Things We Are Not Taller Than: Cape Town, South Africa

This post is part of a series. You can read about the origins of our travel tradition here.

Listed as one of the new 7 Natural World Wonders, the flat-topped Table Mountain dominates the view in Cape Town, it’s grey-brown bulk the perfect antidote to the sparkly cerulean waters opposite. But the question niggling my mind as we ascended in the bulbous red cable car focused less on its color and more on its shape. What does the top of such a mesa look like?

Like many tables, it was a bit of a mess. But a beautiful botanical mess—moss-humped boulders, straggles of yellow and green plants, manmade walking trails to pick your way along. There were birds circling the edges, and if you looked closely enough along the trails, small brown creatures that looked like a cross between a small bear and a guinea pig (known as dassies) hopped and skittered about.

I always assumed that such mountains were literally flat at the top, but it’s an optical illusion. The top looks like what it is: tons and tons of rock that have been squished together over centuries. When we visited the Kirkenbosch Botanical Gardens, we found an exhibition the mountain and learned that Table Mountain was once the lowest part of a small chain, sitting in the valley between what must have been two gargantuan peaks.

Visitors are welcome to hike, though the hike should only be undertaken by the experienced and well-provisioned, or take the cable car up. The options for coming down include rappelling, though we learned that the day before we’d visited, two people (a guide and a tourist) had died in an apparent accident while descending the mountain’s face. We took the cable car both ways up and down, which offered exceptional views as it rotated, and a spectacular surprise when we found out that the glass windows have a large gap in the panes—eep! But once the shock wore off, what replaced it was a true sense of wonder—at the height, at the view, and the very stone beneath us, so high and solid all at once.

Find more information about the Table Mountain cableway here and about the mountain itself here!