Thursday, January 23, 2014

Table Mountain's tablecloth

Table Mountain in Cape Town is one of the world’s most recognised and iconic mountains.  Rising 1000 metres (3500 feet) out of the Atlantic Ocean, with a 3-kilometre (1,8 mile) flat top, it overlooks Table Bay (in which Robben Island is situated).  One of the surprising aspects of the mountain is that it faces north.  Most people unfamiliar with the area believe, since it is nearly at the southern tip of Africa, that it faces south.

Looking at Table Mountain from the bay, on the right there is Signal Hill (where at noon every day a cannon fires to signal the time) and Lions Head, so named because from some angles it looks like a male lion crouching.  On the left is Devil’s Peak, higher than Lion’s Head, but not as high as Table Mountain.

Painting of Table Mountain by William Hodges (1772) from about Captain Cook's Ship HMS Resolution

Table Mountain from Bloubergstrand (Blue Mountain Beach)

Running back from Table Mountain to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope is a range of mountains known as the Twelve Apostles rising steeply out of the sea.

Despite its very rocky disposition, the Table Mountain area is home to over 2200 plant species, more than that of the United Kingdom.  The National Botanical Garden, Kirstenbosch, lies on the side of Table Mountain, and is one of my favourite parts of the city.

One of the amazing things about Table Mountain is that one minute it can be standing proudly with clear blue sky above it, and the next minute a layer of cloud can pour over the top, giving the impression of a dynamic tablecloth. 

New York Times photo of its 2014 #1 travel destination with the tablecloth spilling over the mountain

The tablecloth from the Victoria and Albert waterfront

The whole process is pretty spectacular to watch.

The tablecloth is beautiful, but can be very dangerous to unwary hikers on the mountain, because it can become so dense that it is very difficult to find one’s way back to the cable-car station.

A weatherman will tell you that the tablecloth is formed when a south-easterly wind blows up against the mountain, lifting moist air abruptly, cooling it rapidly, causing condensation.  When these orographic clouds (as they are called) reach the edge of the mountain on the other side, they descend and warm up, and the cloud disappears.

The San peoples who inhabited the area long before any Europeans or Blacks arrived called Table Mountain Camissa – the place of sweet water – and attributed the tablecloth to their mantis god smothering a fire with a kaross, which is any animal hide, usually a sheep’s, with its hair left on.

This is certainly an appealing explanation, and I can see a San family clustered around a fire, listening to grandpa telling the story of why the cloud appears and disappears.

But neither the weatherman’s nor the San’s stories are correct.  The real story is as follows.

In the 18th Century, during the time of the Dutch East India Company’s tenure in what is now Cape Town, there was a fierce pirate in the area – at least he thought he was fierce.  His name was Van Hunks.  Everyday, when he wasn’t pirating, he would walk up the hill to the east of Table Mountain, called Windberg (Wind Mountain).  He had a favourite tree, very ancient and gnarled, under which he would pull out his pipe and smoke, gazing over beautiful Table Bay and, presumably, planning his next dastardly attack on Cape Town’s upper class.

Van Hunks

He was a proud man and boasted that he could out-smoke anyone.  No one took up the challenge.

Until one day, when he arrived at his usual spot, there was a man, dressed all in black, hat pulled down over his face, sitting where he always sat.  I can only assume that Van Hunks was a little miffed.  And even more so when the stranger challenged him to a smoking contest, goading Van Hunks with taunts.

Of course, Van Hunks took the challenge.  

They divided the tobacco into two large piles and sat down to smoke.  They smoked, and they smoked.  And they smoked some more.  For hours and hours, covering Table Mountain with white fumes.

Eventually the man in black, frustrated that Van Hunks was still going strong, wiped his brow in frustration and accidentally knocked off his hat, revealing a pair of horns.  Poof!  He vanished in a puff of sulphuric smoke.  Van Hunks was the winner.

And that is why the mountain that was once called Windberg is now called Devil’s Peak.

And every time the southeaster blows, the devil returns for a rematch, once again causing the mountain to be covered in a white cloud.  The devil never wins, but keeps coming back for more.

[As an aside, for those of you who haven’t read any of Deon Meyer’s books, I heartily recommend Devil’s Peak and its wonderful, love-him, hate-him protagonist, Bennie Griessel.]

Stan - Thursday


  1. If it weren't for you, Stan, I'd still be believing in gravity. Thanks for revealing the truth behind Table Mountain's linen supplier. Though don't you have to feel at least a bit sorry for the devil? First he looses a smoking contest to Van Hunks (no pun suggests itself immediately, but I'll work on it) and then the Charlie Daniels Band fiddles him out of Georgia!

    What a beautiful place. I long to be there.

  2. I am convinced of two things, Stan. First, the more entertaining the story, the more we want to hear and believe it. I vote for Van Hunks. (But I will confess that hunks have always had great appeal for me.). And two, I want to see the tablecloth in real life. It never showed up on the days I spent in splendid Capetown.