Meg and I take the weather as a good omen, and decide to climb the mountain under our own power. It is not until after we are done, and Meg has forgiven me, that I read the warning in the tourist brochure, “Up – relentlessly up! Do not underestimate Platteklip Gorge. The path is not a route to be trifled with; the going can be tough.”

Getting reliable information in Africa is never easy, even when you ask the people who should know. So I am not surprised when the woman at the information office at the base of Table Mountain ignores me, and keeps her gaze fixed on the empty desk in front of her. When she finally acknowledges my presence, and I ask her about trails up the mountain above us, she dismisses me by pointing to a rack of brochures on the wall behind me, and returns her focus to the bare table before her; satisfied that she has fulfilled her obligation to the National Park Service of South Africa.

According to the tourist brochure, the most direct way to the top is along thin, wavy line on the map, called the Platteklip Gorge Trail. It is the only trail that will get us to the summit before sunset, and our only option. The trail is short, only three kilometers, (1.9 miles), but climbs over eight hundred vertical meters, (2600 feet) in that distance. Standing at the trailhead, just beyond the throngs of people waiting at the lower cable station, I warn Meg that the trial will be difficult for her. Big mistake. “Don’t tell me that. I can do it.”

If you want to see a woman ready to spit fire, and leave a trail of destruction in her wake, just tell Meg that she cannot do something. It makes her insane with rage, and ready to go to any length to prove you wrong. She would battle a lion barehanded if I told her she couldn’t do it. I have made the mistake before, and I did not do it this time. All I did was warn her that the trail would be a be easy. That was enough, however, to make her spit venom at me, and start marching to the summit, carrying our only backpack, eager to prove me wrong. I followed, but kept my distance.

The lower trail traverses the mountain on a rocky path leading away from the summit to the east. It climbs steady along the mountain on a well-worn path over small gulley that have only small trickles of water. When the path comes back towards the summit we finally see the entire length of the path ahead. The Platteklip Gorge is a deep fissure that cuts the eastern wall of Table Mountain all the way to the summit. The gorge is wide at first, and filled with green shrubs, before narrowing to a small dark crack that leads to the open sky far above us.

After a few wide switchbacks at the mouth of the gorge we both begin to tire. It is hot, and we sweat profusely as the sun beats on us. A few hikers come from above us, bounding down the trail, and we think that perhaps we should have taken the cable car up and walked down. But it is too late, and I know Meg will not give up now.

After an hour we penetrate the gorge itself and its sheer, stone, walls block out the sun and the temperature drops. We are wet with sweat and chilled by the cold as we rest at each switchback to catch our breath and survey the ascent ahead of us. We are moving slowly, but consistently, and I know that we will reach the summit with plenty of daylight, so there is no need to rush.

Resting on a huge boulder I survey the trail ahead and see the first sign of wildlife. There are always animals in Africa, and Table Mountain is not different. This one, however, is not threatening; it’s only a goat. The goat has long, ginger hair, and he is innocently chewing the grass at the edge of the trail. He has horns and does not look friendly, so we stop to admire him, the view of Cape Town below, and the how far we have come from the road below.

(youtube of goat)

We are halfway up the gorge, and our thigh muscles are getting tight. Our progress slows to a crawl as the trail gets steeper still and narrows. Meg makes little goals for herself to plan her next rest stop. “I’m going to make it to the next corner before stopping.” Sometimes we make it, and sometimes we don’t, but we never stop for long before leaning forward into the mountain, and pressing on. Eventually she gives up the backpack, hoping that the easier climb will make the rest of the climb feel easier.

After two hours of walking Meg and I are relieved to reach the narrowest part of the gorge, and see the sky above us open up. We break walk single file out onto the flat table of rock on the top of Table Mountain and survey see the Cape of Good Hope stretching out before us to the south and the blue waters of the Indian and Atlantic oceans. It is nice to be back in the sun, and nice to be finished with the climb. We are already sore, but satisfied in our achievement.

The summit of the mountain is full of people exploring the rocky plain of the summit, and we feel superior to them as we walk towards the cable car, knowing that they took the easy way up, believing we earned the spectacular views before us. At the western extend of the mountain we rest on a rock wall and look out over the blue rocky buttress to the south known as Twelve Apostles, and the waves breaking on the western shore of the Cape Town beaches. I know that Meg has forgiven me when we pose together for a photo on the southern rim of Table Mountain.

When the cable car is full, the rounded doors slide closed, and we drop out of the tunnel over the lip of the mountain. We are facing the station below us, but the car slowly rotates to give us 360-degree views of the area. At the bottom we walk along the Tafelburg Road that descends to our car. We are happy to be walk down, giving our legs a rest, happy that our day’s exercise finished and we can enjoy the comforts of the cosmopolitan city below.

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