A Valentine’s Day hike to the Saddle and Oppelskop

After Saturday’s exciting Woefie Wandel, we were ready for a challenging hike on Sunday morning.

And challenging it was indeed.

You may remember my recent comment that I would one day like to tackle the ascent via Newlands Ravine to the Saddle – which is that lower-lying area between Table Mountain and Devil’s Peak (indicated by the white arrow in the photo below).

Cars are already parked all along Tafelberg Road when we arrive

Well, after a good look at the map, we realised that going up Newlands Ravine meant quite a demanding ascent from the Newlands Forestry Station to the Upper Contour Path, and from there a reportedly extremely strenuous slog straight up the ravine to the top.

Now, fellow-blogger Helen (a dedicated hiker around Table Mountain) had recently written about a most beautiful walk she had done with her friend to the Saddle from the city centre side. She made it sound so EASY: A leisurely stroll up from Tafelberg Road via the zigzags to the Saddle, to enjoy the views and the flowers that were blooming all over the mountain, and an effortless descent down the same route.

It sounded just perfect for us.

It being Sunday and all, we got off to a late start; unfortunately, it was already clear by then that it would be a scorching day in the Mother City. Clearly, though, this was not deterring the hundreds of visitors, both local and overseas, who were streaming towards the lower cable station of the Cape Town Aerial Cableway in the hope of taking the cablecar up to the top of the mountain. Cars, taxis and buses were parked all along the narrow road, and it took a while to reach the starting point of our hike.

The fire danger rating was ‘Extremely Dangerous’

We found parking a few metres in front of the barricades, which have for some time been blocking off the last section of Tafelberg Road to vehicular traffic because of landslides and rockslides. After applying copious amounts of sunscreen, we began our hike. To give you an indication of the length of the hike, it was about 20 to 10h00 when we left, and we made it back to our car shortly after 13h00.

Sign indicating the path up the mountain

We followed the well-trodden footpath, as it zigzagged back and forth up the slopes. As we climbed steadily up the mountain, it became hotter and hotter; we felt the sun baking down on us mercilessly and sapping our strength. Thank heavens, we were wearing hats and sunscreen… and carrying a bottle of water!

From time to time, we stepped aside to leave passing room for other hikers, who had already been up to the top and were now trotting down the zigzags, amazingly still full of energy. We met a man and a woman who were descending carefully, leaning on hiking poles; a little Maltese poodle was hopping down the rocky steps ahead of them, his tongue hanging out as he panted. The man was carrying another Maltese poodle in his backpack.

Sometimes, the path consisted of the distinctive orange-brown gravel of Malmesbury shale.

Well-maintained footpath through the bracken

At other times, flat rocks had been laid next to each other to make an almost level walking surface.

A rocky stretch

Path consisting of flat rocks

Next to us, Table Mountain rose up dramatically into the bright blue sky. The white arrow in the photo below indicates the most popular route from Tafelberg Road directly up the mountain: the steep zigzags up Platteklip Gorge. Please note that this is a very steep and quite exhausting ascent, and that – because there is neither shade nor water – you need to wear a hat, apply sunscreen, and carry plenty of water. On the far end of the mountain top you may just be able to make out a square grey building; this is the upper cable station, where you will also find a restaurant.

Imposing Table Mountain

Eventually, we came to an intersection. Today, we were heading up to the Saddle! Yay!

A welcome route marker

I really liked these pretty Erica abietina, which seemed to be in flower all over the mountain.

A very pretty Erica abietena

And this butterfly graciously waited just long enough for me to take a picture of it.

An interestingly patterned butterfly

The views from up here were glorious. You can clearly see Tafelberg Road snaking along the side of the mountain and disappearing around the curve of Devil’s Peak.

The view northwards past the lower cliffs of Devil’s Peak

At long last, after further climbing, the path levelled out. By this time, we were about 650 metres above sea level, having risen only about 250 metres from the Tafelberg Road. According to the map, the beacon at the top of Devil’s Peak was at 1000 metres; however, we were definitely not up to climbing another 350 metres that day.

Puff, pant, gasp, cough…

Level path along the Saddle with Devil’s Peak in the distance

The mountain slopes were covered with swathes of these pretty pink Ericas.

Fynbos-covered slopes

I think they are Erica hirtiflora.

A close-up of the little pink balls of Erica hirtiflora?

The path up here changed from the orange-brown clay soils we had walked on earlier to the almost blindingly white stones of Table Mountain sandstone.

Path towards Devil’s Peak

Shortly afterwards, we reached the huge rock referred to as Saddle Rock or Breakfast Rock. Richard felt compelled to climb up to the top. I took a quick look at the lack of easy footholds and handholds, and declined to follow him up. Experience has taught me that it is usually easier to climb UP, than to climb DOWN from such high places.

Instead, I found us a sun-sheltered spot to sit for a little restorative Valentine’s Day picnic of sliced apples and sweet grapes. There was a gentle breeze and a bit of coolness in the air on the Saddle, quite different from the baking heat we’d experienced on the ascent.

Richard posing dramatically on Saddle Rock

In the meantime, Richard obligingly took a panorama shot of the view from Saddle Rock.

Panoroma: (left to right) Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, Signal Hill and Devil’s Peak

From here, you even have a fabulous view of the new Green Point Stadium – or is it now officially called the Cape Town Stadium?

The huge World Cup Stadium

I rather liked these beautiful red Crassula coccinea, which appear to grow straight out of the rocks. They gave a startling splash of colour to the otherwise mainly grey-green-brown colour of the mountainside. They are endemic to the sandstone areas of the Western Cape.

Red crassula coccinea

And these pretty pink flowers are, I think, Watsonia tabularis.

Table Mountain watsonia

I haven’t been able to identify what these ones are. They aren’t the infamous blister bush (Peucedanum galbanum (see effects of an encounter with a blister bush), are they? I didn’t think they were, but I wasn’t about to test the theory by getting too close.

White flowers

These looked like dry white paper flowers

We were accompanied on our hike by loads of small black grasshoppers, which hopped up from the warm stones under our feet and fluttered up from bushes as we passed, flashing red whenever they opened their wings. Frustratingly, they refused to pose for a close-up photo.

The lizards, which we frequently spotted sunning themselves on a sunlit boulder, were a little easier to capture on camera, although they too scuttled for cover into crevices and under bushes as soon as they heard our feet crunching on the stones. Or me exclaiming, “Oh! Look! Lizard!” as I whipped the camera into the ready position. But we did get a good shot of this nice-looking chap. I think it is a Black Girdled Lizard?

A black lizard sunning itself on a handy rock

It took numerous attempts and several blurry shots of flashing colourful wings, before I got a good picture of this orange-breasted sunbird. It was sipping nectar from an erica bush.

A thirsty sunbird

Look at that bright orange-yellow breast!

An orange-breasted sunbird

According to this website, the bird in the photo was a male. As is so often the case in the bird kingdom, the males of this species are flashier and prettier than the females, which tend to be little brown jobs. I wonder whether this is to camouflage them when they sit on their eggs? We did see a number of females, but they proved very difficult to photograph because they were so well-hidden against the fynbos.

From below, the Saddle looks like a fairly level area. Once you’re up there, though, you quickly realise that it is anything but. We walked along what looked like a main path across the Saddle, as we were curious to see whether we could find the start of Newlands Ravine. Alas, this wasn’t as straightforward as it looked.

One of the paths across the Saddle

There are numerous small paths criss-crossing each other here, which we found quite confusing. It is impossible (and obviously inadvisable, if not actually prohibited for ecological and environmental reasons) to go bundu-bashing through the vegetation. Fynbos may look soft, but it’s not – there are a couple of fynbos plants with tiny leaves that are decidedly spikey and scratchy; these will scratch you right through a pair of jeans, as I soon discovered. They elicited quite a few yelps of pain en route.

Quite apart from that, there is always the risk of stepping on a snake. According to the Table Mountain National Parks website:

“The TMNP is home to around 22 snakes, 10 of which are non-venomous – although they can still deliver a nasty bite if provoked – and five of which are deadly, namely the Cape Cobra, the Puff Adder, Boomslang, Rinkhals and Berg Adder. The good news is that they are mostly shy and will avoid human contact. The one you are most likely to encounter is the Puff Adder, which moves at a leisurely pace and enjoys a nice warm path.”

Ahhh! That’s good to know! As a result, whenever we came to a particularly overgrown bit of path, I would slow down and tread carefully, while making a bit of noise to warn any potentially deadly snakes that we were coming, and asking them kindly to slither out of the way for a few minutes.

Once we realised that we had somehow found the path that led straight up Devil’s Peak, some 350 metres higher up, instead of the path across to Newlands Ravine, we turned back to Saddle Rock and debated our options. The quickest way back to our car was obviously down the zigzags. But the thought of walking down the numerous and steep rocky steps was not all that appealing. (For future reference, though, I think that this is definitely the easier, shorter and more sensible route.)

The other option, according to the map in Shirley Brossy’s excellent A Walking Guide for Table Mountain, was to follow a kind of ‘contour path’ around Oppelskop Ridge, and eventually, gradually, to descend to Tafelberg Road. So that’s the route we chose. By now it was just after 11h00.

We found the start of the path towards Oppelskop Ridge right next to Saddle Rock. It was a clearly visible footpath, in a good condition, and well-maintained. It zigzagged once or twice, and then continued along the higher slopes of Devil’s Peak, just underneath the steep cliffs.

The contour path from the Saddle towards Oppelskop

Looking back from here, this was the view we had of Table Mountain. You can clearly see Platteklip Gorge, which is that steep ‘crack’ that runs down from the top of Table Mountain. You can also see Tafelberg Road, which is the tarred road that hugs the lower slope of the mountain all the way from the lower cable station. Below Tafelberg Road are a number of jeep tracks, which I think are used for firefighting. As you can see, the mountain has not recovered yet from the devastating fires of 2009. On the left, in the foreground, you might just be able to see some of the footpaths zigzagging up the mountain – that was the route we had taken up to the Saddle.

View of Table Mountain

I tried to get a clearer photograph of this pretty flower peeking out from between the rocks, but it was too high up for my zoom lens.

Pretty flower emerging from the rocks

And this, dear reader, is the place where I had to sit down.

For the first time in my life, I was overcome by vertigo. Yes, I don’t particularly like high buildings, or looking over balconies more than 5 floors up, so this wasn’t entirely unexpected. But so far, I had never experienced it on the mountain before.

Sitting down on Vertigo Ledge

A wave of nausea hit me in the pit of my stomach, as my head spun and my legs buckled underneath me. It felt as though the sheer drop below the ledge on which we had been walking an instant earlier was sucking me down into the abyss. It was all I could do to stop myself from freaking out entirely.

I sat down with my back against the steep cliff towering up behind us, trying not to think of the weight of all that rock suddenly collapsing and falling down (which is highly unlikely, after all), and I concentrated on looking up and away into the distance, rather than d-o-o-o-o-w-w-n-n into the abyss in front of my feet. Bizarrely, I found Table Mountain, which I normally experience as warm, embracing and protective, as terrifyingly HUGE – and myself as tiny as an ant climbing up the back of an elephant.

This picture may give you a slightly better feel of what it was like up there.

Cliffs above, cliffs below

Richard, in contrast, was completely unaffected. He leapt around like a young Klipspringer on his first outing. He took the camera from my shaking hands, and proceeded to take pictures of our surroundings, oohing and aahing at the scenery and the spectacular DROP below us and the sheer CLIFFS towering above us, while I closed my eyes and tried to steady my pounding heart.

So it is solely thanks to him that you now have this glorious panorama shot of the view from Vertigo Ledge.

Panorama from Vertigo Ledge

After I had restabilised my blood sugar levels with a slice of apple and a handful of grapes, I felt well enough to continue around the next corner. Going back was not an option. The path suddenly opened up, much to my relief, and we could walk along quite easily.

Path with a view

And we spotted another couple of lizards.

A black lizard on a rock

Two other lizards sunbathing

About half an hour after we had left Saddle Rock, we reached Oppelskop Ridge, from where we had a perfect view of Oppelskop – and suddenly realised that there was a ruin right at the top!

The ruins of a lookout post on Oppelskop

Obviously, this needed to be investigated further. It was a short scramble down this slope and up the next one, and soon we found ourselves right at the top of Oppelskop, with the most fabulous views imaginable! This must have been a lookout post in the old colonial days of the Cape. You can see all the way to the horizon from here. It was utterly breath-taking.

Glorious views from the ruins of the lookout post

We sat there for a while, and imagined what it would have been like to live up here in the early days of the Cape, when there was no harbour as it exists now, and only a few houses in the city bowl below, and original vegetation as far as the eye could see.

Panoramic view from Oppelskop ruin

We retraced our steps until we came to a path going down the slope at a gentle angle. After about 10 minutes, we reached a ravine with what could best be described as a river of rocks. I inched carefully across this, fearful of dislodging any of the rocks and causing a landslide.

A river of rocks

From here you could see clearly the after-effects of recent fires – the lower hillsides are still charred, with only isolated patches of green. And even higher up the mountain, many of the trees and bushes are entirely leafless blackened stumps.

View of the foothills of Devil’s Peak and the city below

Another 10 minutes later, we came to another ravine, this time with a tiny waterfall, trickling down over moss-covered rocks. I stopped to hold my hands in the crystal-clear and refreshingly cooold water. If there is still water here during the heat of summer, then I imagine there must be a roaring torrent pouring down this ravine after the winter rains!

A tiny waterfall trickles down the slope

While crossing the next ravine, we struggled to find the path, as it was completely overgrown. Richard ploughed ahead, courteously parting the reeds for me – and double-checking for venomous snakes at the same time!

Hey – where’s he gone?!

Finally, we could see that our path was approaching Tafelberg Road. We spotted a couple of people strolling along the road, enjoying the views and the sunshine. Occasionally, a cyclist pedalled feverishly up an uphill section, while another whizzed past in the other direction.

Approaching Tafelberg Road at last

About three-quarters of an hour from the ruins of the Oppelskop lookout, we finally reached Tafelberg Road and heaved a huge sigh of relief.

The last few steps

And then came the log slog back to our car on the baking tarmac. We shared the last slices of apple and the last few grapes, and trudged along in the heat until we reached our car at last.

Tafelberg Road

This had definitely been our most challenging hike so far, but the views from so high up were truly breath-taking and well worth the slog.

14 thoughts on “A Valentine’s Day hike to the Saddle and Oppelskop

  1. Now I would like to see those views, indeed I would, and I would enjoy the wildflowers and the lizards and the butterflies and the flashy sunbirds, but you may have the Puff Adders, the Cape Cobras, the Boomslangs . . . the Boomslangs?!? Good grief.

    I do not do vipers. Wolves, bobcats, coyotes and bears, yes, vipers no.

    But ah, those sunbirds . . .

  2. Reggie, those flat rock paths must have been difficult to create but they are gorgeous and would so much enhance the experience of the trail.

    You are braver than me. I’d be worried about the snakes the whole time and would find the heights quite intimidating. The worst case scenario would be thoughtlessly jumping into the abyss if I suddenly caught sight of a snake along the path. I always leap in fright when I come across them while gardening or walking in the woods.

  3. I loved reading about your adventures up on that lovely route, Reggie. Glad the pink Erica was still putting on a show. The views from Oppelskop are worth the climb aren’t they? πŸ™‚

    Super pics too, especially the butterfly and the sunbird!

    Sorry to hear about your getting the wobbles on that exposed section. I remember it as being very scary too… I also have no head for heights. Imagine how terrifying it would be if the south-easter were howling?!

    For future reference there is another option down that means one can avoid that long slog back on the road – on the way down on the Woodstock side one can turn left onto the lower contour path. This route goes just below the rocky face of Oppelskop and descends very gently to join the Saddle Path (right at that intersection with the signboard that you pictured above). It’s a nice route – lots of flowers in the Springtime too.

    Here’s to more happy walks on the mountain (maybe when the weather’s cooled down a bit though)!

  4. I enjoyed reading your account of the hike around Oppelskop as I’ve done it myself a few times. The first white flower you’ve shown is Hermas villosa – the butterfly is a Citrus Swallowtail – the black Lizard is a Cape Girdled Lizard and the other lizards sunning themselves are Rock Agamas. The red flower with the succulent leaves is Cotyledon orbiculata.

    Hope this helps with your identification.

    Regards, Glenda

    • Hello Glenda – thank you so much for taking the time to identify the fauna and flora for me. I really appreciate it! It’s so nice to hear from other Capetonians enjoying the mountain. πŸ™‚

I'd love to hear your views

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