Friday, December 24, 2010

More on my two-day hike up Table Mountain

I want to speak more about my two-day hike up to the Back Table (back side of Table Mountain). One thing I love about volunteering for national parks is I’m often treated to “the road less traveled” within the park and Table Mountain hasn’t let me down. Within days of my arrival, I was to hike with a group in a restricted area of the park and was my first introduction to fynbos vegetation.

I find myself lucky in so many ways. Table Mountain National Park is home to the Cape Floral Kingdom, one of the six floral kingdoms in the whole world. It is the smallest floral kingdom, covering 0.4% of the earth’s surface area, but is a global “hotspot” for plant diversity. Table Mountain NP is home to 2,285 plant species and over 70% of these plant species are found nowhere else on Earth. 1,400 fynbos species are rare or endangered—and I’m here to walk about and see these wonderful, amazing plants growing in the wild, to see them, feel them, touch them and smell them—it’s amazing! The fynbos plants (FANE boss) are the parents of all the amaryllis, hyacinth, geraniums, iris, and orchids we have in the US. (I’m told that the Dutch, who were the first Europeans to settle the Cape, hybridized many of the Cape flowers and that many of our favorite bulbs and flowering plants come from the Cape Peninsula.) Fynbos is an Afrikaans word that means “fine bush” and is named so because the fynbos is home to few timber trees (in fact, most of the timber in the fynbos is alien vegetation introduced by European settlers brought to SA for timber and fuel) and because of the prevalence of fine, small-leaved plants. The wind from the ocean blows remarkably fierce on the Cape Peninsula and the timer trees that are here are bent and gnarled by the wind.

This two-day hike up the mountain felt like it came the moment I stepped off the bus and had barely set my bags down, even though I’d been at Table Mountain NP for a couple of days. As with any hike like this, I worry about my level of fitness. I was a bit more worried about my level of fitness this time, or better said, lack of a level of fitness, because I’ve felt pretty sedentary in my village for a year in a half. I try to walk to the post office each day in my village, because it is about an hour of physical exertion each day, but it is nothing like climbing a mountain. And, Table Mountain is certainly not Mt. Everest, but it IS a mountain and for an overnight trip, of course we had backpacks. I made it, and am still alive to tell of it, and miraculously, not very sore!

The People’s Trail is an educational hike tailored for school groups and especially for children who come from disadvantaged communities. I got along very well with our group and was grateful to be included. Whenever I’m out and about with these kinds of adventures, I’m sure to meet a local character or legend, and I’ve already met mine here in Mark Hawthorne, our hike guide. He’s been working in the park for over 30 years and knows just about everything about, well, just about everything in Table Mountain National Park. And he loves to talk about anything and everything related to the park. I was pretty eager to ask questions but the kids in the group quickly grew bored with my endless questions and Mark’s willingness and ability to address each question at length. When I began to get the “dagger stares,” I quit asking. But I’d love to have some one-on-one time with Mark.

As with any new group I’m introduced to, many are “star struck” with the American, and it was the same with this group. I’m afraid the biggest impression I made was my willingness and ability to eat a raw green pepper, whole—in the same way you’d eat an apple. Crunch, munch, munch. Granted, this skill raises eyebrows even in America—and I don’t understand the fuss: we all eat raw green pepper in salads, as raw pepper rings, and in slices. What’s the big deal about eating a raw pepper whole? It’s lightweight, has little waste, needs no refrigeration, and remains fresh for a long time. In my opinion, a raw green pepper is the perfect hiking food! In any case, it was a huge curiosity that the American was eating a raw green pepper in this fashion, and all were asking if all Americans ate food in this way—sorry guys!

The other curiosity was that I went to bed early. If my work schedule allows it, I tend to follow the patterns of the sun, in that I sleep when it goes down and I rise when it comes up. In South Africa, it means I retire about 8:00 pm and rise about 5:00. (In truth, I probably read until 10:00 or so.) In this case, however, we hiked UP the mountain all day and the fire for the braii wasn’t started until 8:00 pm (in other words, the fire for dinner wasn’t started until MY BED TIME) so I knew these people wouldn’t be eating until 10:00 pm or so. And did I say we had been climbing a mountain all day?? I was TIRED. So I went to bed at sundown, which everyone thought was strange.

The other thing I learned and was quite surprised by, was the fact that I had seen more of South Africa than many of the people I met in Cape Town. Not only that, but I was surprised that the people didn’t know of the major town near where I live and no one has recognized the language I’ve learned (Setswana). It feels strange that this part of my African life is unfamiliar to citizens of South Africa. (Although I can say something similar about living in the US: I know little about Californians since I live so far away.)

The kids were great and I enjoyed being with them. I was more than a bit nervous at some portions of the hike that felt somewhat dangerous to me: we all, and the kids, were especially high and especially close to the drop of the cliff of the mountain when we were looking out over Lion’s Head and Robben Island.

Once on top of the mountain, we visited and learned about the original water reservoirs built for the city of Cape Town. The reservoirs still serve Cape Town, but only provide 1% of the city’s water. (Much larger reservoirs were built in the surrounding mountains that provide Cape Town with fresh water today.) It was a wonderful, wonderful introduction to the park for me and I was so grateful for Mark and the group for inviting me along.

The fynbos vegetation is truly amazing and I’m a lucky girl to see it!


This is what I wanted to do the whole two days.

tunnel for original pipeline to carry water to Cape Town

one of the five original resevoirs up in the mountains; False Bay in the background 

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