Tobias Mews
Tobias Mews is one of the UK’s leading extreme endurance athletes. After six years in the British Army, Tobias embarked on a new career as a journalist, combining his passion for adventure sports with his enthusiasm for writing and filmmaking.

Table Mountain

South Africa's most iconic mountain


Cape Town's most recognized landmark

South Africa

Table Mountain is one of the most recognisable mountains in the world. It’s been withstanding the test of time for 260-million years and it’s patience paid off when it was voted to be one of the Natural New 7 Wonders of the World. It even has a constellation of stars named after it. Tobias Mews decided that he wanted to hike up it - the hard way!

  • Trail length: 4mi
  • Climb: 3400ft

A hike to remember

I had come to South Africa to compete in one of the toughest mountain bike races in the world - the Absa Cape Epic. Lasting eight days, my friend James Heraty and I rode 500 miles across the Western Cape with 54,000ft of ascent. To say that was difficult, would be an understatement.

However, with the race finished and one day to kill before catching a flight out of Cape Town, we decided to set ourselves another challenge - we would climb Table Mountain. Even if our legs were heavier than lead, and somewhat shaky, it was an opportunity not to be missed. We decided to strap on our trail running shoes and make for the mountain.

It's impossible not to arrive in Cape Town without marvelling at the extraordinary looking elevation that looms over the city like a gigantic guardian angel. Table Mountain is a prominent beacon not only to seafarers but to adventurers, mountain bikers, trail runners, hikers and millions of tourists.

Of course, like everything in life, there are easy ways to do things and more difficult ones. Although feeling far from robust, nevertheless we decided we'd go for the 3560ft high summit the hard way. Not for us the popular route - the smooth and efficient aerial cableway, generally preferred by the 800,000 tourists who use it every year. As much fun as it looks, I hadn’t come all the way to South Africa to take the easy option. Nope. If I am going to explore Table Mountain, I will be doing it on foot - even if it might take most of the day!

James was of similar mind and we parked our car where the route begins at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Said to be one of the greatest botanic gardens in the world, it houses an enormous collection of plants unique to the Cape Flora and well worth a visit if you have time.

"Table Mountain is a prominent beacon not only to seafarers but to adventurers"

Going for the summit

There are five popular Table Mountain hiking trails that will take you to the summit. James and I, despite not being on optimum form, decided on the one that sounded most adventurous and perhaps the most ominous - Skeleton Gorge (or Smuts Track). If we’d known that more people die on Table Mountain than Mount Everest, we might have chosen a different route, such as the more pleasant sounding Nursery Ravine running parallel. But hey, the path least trod is always the most exciting.

Given its title, many people assume the top of the mountain is flat. But the name derives from the tablecloth of clouds that pour off it, like a waterfall of vapour. These clouds hide what in reality, is more like a lunar surface: giant craters, crags, rough stone and heather. I thought climbing the mountain would be tough enough, but as I later discovered, crossing it is even harder!

Paying our fee to enter the gardens, we find a path that will take us to the start of the Skeleton Gorge. James and I swing into running mode, but we soon realise this is definitely not a tenable option if we want to reach the top!

As soon as we start to climb through the Gorge, we realize that we're scrambling through a forest, dense enough to make you want to peel back the trees just so you can see your way ahead.

But trees are not all there is to contend with. Other aspects of this particular route are tough enough to cause even hardy climbers to stop and consider just where they're putting their boots. There are ladders that lead you from one level to another, single tracks that make you use your feet as cleverly as a mountain goat, rocky river beds where you need to make sure you don't slip - and if that isn't enough there's more than one series of exceedingly steep steps, which when you’re small can be challenging. Despite being at the peak of our physical fitness, this was by no means a walk in the park.

That said, the views are amazing. Every so often we find ourselves standing on a wooden viewing platform, where we can see not only the nearby False Bay and the Constantia Mountain, but as far away as the Hottentot Holland Mountains, lying some 50 odd miles Southeast of Cape Town .

"Despite being at the peak of our physical fitness, this was by no means a walk in the park."

Another obstacle to overcome!

Just when we think we’ve reached the top of the mountain, we realize that we’re not even half way. We still need to maneuver our way along the remainder of Smuts Track to reach the real summit, Maclears Beacon. Turning right, we follow the path north, crossing over a stream that leads to the the enticingly named Window Gorge, before slowly making our way to the gigantic outcrop of rock known as Fernwood Buttress.

At last! Maclear’s Beacon is in sight. James and I agree that the reward for our two hours and more of strenuous climbing and obstacle hurdling has been worth pushing our aching legs to the max. We find ourselves standing proudly by the Beacon's impressive pile of stones, looking at a view that is literally breath taking! If ever there was a moment to take a selfie, this is it.

Photos done, we follow the Central Table path to Table Mountain Cafe, which is still 45 minutes away. As we get closer to the cafe, we notice more and more people. Suddenly, the peace and quiet we’d been appreciating for the past few hours was gone, replaced with the noise of hundreds of tourists and too many noisy children.

'We've definitely earned our lunch,' James says, as we tuck into an enormous pizza and watch another contingent of tourists arrive via the cableway. I nod with agreement. The epic bike race we'd finished yesterday had almost 54,000 feet of ascent - our climb up Table Mountain had a mere 3563 feet - but it was epic in every sense of the word! And a great deal more rewarding than taking the 5 minute long aerial cableway!

View Table Mountain in a larger map

Plan your travel

Our guide to planning your journey – plus essential links to find out more.

When to go
September to April is the best time to go, as the snow will have melted and Skeleton Gorge won't have a raging river running down it.
How to get there
If driving, follow signs for Kirstenbosch Gardens, which is 8 miles from Cape Town city centre. There is free parking at Gates 1, 2 and 3. You can also get there by the Golden Arrow and City Sightseeing buses.
No visa is needed for US citizens visiting South Africa for 90 days or less on business or tourism.
English and Afrikaans
Length of Trip
Allow five to six hours to make it to the summit at Maclearu2019s Beacon and back. However, if you want to explore the other trails and signs on offer, you should allow a full day.
Although not that technical, the Skeleton Gorge route is one of the most difficult. Youu2019ll need a decent pair of hiking boots or trail running shoes.
Besides staying in Cape Town, there are also plenty of options for accommodation in Table Mountain National Park, from luxury tents to guest houses.
Food and Drinks
Itu2019s advisable to bring food and water with you, as there is no where on the trail to refuel. However, you can grab lunch or a coffee at Table Mountain Cafe not far from where the cableway arrives.