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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

12/5: Cape Town's Table Mountain & Paragliding from Signal Hill

Since we'd visited the Cape of Good Hope section of Table Mountain National Park yesterday, we wanted to discover Table Mountain itself today. The mountain, located in Cape Town, is known as one of southern Africa's most beautiful and impressive natural wonders. The mountain rises more than 3,500 feet above the city and its distinctive flat top is visible to sailors 40 miles out to sea. 

The last few days we had marvelous views of Lion's Head as we approached Cape Town but seeing the 2,195 feet high mountain between Table Mountain and Signal Hill from the base of Table Mountain was pretty darn fabulous. The peak is also part of Table Mountain National Park.
We had read so much about very long waits to buy tickets and again to take the aerial cable way up the mountain especially on such a picture perfect day as we had. Though we had a longish walk up a steep road from where we had parked the car, there was no queue luckily for either tickets or the cable car. There was no need rushing into the gondola to get a preferred view because the floor rotated at least twice giving everyone fantastic views on the less than five minute ride up. 

I read with interest the facts about the Table Mountain Cableway. I especially was glad to read that the cable cars carried 4,000 liters of water for ballast during the windy season!

Views from the cable car on our brief journey up the mountain:

Another view of Lion's Head:
Even though the gondola rotated, we didn't feel any movement as we were constantly afforded different views of the mountainside, the city and the ocean far below.

A shot of the cable car station at the base of the mountain. We knew that hiking up the mountain and taking the cable car down was no doubt a far more rewarding experience but that would have meant a hike of several hours and lugging huge amounts of water. Since Table Mountain was just one of the many places we wanted to go to that day, we didn't have the time for that long a hike.

I bet you know what this view was, having now seen it from a few angles!
I was so surprised to learn that taking a ride on the Table Mountain Cableway was the fifth highest rated attraction in Cape Town on Trip Advisor. Yes, it was great fun and I am so glad we did it but the fifth highest - no, not for us.

This was the sign that greeted us on our arrival at the top! Never heard the term 'hooter' before but we didn't need an explanation; we just hoped that the hooter didn't go off while we were up top.

This was the first time we'd observed a Dassie (rhymes with fussy), a large rodent, whose proper name is rock hyrax. It was almost as if it posed for us whilst basking in the sun. Although these creatures look like oversize guinea pigs, the dassie's closest relative is the elephant as they both have collapsible rib cages. They congregate in large numbers near the upper cable station where they've learned to beg for food. Sadly, a diet of junk food over the years  has seriously compromised their health.
In June of 2004, the Cape Floral Kingdom, the smallest and richest of the six floral kingdoms that occur on earth - home to an amazing 8,000 plus species - was selected as a Natural Wonder Heritage Site. The minuscule Cape Floral Kingdom has more species of flowers than the entire United Kingdom! 
We watched for a while while these men prepared to go abseiling, which is a controlled descent of a vertical drop, such as a rock face, using a rope. This was their definition of fun but definitely not ours!
Immediately to the south of Table Mountain is a rugged plateau at a somewhat lower elevation than the Table Mountain Plateau, (at about 3,300 feet), called the Back Table. The Atlantic side of the Back Table, was first described as the Twelve Apostles by early explorers to the region. Depending on whom you talk to or what you read however, there are either actually a series of 17 or 18 peaks. You may remember one of my previous posts also had a photo of the Twelve Apostles.
There were a number of free guided walking tours of the plateau. One started shortly after we had reached the summit so we joined it to learn more about the mountain, its flora and fauna and also so we could identify the sights from the mountain. The guide told us that the Atlantic Ocean surrounds the Cape of Good Hope and that the area has the same climate as Amsterdam and Cyprus, two cities for us to perhaps explore one day.
Even though there were precipitous drop offs all around the summit of the mountain, there were an abundance of superb walks or hikes on the plateau.

The guide explained that this plant was known as a climber's plant because it was so strong and since its roots extend more than 19 feet into the soil, walkers could hold onto it. 

On World Environment Day in 1998, then President Nelson Mandela declared Table Mountain 'a Gift to the Earth.' It was also recently voted as the Seventh New Wonder of the World, a list neither of us had ever heard of before. 

The guide revealed that this aloe plant can survive with little or no water. When there is rain, the plant soaks up a lot of water; however, when it is dry, water is released through its leaves. 
We stopped for a few minutes to look at the diorama showing the Table Mountain range and its distance to the world's major cities; New York was 7,800 miles away, Chicago was about 8,500 miles and Montreal, near my hometown of Ottawa, was approximately 7,900 miles away.
The guide explained that the top of Table Mountain had its own helipad in case someone has to be airlifted off the mountain or helicopters were needed to fight fires on the mountain.

The hike up Lion's Head took about 40 minutes, according to the guide, depending on how fit you are. Steven and I did not take that fitness test!
A view of Signal Hill where we were headed after our tour of table Mountain:
A view of Cape Town's V&A Waterfront and Robben Island, both subjects of previous posts.
One of Cape Town's dams:
The peak below is called Devil's Peak and is part of the mountainous backdrop to Cape Town
I can't tell you how glad we were to have chosen this as our first activity of the day because we had read that, if there were problems with the winds and the mountain were closed, it would most likely happen in the afternoon hours. 

A view of the former inner-city residential area known as District Six. Over 60,000 of its inhabitants were forcibly removed during the 1970s by the apartheid regime. You'll discover more about District Six in the third post from 12/5; hopefully, it won't be too long before I get around to writing that one!
The guide mentioned that Cape Town has the same latitude as Perth, Australia and Buenos Aires, Argentina. The latter city is on our list of places to visit when we travel to South America this fall, God willing. Here was an altogether different view of Cape Town Stadium from the one we'd seen en route to Robben Island a few days ago.
Our guide indicated that because there were 23 species of snakes on Table Mountain, it was sometimes referred to as Snake Mountain! Luckily, only 7 of them were poisonous. Yup, I know the following is not a photo of a snake but the shot of the lizard was the closest I could get to that of a snake!
After the guided walk ended, we continued walking around the plateau for a good while.

I loved the philosophy expressed on the plaque: Time is one of Life's Most Precious Gifts.
Some more photos atop Table Mountain National Park:

We felt like we were on top of the world.

On a clear day such as we were lucky enough to have, the views were to die for. 

I was so glad that Steven dared to go no further as it was straight down from there!
A view of the coastal road we had taken the previous day to Camps Bay.
Before visiting this part of the world, I had always thought the southernmost tip of the African continent was the Cape of Good Hope.  However, Agulhas, located more than 100 miles south of Cape Town, is actually the geographic southern tip of the African continent and the beginning of the dividing line between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans according to the International Hydrographic Organization.

According to a sign on the plateau, Table Mountain became "one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature when it was elected by the second global voting campaign, held from 2007-2011, in the history of mankind via the internet and telephone. This marked the beginning of the third millennium and celebrated nature's diversity."
Steven said rather cynically that somebody sure made a lot of money from that campaign!
We were relieved we didn't have to take the emergency basket down the mountain when we decided to leave!

We didn't see anyone using the hiking path on either the ride up or down the mountain; think it was probably because it was a hot day and there was not a speck of shade on the arduous hike.
Were we lucky we'd arrived when we had that morning so as to avoid an even longer walk back to the car as there was, surprisingly, no parking lot at Table Mountain. As soon as we had parked that morning, an enterprising young man came up to us and said he would 'watch' our car, i.e. with the expectation of a tip on our return! We'd also encountered the same entrepreneurship the day before at the parking lot in Boulders Beach.
Next we drove on to Signal Hill which we'd observed from Table Mountain. The road kept skirting the mountain - glad neither of us ever suffer from car sickness as we would have had a tough time on that road!
I know Steven would have preferred this gorgeous baby blue Mustang convertible to our boring white rental car! There were so many white cars in Cape Town it was hard to find ours in the sea of white cars.
At Signal Hill, flags were used to communicate weather warnings as well as anchoring instructions to visiting ships in order to ensure that they prepared adequately for stormy weather while in the bay. Similarly, ships could use flags to signal for assistance if, for example, an anchor line parted during a storm. Signal Hill is also known for the Noon Gun that is operated there by the South African Navy and South African Astronomical Observatory. 
In 1836, a time ball was set up at the Cape Town Observatory, however it was not visible to ships in the harbor, so a second time ball was erected on Signal Hill in order to relay the precise moment of 1 pm Cape Mean Time. In this way ships in the bay were able to check their marine chronometers.
Tandem paragliding flights took off one right after another from near the Signal Hill parking lot. Neither of us had ever been that close to anything that exciting before so it was huge fun watching them, especially since the different fabric wings were so very colorful.

We overhead one of the instructors tell the tourist she needed to run as fast as she could and not to overthink it. Easy for him to say, I couldn't help thinking!
We couldn't get over the fact that there was so much to see and do in Cape Town - it really was one of, if not, the most exciting cities we've ever been to. When we'd heard somebody on Table Mountain say how he'd fallen in love with Cape Town, we nodded our heads in agreement as we felt exactly the same.
Watching the paragliding teams take off was like seeing airplanes take off a runway, one also immediately after another.

It was impossible to tell from our vantage point if the paragliders actually 'flew' over the water or whether they were 'only' over land the entire time. Wherever the air currents took each of the teams, it was a joy watching them.

When one of the teams landed in the open space, I couldn't help but think of the expression 'The Eagle Has Landed.' The phrase was originally used by Neil Armstrong when the first man made craft, the "Eagle," landed on the moon in July, 1969. 
In celebration of Table Mountain being voted as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, a series of yellow frames, placed throughout Cape Town provided an idyllic vantage point for visitors to be photographed with the 'Wonder Mountain' i.e. Table Mountain, as a spectacular backdrop. You've seen me in a few of them already on our jaunts around Cape Town!
The other Wonders of Nature were Halong Bay in Vietnam (we took an all too brief cruise there in the fall of 2015), Jeju Island in South Korea, Komodo Island in Indonesia (also part of that 2015 trip), Puerto Princesa Underground River in The Philippines, Iguazu Falls in Argentina and Brazil and the Amazon River and Rainforest (both on our list for this fall's trip to South America). 
You might never have guessed but we'd really come to Signal Hill not only for the fantastic views but to go hiking! It was more than a tad off putting, though, spotting the 'Safety and Security Alert' that indicated we were now entering an area in which we might be exposed to safety and security risks. It also cautioned against hiking alone and recommended in only hiking in groups of four, not to carry cash, cameras or valuables and not to resist when threatened (by people, not animals). Did that stop us? No, but it sure unnerved us and made the prospect of hiking much there very unpleasant. 
Of all the places we've been fortunate enough to visit over the last four years, it was only in South Africa that we were constantly reminded of having to be on our guard because of potential safety concerns. How very sad because Cape Town especially is such an incredibly beautiful city in one of the most sublime locations on earth.

Cape Town's Central Business District:
After our abbreviated hike, we continued our day discovering more of the sights downtown. Next up that afternoon was exploring Groote Kerk, South Africa's oldest place of worship, and the Castle of Good Hope (the subject of my next post) followed by the District Six Museum (another post coming up). I hope you'll stay tuned for each of them too!

Posted  on February 8th, 2017 from Littleton, Colorado.

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