There was dense cloud cover on the mountains on Sunday morning, and the wind was howling across the city bowl. Despite the ominous weather, we decided to tackle the mountain slopes between Rhodes Memorial and Newlands forest. We hadn’t yet walked the contour path between Rhodes Mem and Newlands ravine, and we were keen to see what it was like up there.
Rather late on Sunday morning (because we’d been waiting for our kitty-cat to forgive us for the nasty dose of antibiotics we had just given her), we set off from the parking lot at Rhodes Mem. An excited hop-skip-jump up the first series of stone steps to the lower-level dirt road. A slightly more weary trudge-tramp-stamp up the wooden steps to the upper-level dirt road.
And puff-pant-pause up and up and up the sheer endless series of stone steps, wooden steps and no steps at all, through fynbos and hip-high bracken. A young woman in trainers, carrying a waterbottle in one hand, strode energetically past us up the mountain, leaving us in her wake. Unlike us, she was clearly not aiming to have a picnic anywhere up there.
The sky was glowering, and the low clouds were showering us with a deliciously soft mist.
At last, with tired legs, we tackled a final series of steps, and emerged onto what surely – surely! – had to be the contour path.
A group of energetic youngsters on their way down from the top paused to let us pass. Red-faced from the exertion, I asked whether we had reached the contour path. They weren’t entirely sure, but said there was “a castle” higher up that was worth a visit.
They meant the King’s blockhouse. It’s not strictly speaking a castle, although it is a fortification constructed out of stone and there are two old cannons standing in front of it.
“How about it?” I puffed, glancing at hubby, who was looking a little tired too. “We’re so close to the Blockhouse, and we haven’t been there in years, so can we go have a look?”
And so we did. We crossed the stile — or more accurately, we went through the turnstile, rather than across the ladder. It’s the legs, you see, the legs…. they rebelled against unnecessary climbing.
We followed the upper jeep track towards the north, and were just coming around the corner of lower Devil’s Peak, when the wind almost blew us off our feet. We paused for a moment to steady ourselves and clasp hands, and with head lowered marched into the gale. Given the strong wind, we were rather surprised when two cyclists overtook us on mountain bikes, pedalling furiously against the wind and bumping over the rough gravel road.
Our fair city lay spread out below us. Robben Island is just visible in the mouth of the bay.
And, oh look! I do believe that shiny white round structure in the far distance is our famous 2010 FIFA World Cup Soccer Stadium (I’ve zoomed in a bit here – it’s in the exact centre of the picture).
The harbour of Table Bay looked grey and gloomy under the dark skies. The hillsides below us were barren, with hardly any vegetation. Was this still the aftermath of the raging bush fires of March last year?
Another gravel road turned off at a sharp angle to the left, taking us further up the mountain. From here we could clearly see the imposing and solid-looking King’s blockhouse, which has survived the wind and the rain and the fires up here for more than two centuries!
Actually, there are three old, abandoned blockhouses on Table Mountain: the King’s blockhouse (see here), the Queen’s blockhouse (see here) and the Prince of Wales’ blockhouse (see here). The King’s blockhouse was built by the British in 1796 during their occupation of the Cape. From this blockhouse, it is possible to see False Bay to the south, as well as Table Bay to the north. Signals could be sent to the Castle of Good Hope in the city centre down below, via the other two blockhouses on the lower slopes of Table Mountain. Sadly, the other two blockhouses are in ruins, overgrown by vegetation, and damaged by vandals.
Part of the wall of a house has been retained here, just below the blockhouse.
The plaque dates back to November 1904. Unfortunately it has been partly defaced by the usual idiots who think it’s cool to leave their mark and damage things. The text says:
“In memory of Forester Frank Jarman, who, from 1893 to 1902, had charge of the forest work which covered this wind-swept mountain with trees. He left here for similar work in Elgin on the mountains opposite, and died as the result of an accident.
On the wall of this house which he built, and in which he lived, this tablet is placed by his brother officials of the forest department and by friends, as a record of his sterling qualities, and of his remarkable success as a forester. He found these barren stony slopes tree-less: he left them covered with forest.”
It’s just a pity that Frank planted water-guzzling alien trees, such as pines and bluegums (Eucalyptus), which are now being removed section by section by Table Mountain National Parks.
We walked around the trig beacon and admired the cannons, which appear to have been cleaned of their graffiti to some extent since our last visit. The wind was really howling here, so we did not linger very long. Instead, we continued up the gravel road, which circled southwards around the blockhouse and up to the top. The view across the Cape Flats and towards the mountains in the distance was most rewarding, despite the gloomy skies.
A shot of the clouds moving in and doooown. Brrrrrr….
Just to the right of the trig beacon and the cannons, a very, very, very steep and slippery path took us down to the gravel road. It saved us from having to walk all the way around once more, but it was seriously slippery, with loose gravel and shiny smooth sections that offered no grip for my worn-down tekkies. For future reference, it’s probably easier to go UP this than DOWN. And definitely best not to use the path when it’s wet. 😀
On the solid and wide gravel road once more, we retraced our steps to the stile and the ladder. A cyclist on his mountain bike came zooting down the jeep track behind us, disappearing around the corner. I suppose that’s the FUN part of mountain biking – going DOWN the hill?!
Just after the stile, we took the right hand fork of the path, which took us up towards the mountain, and straight into a forest. I’d been expecting fynbos and fynbos and more fynbos up here, so I was amazed when we found ourselves in the middle of a beautiful forest.
Two immensely tall bluegums – defying the odds – were emerging somehow from the depths of the ravine. When it rains, there must be a lot of water flowing here, so that makes it even more surprising that these two tall bluegums have survived this long. Interestingly, now that we know where to look, it is possible to see these two from faaaar below!
We crossed the ravine, and found this unusual yellow-and-black spider sitting in the middle of a web, which was covered in water droplets from the low-lying clouds.
I wish I knew what kind of spider this is. Do you know? If you do, please tell me! 🙂
We trudged further along the contour path, steep cliffs on our right hand side, and crossed several ravines. The stones in the river bed were smooth and shiny from all the water that had run across them over the years. Wire gabions had been used to stabilise the footpath, and to make sure that nobody fell off the side of the mountain. I’m kinda glad we walked through here when it was dry and the rivers weren’t flowing!
It is unbelievable that bushes and trees can grow here without toppling over! A panorama shot would have given you a better feel for the sheer scale of this cliff!
It was clear from the blackened stems of these trees that a fire must have raged here not so long ago. Amazingly, the canopies were lush and brilliant green.
Suddenly, the pine plantation came to an end, and we emerged into the open. We had reached the boundary fence of the Groote Schuur Estate, and had to walk through another turnstile to enter Newlands Forest.
Ericas were flowering on the side of the narrow footpath.
The young woman with the water bottle, who had walked so energetically past us on our way up to the blockhouse, came walking towards us from the Newlands side. She told us that she had just walked up part of Newlands ravine, but that it was very wet and rainy up there. Impressive. Perhaps we’ll tackle that route one day ourselves. 🙂
Some seriously dedicated and hardworking forest workers had constructed boardwalks along parts of the contour path through the Newlands forest. I wonder whether they lugged all their equipment up here on foot? Or did someone abseil it down from a helicopter? Either way, it must have been a daunting task, not only to transport all the wood here, but also to construct these things in situ. Presumably, these boardwalks are supposed to protect the path from further erosion and the roots of trees from damage. They also make it refreshingly easy to walk here.
We strode speedily along the boardwalk until we reached the picnic area, which is a large wooden platform, with benches around the circumference, suspended above the forest slope. Right opposite this is the start of Newlands Ravine, which takes you up to the Saddle (between Table Mountain and Devil’s Peak) on the Newlands side. One day, one day…
Just on the other side of the picnic area, a tiny path leads down the forest slope to the left. It is easy to miss, but we’d walked it before, so we knew it had to be there. With tired feet and aching knees, we walked slowly and carefully down the steep path with its slippery layer of mouldering leaves, holding onto branches and tree trunks for balance.
At long last, we found ourselves on the Woodcutters’ Trail, which is one of our favourite routes in Newlands forest. We turned left, towards Rhodes Mem, and marched steadily along this until we emerged into the sunshine – and onto a narrow gravel road. We followed this down in curves, left and right and left and right, until we reached the edge of the pine plantation.
And then we made our way through the pine plantation, until we reached the broad dirt road that we knew would lead us – eventually – back to Rhodes mem on the upper-level gravel road. The gravel was rather slippery in places, so we walked carefully here.
When we saw a tiny path heading off between the bushes to the right, we took it. We had a feeling it might lead us onto the lower-level gravel road – and, yes, it did! 😀 We had finally discovered the shorter route between Rhodes Mem and Newlands forest!
Moreover, it was a very pretty path, which led down into a tiny river valley (I think this must have been the lower section of the first waterfall ravine, which we had crossed higher up the mountain), and out the other side onto a small footpath among the fynbos. And soon afterwards, we could see the parking lot, and our waiting car.
We cast one final look at the mountain.
The entire hike had taken us around two-and-a-half hours, not quite three. It was a little longer than we’d anticipated, but what an awesome route!