22. My Cape Town Mountaineering.

It was at Kalk Bay during waiting time for the fishing trawlers to return, particularly when that time didn’t eventuate into more pleasurable female pursuits, that by following and climbing up rocky pathways that traversed over the mountainous area surrounding the bay, that my inquisitive nature made me explore further and also impelled me to somehow climb to the top of all those mountain ranges that encroached on the Cape Town environs. My enthusiasm and enquirers led me to Father Jerome, who was still the parish priest of Langa, and whom I discovered was not only an avid and experienced mountaineer, but that my dad use to go with him on those mountaineering jaunts. It was with his encouragement and expertise that got me to conquer face and rock climbing with the aid of spikes and rope, and that led to eventually climbing the mountains of Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain and the Twelve Apostles.

That was how mountaineering became a weekend recreation that was not only climbing pleasurable but also awesome and spectacular with its panoramic views. From the top I saw the places where my life had started, where it had been and where it was. As I also watched the ocean-going ships sailing away from Table Bay Harbour as they shrunk away over the horizon, in my fantasized vision it was like seeing me on them sailing away to different destinations around the world. Table Mountain that I had always viewed from a distance as a monument soaring to the sky like a great cathedral with its appendages of Devils Peak and Lions Head as its spires, and that was inescapable from any point for miles around because of its awe-inspiring beauty, then became my favourite teenage into adolescent retreat. Traveled by train from Athlone to Cape Town, walked the distance from there  along Adderley Street, past Cape Town Botanical Garden and through the Gardens suburbs that took me to Kloofnek (Dutch = Ravine-neck), which was were the city of Cape Town ended and Table Mountain proper began. From there, the Pipe Track to Plattaklip (Dutch = Country-stone) Gorge that was a combination of an inclined walk and strenuous climb, with the Pipe Track a walk that was a two-hour duration to get to the mountain rangers hut. There were times that a shortcut taken would see us detour through a water pipe tunnel that came out onto the track from a tunneled hole through a solid rock formation, and by taking it instead, while walking crouched most of the time for about a half an hour, which seemed that way in the dark with hand-held torches, ended at the exit into a valley, and then another half hour’s climb to reach the ranger’s hut. The climb from the lower cable-way station called Indian Venster (Window) and situated also at Ravine-neck, headed straight up to the other cable-way station on the top of Table Mountain, which only experienced mountaineers tackled, that was a convenient way for locals, sightseers and tourist to view the panoramic view of the layout of Cape Town, its environs and into the hinterland from that great height taken there by the cable car.

When becoming more experienced and confident, I at times broke that rule. Knowing that our mountaineering group would be climbing early on a Saturday morning, staying over and returning late on the Sunday sorted out my pleasurable priorities, because most Friday and Saturday nights were partying time and Sunday mornings were going to church time for me. Before attending very early morning mass I would pack my haversack with provisions, (bully beef = tinned compressed corned beef, canned baked beans, canned fruit, slices of buttered bread, round hard mint flavoured sweets, eating utensils, my climbing gear, and leave immediately after mass. The mint sweets were a substitute for liquids when climbing non-stop to reach a destination because the mouth would go dry, and stopping to have liquids would slow down the momentum of climbing. There were times though when running out of it or it wasn’t available, we would then substitute it with round pebbles found when climbing so as to roll around in the mouth for spittle moisture. There were times that I took a short cut climb that was discovered by me on mountaineering explorations, and although difficult and hairy got me well in time to have brunch with the rest at the rangers hut. Because the rangers were the only ones to climb alone, my mountaineering colleges thought me crazy for not only doing that but also on my spur of the moment decision to come and have lunch with them, which was what I did at times. My explanation that the climb got the cobwebs out of my eyes and cleared my head from the previous night’s heavy partying, and that I couldn’t think of a more invigorating environment and pleasant company to have lunch with usually got a laugh.

My climbing alone also stemmed from my independent nature brought about because I was the eldest of the grand children, nephews and cousins in our family. Always having been the first in ventures, which they seemed to take a lead from, I found myself at an early age doing things off my own bat. And although becoming a loner I enjoyed the challenges that life threw up and were at times conquered by my own initiative. That also eventuated into me enjoying my own company, wanting my own space and doing my own thing. My first mountaineering climb with that seasoned group was a bit disappointing because they would rest in between climbs where I wanted to continue onward and upward. They couldn’t understand where all my stamina came from, and only had to traverse any of the climb routes once before starting and leaving them in my wake to reach our destination way ahead of them the next time. What aided had been my distance walking as a child from Athlone to Crawford to visit my grandparents that would take an hour each way, an hour and half the same way to Langa to visit my African friends when not going with the priest, an hour each to visit and play with my cousins of aunt Grace in Sunny Side and aunt Phoebe in Belgravia Estate, and two hours to do the same at aunt Doreen and Maud in Lansdowne. Then there were also my mother’s marathon walks that she did with me in tow. Although my parents had a stall at the annual church bazaars, she in her Christian attitude of goodness and so that it would swell the coffers for extra financial aid towards the building of the parish hall, would collect monies towards it. What she did was to have what she called a collection book wherein it gave her the authority to collect financial donations by it through been stamped with the official church parish logo and signed by the parish priest. She would then at every weekend tramp the streets from door to door of homes and businesses and ask for a small donation followed by a God Bless you after the person gave the donation, inserted the amount and signed the book. It didn’t matter to her if it was from a penny to a shilling or nothing received, they all got the same blessing. What wasn’t a blessing though was that week after week she had to extend the area walked, and it saw the two of us at times walk from 10 am to 4 pm in her quest to fill up an amount of pages that she had set out to accomplish for that day.  Although we had aching feet at times and growling stomachs too, I got to know every suburb and she to collect the most amounts of monies than the other parishioners. And then there were the times when missing the last train home from Cape Town after partying there all night, and I would walk the four hours home because of missing the last train from Cape Town, which was at 11.30pm those days. My physical training at boxing, wrestling and weight lifting, plus the constant cycling to visit girlfriends was another factor that gave me the vigour and stamina.

It also aided an adrenaline rush that was pursued by me when descending steep walkable mountain sloops; especially parts of Platteklip Gorge that was done at break neck speed. Although strewn with protruding rocks, shrubs, saplings, trees and zigzag sand and gravel paths, it would find me hurtling down with my body at an angle as adjustment to the steepness and my legs pumping to the speed of the descent. And while the mind had to synchronize in an instant what the eyes saw, the body had to adjust to it accordingly. My feet would be accurately planted when jumping from rock to rock with my own made course, and taking off from them when jumping would sometimes traverse shrubs, saplings and some pathways. Trees were a problem at times though in my rapid descent, especially if following deviating pathways that zigzag in between them and I collided with quite a few at first. I soon learnt that by using my hands as buffers I could push against them to guide myself away from further obstructions and it acted as stabilization. Everybody thought me foolhardy, but I found it exhilarating, particularly being a Capricorn with the zodiac sign of the goat, which gave me the impression that I was as sure footed as a mountain goat too. I also usually waited for a good half hour at the base of the mountain in Ravine-neck for the others to arrive, and while they were weary I was refreshed. While on my mountaineering jaunts there were quite a few unusual occurrences that I witnessed. When crossing a ravine at one time, the distinct bark of a baboon drew my attention, which was very unusual in that vicinity, and on further investigation saw a troop of baboons in a valley that were foraging for a meal with their young. The aggressive male of the troop on watch must have sensed my presence and was notifying the rest that there was an unknown intruder. Wise enough because of my experience as a child with my grandparent’s next-door neighbour’s baboon and others encountered in the veld, I left well alone. Another time saw me observing a fox either out of curiosity or requiring a meal stalk a porcupine. South African porcupines, or that one, had quills that were black and white, long, pointy and quivering, and I could see that the fox didn’t have a chance. Having before seen a porcupine’s lethal assault on its adversary was a foregone conclusion as the fox was sent yelping away with the quills stuck in its body for its stupidity. Various snakes always sunned themselves on the rocks and they would slither away when sensing a presence. When seeing in the distance a python not sunning itself but zigzagging its way in the under-growth my interest was drawn. An unsuspecting dassie (hare) was sunning itself, and stealth was both the snake and my careful advance to creep nearer for it to stalk its pry and me to observe its eventual meal. The warm sun must have addled its brains or it was snoozing, the snake though wasn’t as it pounced with its mouth wide open to grasp the dassie, and it was amazing to see it swallow its pry whole and the way it traveled through its body. The silence on those jaunts would also be intense, broken only by the clicking of frogs and the burble of a stream passed. Passing a jumble of oddly shaped boulders, I spotted a klipspringer (indigenous antelope) perched on an outcrop, ears pricked and eyes fixated on me. In such moments it was easy to feel like the only person on the entire mountain.

The scariest sound heard by me while in a wooded valley with a magnificent waterfall was a familiar snarl of a big cat. Frozen in my tracks with my heart beating two to the dozen all I was capable of was casting my eyes in all directions and straining my ears to hear where it had come from. Knowing that years ago leopards roamed in the mountains of Cape Town and that a bronze statue of it could be seen at Hout Bay where it was last seen, gave me a scary feeling. Shadows, breeze rustling leaves and dead falling branches that were part of nature to me before, took on a more sinister meaning then. With the snarl not repeated again or knowing where it had come from in the first place made me not know which way to turn or go when my body became mobile again. My tree climbing ability as a youth though got me scampering up the nearest tree to the very top. In the tree’s safe haven I was able to think more clearly, and remembering that leopards were supposed to be docile and timid, I broke off a long branch and descended. While making my way hastily out of the valley I heard the snarl again, and turning around saw a shape moving away from the tree that I had previously been in. It could have been a figment of my imagination; however, been acquainted with the snarls of big cats since a child frequenting circuses, visiting Cape Town’s Zoo and observing them first hand and up close in wild life parks, that valley never saw me again.

Mountaineering over long weekends was the most appropriate with the ranger’s huts becoming the base camps. It offered us shelter from the elements, a stay over sleeping place and a fireplace for heat and cooking of individually brought provisions that was pooled, cooked and divided up at meal times. Cascading waterfalls, sparkling clear streams, bubbling brooks, canopied glades, green glens, variety of unknown orchids and birds, sheer rock faces and enormous boulders and rocky ravines was what was encountered. Climbing also to the very top of Table Mountain  (1087 metres) to partake of lunch at the Cable Station Restaurant while viewing the panoramic view of Cape Town, and then to climb back instead of descending by cable car to Ravine-neck was always a thrilling experience no matter how many times done. There were also those though who descended on the ranger’s huts as day-trippers or for an overnight outing, and because they weren’t serious mountaineers they always took the easy way up. To them it was like a picnic with party time because snacks, liquor and musical instruments were their thing. The problem that occurred though was the congestion for sleeping arrangements if the weather went bad. Our group at times consisted of young married couples, courting couples, mixed singles and mixed teenagers who slept on the wooden floor covered over with the blankets we had brought. The addition of extra bodies when it rained meant males and females were stretched out separately on either side of the hut side by side, and because of the cramped space, head to toe sleeping was the arrangement with the blankets shared and spread over everybody. What was also spread were the smell of stink feet, farts and bad breath, especially from the intoxicated, and also the placement of feet, hands or the body of a turning and tossing type of sleeper. Luckily my sleeping habits consisted of always sleeping on my back, feet crossed and my hands under my head. And also by bedding down on the outer edge made it easier for during the night toileting and also gave me the advantage of not having two sleeping bodies encroach on me, or so I thought. Opposite me from a party group on one of those occasions was an inebriated older female who had kept smiling at me in a friendly way, which I returned, while we were settling down before the kerosene light was extinguished, which threw the hut into complete pitch-black darkness.  Because a group of us seasoned mountaineers were going to do a climb early the next morning before breakfast, our intention had been to turn in early and have a good kip. I had dozed off but was disturbed in my sleep by a heavy pressure in my groin area. It was the female’s foot opposite me that must have accidently in her sleep gone there when adjusting herself, so I removed it. But low and behold she not only placed it back there but also pushed her foot hard up against my genitalia and wriggled her toes there. There are some women who think that men can be sexually charged in an instant by only touch in that area, wrong, I know for that to occur all of my senses must be in play and it has to be dually initiated. That time I forcibly removed her foot and kept it down with my hand. The thrill and pleasure of mountaineering was what consumed me, and no thoughts of sexual pleasures ever crossed my mind there because I had more than enough of it when with my girlfriends. That girl didn’t seem to get the message because she slid down further towards me and began to use her hand instead. Enough was enough because I required my sleep, so I grabbed her hand and began squeezing it pretty hard so that it would hurt her and make her stop. Not to be with this one because she grabbed at me with her other hand. She must have been like a cat on a hot tin roof, and on heat, but then to be cruel to be kind so as to quell those flames, I began to bend her fingers back onto her hand. Knowing that there was no way that she would cry out because all the others would be awakened and become aware of what was occurring, I applied more pressure. She turned away from me and I feel asleep. They had all gone by the time we came back so I didn’t have to suffer her presence.

Because of that unexpected sexual encounter I spent part of that day on my own and in quiet contemplation wrestling with thoughts of if older women found younger men to be more sexually gratifying or if they were easier to manipulate. Although knowing it was lessons well learned from those experiences and I was receiving my fair share, it seemed that it was coming on to hot and fast for me to handle. With the girls of my own age who the majority like me were still experimenting and sex didn’t even come into the equation even though we thought and talked about it, I found that a lead up where the feeling of sexual pressure wasn’t exhibited was more acceptable than a set up where you were expected to perform unexpectedly. On the other hand, that episode then took me in a new direction. Although the tone would be jovial when we were in a relaxing mode and mucking around, I did become aware that the younger female climbers had a tendency to flirt. It soon became clear by observing them that their amorous light-hearted manner must have been due to the briskness of the climbing that physically stimulates and the fresh mountain air that invigorates. The surrounds were another consideration because the only sounds were nature, and the serene atmosphere would evoke an emotional, sensitive affection in them. Because of their endearments I became more susceptible to their needs that resulted in quite a few more sexual escapades on those mountains. As a Roman Catholic who had attended their school and high school, with a mother and father who were pillars of the church where catechism and religion were fundamental to one’s salvation, it had made me a bit of a sinner with my continuous breaking of the ‘thou shalt not’ minor sexual laws as seen and taught. Growing up at first with a guilt complex of anything sexual by thought, word or deed as a sin to be confessed, had also made it eventually impossible for me to go to confession to any of our parish priest, but I did go to others who didn’t know me. At a young age too I couldn’t fathom the complexities of religion verses masturbation that was a natural God given human condition, with shame, embarrassment and guilt demoralizing emotions. Fifty years down the track though it has now become a conscience sin whereby two alternatives are offered. The old way; one on one confessional with your priest for venial and mortal sins that as mortal sins go are the one’s of the Ten Commandments that if you commit are pardonable with sorry for them and penance and forgiveness, or an annual communal silent out pouring at a church service of your venial sins only that are the ones that are now seen as natural and are excusable. Now, according to my theoretical and not theological concepts I was way ahead of my time. What really helped too was the book on sex that my logical father had obtained for me, and his sexual instructions.  My emotional mum, who was from the old school, frowned on anything sexual in conversation even though she had five children by the rhythm method and me by the method that she kept warning me about of how easy it was for girls to become pregnant. So with those two as my conscience guide, God must have been pretty happy with my condition even with all my sexual experimentation and encounters, I thought, because I was still a virgin.

Exploring the Back and Front Tables and the three hidden valleys there, was an appreciation of the true beauty of Table Mountain. The Front Table climb passed through the Valley of the Red Gods and Valley of Isolation with its intricate rock formations, pristine fynbos and breathtaking views that allowed one to experience the mountain up close and personal; in ways that the cable car never could. At times when a wisp of cloud blotted out all signs of what was coming up in the climb; it gave the impression of been in the middle of nowhere, the back of beyond, which was why it was so easy to connect with nature on Table Mountain. Some of the most memorable views I’ve had on Table Mountain involved mist or cloud. The scenery suddenly became dynamic, alive. Spires and pinnacles showed up more clearly, and peaks appear higher and wilder. Sculpted boulders took on the appearance of ghostly shadows. Cloud and mist although blotting out the distant landscape brought to life the immediate surroundings. Skeleton Gorge was also a fairly challenging route up Table Mountain that consisted of the first half a forested ravine on the lush eastern side of Table Mountain. From there the route involved a few bits of basic scrambling, straightforward in dry conditions, but treacherous and potentially dangerous in wet conditions, especially in winter when the ravine was gushing and the rocks were wet and slippery. After heavy rains in winter, Skeleton Gorge became almost impassable with its stream flowing in full spate and for much of the winter the going was tricky.  It was no walk in the park because of a series of ladders that had to be scrambled up, but there was the opportunity to view waterfalls and see its streams cascading down the mountainside. Table Mountain offered a variety of experiences; many of them far removed from a fevered march and trudge to the summit. Table Mountain was much more than just its Table because the Grotto-Fountain-Cairn Traverse ranked as one of the most challenging and sensational hiking routes on Table Mountain. The route followed Grotto Ravine to a point about midway up the mountain, then traverses across a series of cliffs along a narrow ledge before angling up the southwest side of upper Kloof Corner Ridge to gain Fountain Ledge and top out via the India Venster route. Tricky scrambling, exposure to heights, intimidating positions, rugged terrain  and distance covered, all combined to make it a strenuous and challenging route suitable only for experienced hikers or mountaineers.

Behind the ‘Table’, the mountain undulated down to a sort of flattening out again about 300 meters lower down where there were clumps of indigenous forest tucked away in hollows and fissures. The area was also honeycombed with caves, and Table Mountain’s two biggest cave systems, Bats Cave and Wynberg Caves were located there. Caveman’s Overhang was basically a large overhang at the foot of imposing cliffs overlooking Orange Kloof, which offered solitude and august views. The Valley of the Red Gods located on the 12 Apostles at the head of Jubilee Ravine was like a hollow on Table Mountain It was a peaceful place seldom disturbed by the presence of hikers and was quite easily accessed via the Diagonal or Kasteelspoort (Castle’s Portal) routes. Yet more reasons why hiking Table Mountain was a far greater experience than most people realized. Table Mountain was much more than just its ‘table’; the southern tip of the Apostles might not have been as high as the ‘table’, but it offered much more in the way of nature and solitude, and with great views. Ascending Kasteelspoort from the Twelve Apostles side of Table Mountain gave one an unobtrusive view of the Atlantic coastline, Lion’s Head and Camps Bay when reaching the top. Hiking from there through the three valleys with their lichen covered rocks and formations were en route to Maclear’s Beacon. Another one was Woody Buttress route on the Twelve Apostles that was a 40-minute hike along the Pipe Track from Kloofnek taking one to the foot of Woody Ravine. The path hugged the left of the ravine as it climbed steeply through the trees as the ravine narrowed and zigzagged under the vast grey walls of Spring Buttress before coming out onto the plateau. It’s climbing scramble route that I’d done many times, in both directions and in all weather conditions required a rope on some of the scrambles.

The story goes that a Dutchman, Jan van Hunks, strode up Devils Peak to get some peace from his wife’s nagging and to smoke his pipe. An unknown person approaches him and asks for some tobacco for his own pipe. Because they both bragged about their pipe-smoking prowess, a contest ensued that after many days of smoking and puffing away, the mountains are enclosed with a blanket of smoke. Jan is declared the winner, but the person, who turns out to be the devil, challenges him to a game of bowels. They use the boulders strewn around for the game, and that time the devil wins because of rolling them with such great force and accuracy that it caused loud crashing sounds. So the legend of that is, when seeing clouds sweeping over the mountains and loud claps of thunder is heard, van Hunks and the devil are at it again. Although Devils Peak hiking trails seemed  like a stroll in the park, the taking of a short diversion off the trail to the Saddle (between Devil’s Peak and Table Mountain), one could see down into Newlands and the entire False Bay side, and  from the top one could also see the harbour, Table Bay, and the northern suburbs.  Because the peak was very exposed to wind and mist, care had to be taken most times, especially when descending on the Southern Suburb sides because of the wet and steepness that was highly dangerous, particularly Second Waterfall Ravine, Dark Gorge and Els Ravine. Going up from Rhodes Memorial to the Kings Block House, the climb up Mowbray Ridge along Knife’s Edge was the way we reached the minor summit of Devils Peak.

Another strenuous climb was Slangolie (Dutch = Snake Gully) from the northern side of Table Mountain, which also would take one to the top, from Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens that was not only exertive but could also be at times dangerous. It was strewn with outcrops, rock overhangs, smooth worn rocks and pebbles underfoot, which were the remnants of dried up water courses, and to contend at times with the thick mist that occurred when Table Mountain decided to wear its table cloth. It was point to point across Table Mountain to Maclear’s Beacon that was the highest point on Table Mountain, which took in the whole of the Central Table, and from there, would sight Table Bay, Robben Island and Devil’s Peak. Although it began with an easy stroll through the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, the steeper ascent of the gorge was something to contend with, but once in the gorge one would be surrounded by magnificent indigenous forest that provided welcome shade. A walk close to a stream brought one to the half-way point where there were a couple of ladders to tackle and a rock fall to scramble over. Nearing the top, the trees thinned out to allow views over False Bay and the Constantia Valley all the way to the Hottentot Holland Mountains. Breakfast rock signaled the top of the gorge, which where mass was said by Father Jerome and breakfast had, and from there a hike to the ranger’s hut. The other climbs of Porcupine Buttress, the Chimney, the Chains, Arrow Buttress and others although difficult and treacherous could be conquered with skill and daring. Many fatal falls occurred on those mountains due to inexperience or by getting lost in the thick mist, luckily though none of our group ever had that misfortune. We stuck to a strict code of being in sight of each other, went to ground in numerous caves scattered throughout the mountain ranges when encountering heavy mist and never climbed alone.

Climbing or hiking up Table Mountain when it is free of cloud, views invariably take centre stage, but when the mountains tend to attract cloud, of which Table Mountain is no different, the terrain takes on a more dramatic appearance in the presence of mist and cloud. The rocks seem to come alive, bending and swaying in the shifting and swirling mist, and adding to that atmosphere is a deep silence in which you can almost hear the ancient rocks creak and sigh as they lie in their primordial foundations. Walking among these ghostly monoliths gives you the feeling of being in another world, on another planet. The sense of solitude and isolation is palpable. These impressions bring a different and more profound facet to Table Mountain that views alone can never provide. Now this is part and parcel of what I tried to educate about and instil into all those that I could encourage to be consumed with the exciting, exhilarating, and rewarding experience of mountaineering, and of those were my young sons Christopher, Neil and Harry, and young nephews Ralph and Sam. I use to take them to Kloof Nek so as to walk the Pipe Track and also up to Maclear’s Beacon so as to also sight the vista that stretched from Cape Town out to the horizon as far as the eye could see. What they also loved doing on those mountains, which I did too, was to camp out overnight in a secluded weather secure site with a blazing fire going. The only problem I had with them was that they didn’t want to go sleep and would rather stay up all night. But with me knowing that the constant dancing flames that are magnetic and mesmerizing to the eyes do lull one to sleep, they were soon sleeping like babes in the wood.

Image

One of our mountaineering groups at the beginning of the climb at Kloofnek.

Back Row: Phillip August. Vincent August. ?. Ruth August.

Next Row: Harold Lorenzo. ?. Fred Hendricks. Obrey. ?. ?. Gertrude August. Obrey.

Next: Joan August. ?.

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3 thoughts on “22. My Cape Town Mountaineering.

  1. John says:

    Awesome, we gona do Pipetrack tomorrow, get to Casteelpoort and take some pics for you.

  2. Cedric Alan Meyer says:

    The big cat is likely to have been a lynx (Rooikat). I had a similar experience once. There is a very small chance that it could even have been a leopard.

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