Journey Jotters

Bitten by the travel bug

I have written about the first day in Cape Town here. The next day was supposed to be a very busy one. Table Mountain is at the top of every visitor’s wish list, and ours was no different. We planned to spend the morning taking the Cableway to the top of the mountain. And for the afternoon, we booked a ferry ride to Robben Island, the island where Nelson Mandela was held as a prisoner. Mr. JJ booked tickets for both activities via Webtickets.

Lion's Head mountain as seen from Table Mountain
Lion’s Head as seen from Table Mountain

There are several options to visit Table Mountain. The easiest is to take the Cableway up to the top and return the same way. Because of our time limits, this was our choice. If we had time on our hands, we would have perhaps tried to climb to the top and take the Cableway down. The last choice was to climb to the top and walk down the mountain. The Cableway offers two types of tickets, one for the morning (0800 to 1300 hrs, not that one has to be down by 1300 hrs), and one for the afternoon (1300 hrs departure). Tickets can be one way or return. We chose the morning trip with a return.

Cableway cars at Table Mountain

One of the tips we got was to reach the Lower Cableway as early as possible in the morning. While the ticket allows access to the cable cars, it’s still on a first-come, first-serve basis. And given that we were visiting in peak tourist season, we expected long lines.

We rose early, grabbed snack bars, and caught an Uber to the Lower Cableway station. Even though we were there by 730 am, several people were milling about already. There was an element of confusion as we didn’t know where to join the line. But after talking to staff, it became clear that the day was too windy and likely unsafe for the cable car. But the final decision was yet to be announced. So we stood there, waiting and watching as others arrived, only to be told the disappointing news. By 8 am, it was official, and the cable car was closed for the day due to weather conditions.

We had the rest of the morning to spend before the 1300 ferry ride to Robben Island. So we took another Uber taxi to Lion’s Head, a mountain in the Table Mountain National Park and a top-rated destination for hikers. It lies between Table Mountain and Signal Hill, and offers terrific views of Cape Town, Camp’s Bay, Table Mountain, Robben Island and the majestic ocean. Lion’s Head rises to 669 meters (2000 feet) and its trail winds around the mountain, offering 360-degree views. From what I had gathered, many bloggers were able to complete the hike in about 45 minutes.

Camp’s Bay as seen from Lion’s Head

As we made the short trip across to Lion’s Head, it became clear that we weren’t fully prepared for the hike. We needed more water, more sustenance, more sunscreen than we had planned for that morning. So Sonny JJ and I took another Uber taxi back to the hotel (only about 15 minutes away) and picked up all the necessary items. By the time we got back to the trailhead, it was close to 9 am. By all accounts, we were already late to start the hike. In summer and busy times, the recommendation is to start the hike around 7 am to escape the heat. But with the change of plans, it was all we could do to get going as quickly as possible.

A parking lot and a food truck serving beverages, snacks, water, etc were at the start of the trail. Hiking Lion’s Head is free. The first several feet is an upward sloping gradient of fine gravel and got us warmed-up quickly. By the time we got to the top, between the heat, the sun shining down upon us, and the physical exertion, we knew what we were in for. But the views to the left of our trail frequently kept shifting and pulling us along, allowing us to stay focused on the ultimate goal.

At the top of the gradient, the upward trail moved upwards in a more gently fashion. Soon we were climbing wooden stairs in some areas and more level ground in others. People of all ages and nationalities walked with us. I thought myself a moderately fit person as I exercise regularly. But this trail truly tested my mettle. I often found myself giving way to younger and middle-aged hikers, walking so fast, as if the elevation and the ruggedness meant little.

Table Mountain under cloud cover

Further up, the trail became more challenging, at times a narrow path where one had to take turns using the lane. We had to scramble up metal ladders and walk on narrow ledges. We eventually got to a point where metal rungs were inserted into the rockface and hikers can pull themselves up using those and chains. There was a long line ahead of us to do this. A second pathway was a bit more circuitous but less adventurous, without the thrill of the quick climb. We decided to use that instead, so we could keep moving.

A closer view of the Lion's Head trail and views
A closer view of the Lion’s Head trail and views

Beyond this, the path involved a lot of scrambling on all fours while allowing others to descend. Almost to the top of the peak was a rocky plateau from where the views of the ocean and Lion’s Head peak were fantastic. As we rested our heaving lungs, sweaty faces, and aching calf muscles, we had a decision to make. It didn’t seem like cresting the peak would take that much longer, perhaps another 30 mins. But we did not have time on our side. It took us about 90 mins to get there and we still had to get back, rush to the hotel, refresh and make it across town to the V and A Waterfront before one pm to make it onto the ferry.

Robben Island in the background

As is often the case, my instincts were to proceed onward to the peak. After all, we couldn’t go home without reaching the summit, could we? But Mr. JJ calmly shot down the idea, and the kids agreed. There was not enough time to climb onwards and be at the pier at the appointed time. Disappointed but seeing reason, I reluctantly agreed. Of course, the downward walk was not as tricky as the upward climb. We made it back down in an hour. After gathering some refreshments from the food truck as we waited for our taxi to arrive, we rushed back to the hotel and freshened up.

Craggy rock face of Lion's head mountain
We were this close before we had to quit!!

Soon, we were on our way to the waterfront in the busy afternoon traffic. It made little sense to me to see the amount of traffic congestion at that time of the day, but there we were crawling an inch at a time, with a sharp eye on the clock. The driver dropped us off near the entrance to the area, and we had to rush the rest of the way to make it to the Nelson Mandela Gateway area.

Robben Island served as the prison where Nelson Mandela spent most of his 27 years of imprisonment. Along with a host of other prisoners, he fought the South African government’s racial segregation policy of Apartheid. The island is located 9 km offshore from Cape Town and the entire tour takes about 3.5 hours, including the ferry ride to and fro and the island tour.

Robben Island prison has been converted into a museum that highlights the lives of the prisoners, their struggles against Apartheid, and South African history. Upon landing, in-person tours are led by freedom fighters who were ex-political prisoners on the Island. There are four tours a day departing from the waterfront.

Historic Silo District

By the time we reached the gateway office, there was a large crowd waiting in the lobby. As we tried to get in line for the ferry ride, we learned that the tour had been canceled for the day. The windy conditions that had closed the Cableway didn’t make the ferry trip safe either. And, so for the second time that day, our plans were canceled. Upon checking our phones, we found an email about the cancellation. In our rush to get there, and perhaps, being unaware of how weather affected many aspects of Capetonian activities, we did not stop to peruse our email.

After ensuring that the money was being refunded to our credit card, we made our way outside. This portion of the waterfront was different than the one we had visited the previous evening. There were plenty of restaurants, retailers, a variety of businesses, museums, hotels, etc. The whole place was vivacious. Now relieved of the pressures of being somewhere and voraciously hungry, we set out to find a restaurant with vegetarian options. Eventually, we found the Via Vittoria Waterfront

Pizza at the Via Vittoria Waterfront

Although it took a while to get our lunch, as the restaurant was crowded, we enjoyed pizza, vegetarian penne and butternut squash ravioli. The next half hour, we strolled around the area, enjoying the warmth of the sun and the waterfront’s liveliness. We spent some time marveling at the historic grain silo area. The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) has been designed anew from old historic grain silos that were used to store and grade maize. The top six floors of the MOCAA are occupied by The Silo hotel and boasts an array of multifaceted windows in geometric patterns. Although we were too tired and sleepy after the trail and the heavy lunch, we spent some time sitting in their outdoor patio area and watching the world go by.

museum designed from silo and unique hotel
The uniquely designed Silo Hotel and MOCAA

Lulled by the waning afternoon, we returned to the hotel to rest up. We were to leave town the following evening to board a flight to Geneva and onwards to the US. So we packed as much as we could and decided to schedule a paragliding adventure with Cape Town Tandem Paragliding. We had tried to paraglide in Australia, New Zealand, and thought we might be able to get it done here. But alas, they were fully booked the following afternoon, and we had run out of time.

We walked the short distance to Ninety-One, a local Indian restaurant we had seen earlier in the day, for dinner. Although small, it was clean, the girls waitressing were professional and the food was excellent. So much so the kids wanted to go back the following night for dinner. Now, that’s saying a lot, given they don’t care much for Indian restaurants. This one was an exception and rightfully so!

I wished to share some thoughts about hiking Lion’s Head. I think it is a must-do, especially most people do not choose to climb nearby Table Mountain. The views alone make the effort worthwhile. All said, the trip to and back can easily take about 3 to 4 hours, going at a steady pace. I would certainly not call it an easy hike, as I was led to believe, but with adequate planning, it can be achieved. A sturdy pair of hiking boots or shoes, sunscreen, hats, comfortable, loose-fitting clothing, sufficient water to stay hydrated, and some snacks or a picnic meal to eat at the top are a must. There are several spots from where to get some excellent photos, so cameras are essential. Although the going was a bit rough in certain areas, we managed to do it. So patience and a steady pace go a long way. An early start helps if hiking in the morning. Others walk later in the day to be able to enjoy amazing sunset views. But a headlamp or powerful flashlight would be necessary. Although, I felt this hike would have been a bit risky for a first time hiker (of this mountain). I’ve read that locals frequent this mountain on full moon nights to enjoy a fantastic hike by the moon’s light.

Atlantic ocean and Camp's Bay as seen from Lion's Head
View from Lion’s Head

Although we were unable to visit Robben Island on the day of our scheduled trip, there is now a virtual prison tour available on the Google Arts and Culture website. I will certainly be taking some time to explore this webpage in detail.

Join us tomorrow as we recount our last day in Cape Town before the long trip home.

2 thoughts on “Journey to South Africa: Part 3, Lion’s Head

  1. MJ says:

    That was an awe-inspiring read. Sad to hear about the cancellations. Hopefully, the exercise helped reduced a few kilos. The views are stupendous. Keep em coming.

    1. Journey Jotter says:

      Thanks for reading MJ! Yes the views absolutely made the hike so worthwhile! Cape Town is one of those cities where weather plays a key role! But it also has so much to do, one is never at a loss for some activity! As a younger traveler, would have been totally miffed with such learnt to take them in stride..gotta bow to nature!

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