Journey Jotters

Bitten by the travel bug

The last day of our ten-day journey to South Africa loomed large. We had a flight at midnight from Cape Town to Vienna and onwards to Geneva with an overnight stay. Then we would leave Europe to fly to Newark, then drive across to La Guardia and fly home to Dallas.

But before that, we had a half-day to spend in Cape Town. I have written about our first failed attempt to get to the top of Table Mountain here. Having learned our lesson, we first checked the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway website to ensure it was open for the day. Then, we ate a quick breakfast at the hotel and made our way to the Lower Cableway station. Even though we reached there before 8 am, there were long lines formed already. It seemed like we walked forever to reach the end of the line. As I mentioned in my other post, the tickets guarantee access to the cablecars but are on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Table Mountain

We were a bit disappointed when we first reached the end of the line. There were many people ahead of us, and we wondered how long we would have to stand in line before we got our turn. We heard a guide tell one of the visitors behind that it would easily be two and a half hours or more to make it to the cablecar. With a sinking heart, we looked at each other. We didn’t have anything better to do. We didn’t have time to fit in Robben Island that day and tickets weren’t available either. Paragliding was out of luck as they didn’t have an opening. We stood in line, listening to people talk a plethora of different languages, enjoyed the magnificent views around us, and watched the red and yellow cable cars travel up and down and then down and up.

Cablecar on way back from Upper cableway station

Far from expected, the lines moved at a steady pace. There was a staff member who acted as a DJ/ anchor and interviewed people from all over the world, played music on request, had people dance a few steps and generally ensured that we all had a great time. It certainly helped pass the time that much quicker. It was a warm, sunny morning, and all felt right with the world! After an hour and a half of standing in line, it was our turn to ride the cable cars.

According to the Cableway history, the original idea for transporting people to the top of Table Mountain involved building a railway along the mountain’s slopes. However, the project was shelved due to World War I. Eventually, in 1926, a Norwegian engineer named Trygve Stromsoe proposed the cableway idea. After two years and investing a princely sum of sixty thousand pounds, the idea came to fruition. In addition to the cableway, two stations, and a tea room were built on top of the mountain. The project was opened to the public in October 1929. The first cable car was made of wood with a tin roof and took ten minutes to climb the 704 meters (2112 feet) to the top. Since then, the Cableway has been upgraded three times. The Cableway also has a policy of responsible tourism and has several sustainable initiatives in place.

Panoramic view of mountains, city and ocean from Table Mountain
Panoramic view of Lion’s Head, Signal Hill, Cape Town, and Devil’s Peak

The cable car that we rode reached the top in about 5 minutes. It had a rotating base so that all visitors could have 360-degree views of the mountain as well as the city and the ocean. Apart from spectacular views, the Cableway promised hourly guided walking tours, a delicious meal with views at the Table Mountain Cafe, WiFi access at the lounge, audio tours via VoiceMap, and a gift shop for souvenirs.

The ride to the top by cablecar was fantastic. The views all around were amzing in the morning sun. Once at the top, it took us some time to get oriented to the place. The surrounding mountains, valleys, cityscape, and ocean formed a spellbinding tapestry from this aerial view. As time went on, we noticed more and more people coming up by cablecar. Our initial plan was to take a guided walking tour, but as luck would have it, we came across a sign for Abseil Africa. Abseiling is an adventure sport that involves climbing down a sheer mountainside using a system of ropes and a belay device. For many years now, since first reading about it, I have wanted to try it, at Table Mountain. Well, there was my chance. I wouldn’t call myself an adventurous person, so I am still mystified by the drive to try this activity.

mountain and ocean view from Table Mountain
View from the top of Table Mountain

The staffer in charge of the abseiling first had us sign up and process the payment. Sonny JJ and I decided to try our hand (and feet) at it. We could not convince Mr. JJ or Missy JJ to go with us. With churning stomachs, the fellow led us back to the abseiling spot (from the lounge where their office is set up). He fitted us up with helmets, thick gloves, and a harness that looped around our waist and legs. Then he coached us to make our way down past the numerous rocks to the precarious ledge where his partner stood waiting for us. Aside from our family, several people were watching us from above and whispering and pointing. It felt quite a bit like being led to the altar for sacrifice. I thought about all the possibilities: complete success with no injuries, success with some damages, or total failure with loss of life and limb. To be honest, these thoughts flitted through my head, but the adrenaline effect was so strong, it soon overtook all of those negative thoughts. Standing on the ledge, we were hooked onto the belay device, then the ropes, one centrally to the belay and the other with a knot over the right thigh loop.

Our starting point for the abseiling adventure

The staffers asked us to spread our legs wide apart and fix our feet against the rock face. They then asked us to lean back into the harness’s seat, keeping one hand on the knot near the right leg and the other higher up. As we pushed our feet below step by step, we had to pull the rope upwards and away from us to counter the force by moving down. It seemed so easy to hear them say what needed to be done, so much harder to follow through as the flight response took over. Right then, the men wanted us both to pose for a photo to load to their Facebook page!! Incredible, I thought, here I am, a total nervous wreck, berating myself for putting my life and my child’s at risk, and these men expected me to be smiling and posing for a photo!! And with our arms stretched out too!! Insane, I know, but we followed their orders to a T!!

getting instructions on how to abseil
Getting instructions on how to abseil

Soon, the moment to launch over the cliff arrived. The good news was that we were facing the cliffside and so I did not have to look over my shoulder. The men were urging us to slowly step off the edge of the cliff and lean back and put one foot down and then the other. Looking down made me very anxious. But it was too late to do otherwise. With a quick look towards the two waiting higher up for us and a good luck sign to Sonny JJ, I took a deep breath and plunged ahead. The first few steps were complicated as I was holding onto the ropes too tight. The guides shouted down to relax and allow the ropes to move up. I slowly worked at applying the technique correctly. Sonny JJ started a few seconds later than me. I could hear him working his way down, all the while shouting encouraging words to me!

Just as I learned the technique and was settling down to enjoying the descent, the cliff face ended and I was left holding onto the ropes with my feet dangling in the air. The way down suddenly seemed too long. And I was confident that I had done something wrong. There were a few moments of pure fear as I shouted for help. Sonny JJ answered, wondering why I was shouting. His voice snapped me out of the moment. I looked down and could see the third staffer signaling me to come down. And far below also lay the sparkling ocean, beckoning invitingly. With one last effort to do a better job, I relaxed my fingers from the stiff hold and slowly worked on the ropes.

The entire climb downwards is a total of 336 feet. I think the majority of it was free-falling. Once I learned to relax and let go, I enjoyed myself as the mountains, the vegetation, the cliffface, the sky, and the ocean waters all came into my line of sight. The adventure only lasted about six to seven minutes, but they were probably some of the most intense of my life!!

I shouted to Sonny JJ to relax and let the ropes go, and soon he was shouting joyously and whooping, just like me! He confided feeling like Spiderman as he was free-falling! It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. All too soon, or so it seemed, I was swinging at the end of the rope, and the staffer below helped me down and helped get the belay device off. Just as I was getting out of my harness, Sonny JJ reached earth. We both gushed about the whole experience as we started our way back to the top. The staffer asked us to follow the arrows marked.

What the staff had failed to mention was that it wasn’t an easy walk back. They had made it sound like we could get back up in fifteen minutes. Like the hike the previous day, it took us a lot longer. Had we known it would take that long, we would have at least carried some water. Once the excitement of the abseiling wore off, we plodded on steadily towards the top. Another family was making the upward climb to the top of Table Mountain. Finally, I asked for some water from them and they graciously responded. It took us nearly 40 minutes to reach the top.

Once there, we realized the crowd had grown by leaps and bounds. The temperature had lowered as well with more significant cloud cover and a chilly wind blew across the area. Having waited for us for over half hour, Mr. JJ and Missy JJ had gone to the lounge looking for us. They weren’t aware that the hike to the top had taken us a lot longer than expected. Eventually, we caught up with them. By then, hunger and the cold wind had stoked a significant appetite.

Views from Table Mountain

Lining up once again, we made our way through the Table Mountain Cafe and found a few vegetarian dishes besides pizza. After enjoying the meal and freshening up, we went to stand in, yet another line, for the cable car back down. Mr. JJ went to explore the rest of the area while our line inched forward at a snail’s pace. Although we had light jackets, the wind whipping through the mountaintop was so cold, we had to huddle together to keep warm. An hour later, it was our turn to take the car down, and we breathed a sigh of relief to get out of the wind.

mountain, city and ocean from the cablecar
View of Signal Hill, Cape Town, and the ocean from the cablecar

At the Lower Cableway station, we took an Uber taxi to the hotel. Once again, with so many visitors leaving the area, it was slow going. The driver was from Cameroon but had been living in South Africa for many years. He asked us to visit the V and A waterfront to watch the fireworks as it was New Year’s Eve, but we sadly had other plans. He encouraged us to visit again to take in the show at a future date.

Once we completed the majority of the packing, we took a taxi to the Greenmarket Square. One of the oldest public squares, it was first opened in the early 17th century as a vegetable market. Since then, it has played many roles, including being a car park, a flea market and eventually in the resistance against Apartheid. Today, the place is well known for its bazaar with traders selling their wares from small stalls. Colorful, loud, and teeming with activity, the market is a maze of narrow paths between stalls. There were many different offerings like paintings, wooden and metalwork, beaded work, woven baskets, handcrafted jewelry, leather goods, etc. We spent the last of our rand here trying to haggle a bit, much to the kids’ consternation. They often argue with us about haggling with these struggling vendors. And they are right, for the most part. But I imagine the vendors do expect the haggling, and it is a fun experience, as long as we don’t go too far with it. Although most vendors asked for cash, many were willing to accept credit cards also.

wooden dolls and woven metal baskets from Greenmarket Square
Our acquisitions at Greenmarket Square

After choosing some souvenirs for ourselves and picking up some gifts for friends and co-workers, we caught yet another taxi back to the hotel. We sat on the balcony, rehashing our trip, discussing the most memorable moments and the forgettable ones. What we had managed to see and the long list we were leaving behind for another trip. As I mentioned yesterday, we went back to Ninety-One, the Indian restaurant at the end of the street, for dinner.

At eight pm sharp, the driver of the shuttle company showed up to take us to the airport. Because a massive crowd was expected that evening to watch the fireworks and road closures for traffic, Amie had arranged an earlier departure. She had also booked us an extra night in the hotel, so we could rest comfortably, until it was time to leave the hotel. We had a long trip back home, so we didn’t mind the extra cost. After security and immigration, we went to the lounge at Cape Town airport to relax until it was time to take off.

As the clock chimed the New Year in, we were taking off from Cape Town and climbing upwards steadily, our course set for Europe. And for more adventure and travel in the upcoming year. Little did we know then, that it wasn’t more international trips but a pandemic and tons of local explorations that were on the cards.

Here are some tips for visiting Table Mountain.

  1. Book ahead using Webtickets. There are several different options for getting to the top, as detailed in my post yesterday.
  2. As the Cableway is weather-dependent, check ahead of time for closures by reviewing status on their website or via Facebook and Twitter, or call their Weatherline on +27(0)21 424 8181.
  3. We chose the morning schedule with a return ticket. Access to the cablecars is on a first-come, first-serve basis. So plan for an early start.
  4. Dress in layers; the weather at the top changes quickly, as mentioned above. Had we dressed in layers, we would have been far more comfortable.
  5. There are many places to explore on the mountain top. So wear comfortable hiking or walking shoes. Food, beverages, restrooms are all available.
  6. Plan in advance for the trip back down to the Lower Cableway. The line can be quite long, as in our case.
  7. There are amazing views all around, so a good camera is a must.

If you are planning to abseil,

  1. then beware that the activity has some inherent risks. Although, throughout the activity, I did not feel unsafe as far as the equipment on hand.
  2. Know that the hike back to the top can take longer than what the staffers mention.
  3. I felt too, that forewarning me about the free-fall portion of the activity would have helped immensely. And not been quite the shock that it turned out to be, albeit for a few seconds only.
  4. Carry water and small snacks for the hike back.
  5. I have seen many people post photos and videos using GoPro, so plan ahead for that, if you wish.
Lion’s Head, Cape Town, and Robben Island as seen from Table Mountain

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