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Table Mountain is one of the most accessible mountain tops in the world

A mountain is generally a protrusion from the ground, rising up in a triangular shape and ending in a peak. But is this true of all mountains? Not necessarily! The Table Mountain of South Africa doesn't belong to this designated shape.


A scenic view from a different angle


Atop the mountain

This mountain is a plateau or a flat surface at its peak, like a table top, thus the name Table Mountain. Located in the cosmopolitan Cape Town, in the very southern tip of South Africa, it's the most popular tourist attraction of this city. In fact, Cape Town is synonymous with this prominent feature of its landscape which appears on its flag and other government insignia (symbols of authority or office).

The spectacular Table Mountain (Tafelberg in Afrikaans) is at the northern end of a sandstone mountain range which forms the spine of the Cape peninsula. It looks over the Table Bay Harbour and is surrounded by steep cliffs including the Lion's Head and Devil's Peak which flank it on both sides. The plateau spans across an area of three kilometres. Its highest point, at 1,086 metres (3,563 feet) above sea level, lies towards the mountain's eastern end and is marked by Maclear's Beacon, a stone landmark built by Sir Thomas Maclear in 1865 for a trigonometrical survey. This point is 19 metres (62 feet) higher than the cable station located at the western end of the mountain.

Table Mountain is made of sandstone and belongs to the Silurian/Ordovician age. Its upper part comprises Ordovician quartzitic sandstone (locally known as Table Mountain sandstone) which is resistant to erosion and forms steep grey crags. Below this is a layer of micaceous basal shale which has faced weathering and is not visible. The lower layers are heavily folded and comprise altered late Precambrian Malmesbury shale and Cape Granite. The latter, though not as weather-resistant as Table Mountain sandstone, is visible. The nearly horizontal layers of sandstone being exposed to vigorous wind and water erosion over a period of six million years is believed to have resulted in the mountain's unique shape.

The Table Mountain could be accessed by hiking or by using the cableway. In fact, this is one of the most easily accessed mountain tops in the world, which is another reason for its popularity among tourists.

The mountain was first climbed in 1503 by Portuguese Antonio de Saldanha who was the first European to land in Table Bay. He named the mountain (it was earlier known as Sea Mountain.) The route he took, along the Platteklip Gorge (Flat Stone Gorge) which divides the cliffs of the main plateau, is the easiest way to the top.

The clouds that cover the top portion of the mountain are known as the tablecloth. A myth (a supernatural tale) describes these clouds as smoke emanated (originated) during a smoking contest between the Devil and a local pirate known as Van Hunks.

Over 2,200 species of plant life have been discovered on the mountain including many varieties of protea, the national flower of South Africa. Remnants of indigenous forests have been found amidst the wetter ravines, but not in the exposed areas. Invasive alien plants, cluster pines being the primary species, have also been found here.

Among the animal life in the area, the small rodent dassie (rock hyrax) is the most common and is easily found around the cable station where many tourists feed them despite this being against the law. Also seen are porcupines, mongoose, snakes and tortoises. Lions haven't been seen in this area since 1802 while leopards disappeared in the 1920s. The vaalboskat (African wild cat), Himalayan tahr, fallow deer and sambar deer, which were once common, are not seen anymore, while the rooikat (caracal) is rarely observed.

Evidence of early human life had also been found from the mountain area. Out of several blockhouses built on the top in 1796, during the British occupation of South Africa, one still remains in good shape while the ruins of two more are visible. The Waterworks Museum displaying machinery used during the early eras, and a restaurant for visitors are also found at the top.


The specticular Table Mountain

It became part of the Cape Peninsula National Park which also encompasses the sea and coastal area in 1990. The park was renamed Table Mountain National Park in 1998 and is a natural World Heritage Site.

The project to construct a cableway to reach the top was mooted very early, but was delayed due to wars. It finally got under way in 1926 and was completed in 1929 when it was opened to the public. The cable system was upgraded in 1997 when faster cable cars which could seat 65 instead of 25 and with rotating facility, enabling 360 degree views, were introduced. Millions of tourists patronise this cableway each year.

Hiking, rock climbing and cave exploration are some of the activities that are associated with the Table Mountain area.

Fires are common in this area; one in 2006 killed a tourist as well as some of the vegetation at the mountain top.

The Table Mountain is the only terrestrial (on land) feature to have given its name to a constellation. Mensa (meaning table), a constellation in the Southern Hemisphere, was named in the mid-18th century by French astronomer Nicolas de Lacaille during a stay in Cape Town.

Fast Facts

* The plateau is flanked by Devil's Peak to the east and by Lion's Head to the west.

* It is 1,086 metres (3,563 ft) above sea level, about 19 metres (62 ft) higher than the cable station at the western end of the plateau.

* On the Atlantic coast of the peninsula, the range is known as the Twelve Apostles. The range continues southwards to Cape Point.

* The last lion in the area was shot circa 1802. Leopards persisted on the mountain until perhaps the 1920s but are now extinct locally. Two smaller, secretive, nocturnal carnivores, the rooikat (caracal) and the vaalboskat (also called the vaalkat or African Wild Cat) were once common on the mountain. The rooikat continues to be seen on rare occasions by mountaineers but the status of the vaalboskat is uncertain.

The Table Mountain Cableway construction work was first started in 1926, and the cableway was officially opened in 1929. In 1997, the cableway was extensively upgraded, and new cars were introduced carrying 65 instead of 25 passengers. The new cars give a faster journey to the summit, and rotate through 360 degrees during the ascent or descent, giving a panoramic view over the city.

* Rock hyraxes, despite their rodent - like appearance are closely related to the elephant. They are the only true hoofed mammals and the only living family within the order Hyracoidea.

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