Lower Cableway Station Audio Guide: In-Queue Entertainment
Hello, and welcome to the iconic Table Mountain.
This is an audio guide for days when there’s a long queue. If you’re at the Lower Cableway Station, waiting in the queue, you’re listening to this in the right place.
There’s another guide that starts at the Upper Station. It leads you on a tour around the top of Table Mountain, pointing out the best lookouts and explaining the views. It also introduces you to some of Cape Town’s favourite storytellers, along with the Cableway’s team. You’ll need to download both audio guides separately.
I’ll keep you company while you wait, with stories about Table Mountain, its special relationship with the city below, and the history of this cableway. Table Mountain means lots of different things to lots of different people. Ask anyone!
The people you just heard aren’t alone.
Capetonians develop their own, personal relationship with what we all call the mountain. The Mountain is how locals navigate, and you don’t have to spend long in Cape Town to hear somebody tell you that a restaurant is on “the mountain-side of the road,” or that to get somewhere, you only need to “keep the mountain on your left.”
Capetonians share the mountain’s moods too. On days when warm yellow sunshine reflects off of Table Mountain’s slopes, Capetonians are warm and outgoing too. On days when dark clouds roll in and the mountain disappears behind a blanket, people here disappear underneath blankets of their own.
A Special Place
The view isn’t bad here at the bottom station, is it? But if you’re impressed now, wait until you get to the top.
You’ll have a panoramic view of the city, two oceans, and the expanse of the Table Mountain National Park, which reaches all the way to Cape Point, about 60 kilometres from here. Cape Point is Africa’s southwestern tip, where nothing but sea stands between you and Antarctica.
Table Mountain is unique. Its vegetation is one place to start, but there’s also the story of its geology.
Take a close look at those steep slopes looming over you right now. They belong to one of the oldest mountains the world – a mountain six times older than the Himalayas.
Then there’s the vegetation I mentioned. We call it fynbos, an Afrikaans word that means fine bush. Like many Afrikaans words, this one makes a lot of sense: most fynbos has small, very fine leaves that help it to conserve water – leaves that reduce evaporation, making them perfectly suited to the long, hot, dry summers we have here.
Botanists refer this as the Cape Floral Kingdom. This kingdom’s species don’t travel very far: in fact, the Cape Floral Kingdom is both the smallest and richest floral kingdom in the world! There are more than 9,000 species in the region, and an incredible 69 percent of them don't grow anywhere else in the world. Right here, on Table Mountain, there are more species of plants than in the entire British Isles.
When you consider this geology and botany together, it’s no surprise that Table Mountain was recognised as one of the new 7 wonders of nature in 2011. The team here at the Cableway certainly weren’t surprised, but the award made them particularly proud all the same.
The End of the Queue
You’ll keep hearing from me while you’re waiting in the queue. But before I continue with our story, I need to do a bit of housekeeping.
When you get to the front of the queue, you should take out your headphones and close this tour by tapping on the X at the top right of your screen. If you don’t, you won’t hear the cablecar operator. They’ll tell you how to do your bit for the environment and safety on the mountain. I wouldn’t want to interrupt this breathtaking journey anyway.
When you do get to the top, you can start the Tabletop Tour. The starting point is just outside the exit of the Upper Station. If you haven’t downloaded the tour yet, you can do that using the free WiFi here in the queue, or you could visit the Upper Station Wi-Fi Lounge.
So, don’t forget: at the front of the queue, take out those headphones and close this tour. Thanks.
Table Mountain’s story is about more that geology or botany, and this peak that rises mysteriously from the sea has inspired its fair share of legends.
One of these legends gets told and retold more than any other. It’s about a grizzly old Dutch pirate named Van Hunks.
Van Hunks retired in Cape Town after making a name for himself on the high seas. He found his plunder at every port between Amsterdam and Canton without ever meeting his match. But his old age, Van Hunks mellowed.
If you look out from here to the sea, you’ll notice a sharp peak off to your right. It’s almost as tall as Table Mountain itself. Can you see it? That’s Devils Peak.
In the gentle days of his old age, Van Hunk would go up Devils Peak to smoke his pipe. He did this for years without interruption, and high up here, alone, he quietly contemplated the adventures of his youth.
Then, on a day like any other, Van Hunks found a stranger on Devils Peak, sitting on the warm rock Van Hunks liked to sit on himself, smoking a pipe of his own.
Van Hunks squinted angrily at this intruder. The intruder felt Van Hunk’s gaze, and when he looked up to find a tough old pirate staring at him, he offered Van Hunks a challenge. The intruder suggested a pipe-smoking contest with potent, rum-soaked tobacco, and Van Hunks took it up gladly. He’d show off this intruder quickly, he thought, and then get back to quiet contemplation.
The two men lit up. Minutes became hours, then hours became days. Eventually there was so much smoke that a thick cloud began to billow over the mountain. After two days and two nights, the enigmatic stranger eventually gave up, gasping for breath. He admitted defeat and stood, but just before he left, he revealed a red tail. This stranger – this intruder! – was in fact the devil.
To this day, when the clouds stream off of Devils Peak and envelop Table Mountain in its famous tablecloth, people say that Van Hunks and the Devil are at it again. This is also how Devils Peak is said to have got its name.
Gaining Access to the Top of Table Mountain
If Jan van Hunks was real, he must have done a fair bit of climbing, because getting to the top of Table Mountain wasn’t always as comfortable as it is today.
Several attempts to make the summit more accessible failed. In the 1870s, there were plans for a rack railway to take visitors to the top. Rack railways have lines with teeth that lock into wheels that look like the cogs in an engine. This is how they can tackle steep slopes. But in 1899, the Anglo Boer War started, and plans for the rack railway were scrapped.
After the war, another proposal landed on the City Council’s desk. This time the goal was a funicular railway that would start in the suburb of Oranjezicht below you. The City Council approved £100,000 to fund it, and in a referendum the majority of Cape Town citizens voted for it. But again a war stood in the way – this time it was the First World War.
Finally, in the early 1920s, a Norwegian engineer persuaded three wealthy industrialists to invest in the cableway as we know it today. It opened triumphantly on 4 October 1929. Sadly, this was just in time for the depression of the early 1930s and then the Second World War, which both dampened tourism efforts.
It took 27 years for a total of one million passengers to make the trip up to the top of Table Mountain. The next million took 11 years. Today, a million visitors are recorded every 14 months.
If you look around, you’ll see a wooden cable car. It’s right beside the queue. Spotted it yet?
That is a replica of the very first car. It took the Royal Family to the top of Table Mountain!
Interview: Louis de Waal
There have been three upgrades since that first wooden car. The most recent was in the late nineties.
Louis de Waal knows more than anybody about how the cableway has changed. He’s retired now, but he worked for the Cableway company for 40 years.
Here’s Louis on the cableway you see today:
Engineers decided to duplicate a Swiss cableway that could handle 65 visitors per trip in comfort after viewing many systems in Europe.
On 4 October 1997, this new cableway opened at a cost of R103 million. The new cable cars are each fitted with a 3000 litre water tank, positioned just below the rotating floor. These tanks are used to transport fresh water to the top station as well as to serve as a ballast on days when the wind is strong.
Every evening, while the cableway is closed for visitors, a team of staff pump every litre of waste water used during the day into a separate 3000 litre container called the submarine which is then attached to the bottom of the cable car and transported to the lower station. The waste water is then deposited into the city waste water system.
You might have heard about the summer wildfires that sometimes ravage the Cape.
Firefighters battle these blazes with hoses on the ground. The sky is dotted with water-bombing helicopters, and the sound of chopper blades is audible throughout the city, sometimes right through the night.
As scary as this all sounds, experts insist that the mountain’s vegetation must burn. Their reason comes down to one thing: geology.
Because Table Mountain is made of ancient sandstone, years and years of erosion have removed most of the nutrients from the soil. Burnt vegetation puts these nutrient back, and without fires, you wouldn’t see all of this flourishing plant life. In fact, fynbos has actually evolved to rely on fire to reproduce.
One great example of this is the restio, a type of fynbos that is the grandparent of most grass. Restios’ seeds only germinate in the sweltering heat of a fire.
Experts say that in order for the plant life here to regenerate, there needs to be a big fire every 10 to 14 years. If there hasn’t been one in a while, the team at South African National Parks team will actually start a controlled fire.
Please don’t think of this as an excuse to go around starting fires. They are devastating, and regularly kill thousands of animals. Homes are destroyed too. This is why smoking is strictly prohibited anywhere on the mountain, except in a specially designated area, the Twelve Apostles Terrace, below the Table Mountain Café.
You’ll hear more about the fascinating Cape Floral Kingdom on the Tabletop Tour, at the top of the mountain.
How the Cableway works
You’ve heard all about how the Cableway came to be, but let me tell you a bit about how it actually works.
Did you know it has transported over 25-million visitors to the top of the mountain? Or that 800 people can enjoy the trip every hour?
Once you’re inside a cablecar, you’ll also notice that they rotate through a full 360 degrees, so you can enjoy the breathtaking views on the way up from every angle.
In the technical language of cablecar engineers, the system used here is called a jig back system. The means that the two cable cars you see going up and down are actually interconnected, with one functioning as a counterweight for the other.
The steel cables you can see work like train tracks – so much like so that they’re actually called track ropes. Each rope is over a kilometre long and weighs a whopping 18 tons.
Here, at the lower station, the track ropes are connected to 136 ton counterweights that move up and down as the car travels. At the top station, the track ropes are only attached to bollards, to keep them secure. Bollards are the same thing you tie a boat to in a harbour.
If you’re wondering why there are two track ropes instead of one, you’ll find your answer in Cape Town’s famous wind. The second track rope makes the cars more stable. The cable cars are round for the same reason: rectangular cars are less aerodynamic.
The cars can carry a load of 5200kg each. There’s also a 3000 litre water tank in the floor. On windy days, this can be used as ballast, to stabilise the car, but it also allows the Table Mountain Cableway to bring much needed water up to the top station.
The Cape Town Big 7
Let’s go beyond Table Mountain for a couple of minutes, to talk about some of the other things you can do in Cape Town.
The Table Mountain Cableway is one member of the Cape Town Big 7, a collective that helps visitors make the most of the city’s essential attractions.
Cape Point is one of these attractions. It’s a World Heritage Site and after you’ve climbed the last steps up to its final viewpoint, to stare out at the open sea, you’ll understand why.
VoiceMap also has free audio tours at Cape Point. They’re filled with insight and insider’s stories, to make sure you understand what you see, when you see it.
For wining and dining, visit two other members of the Big 7: Groot Constantia and the V&A Waterfront.
Did you know that Groot Constantia is South Africa’s oldest wine estate? It’s been making wine for 330 years, and its customers include kings and queens. Napoleon was a regular customer too, drinking his way through 30 bottles of Groot Constantia wine every month.
There are free VoiceMap audio tours there too. They take you through its cellar, its vineyards, and a history that is at the root of South African winemaking.
You’ve probably heard of the V&A Waterfront. It’s famous for its restaurants, nightlife and shopping. But you might not know that a colony of Cape fur seals regard the popular tourist site as their home. It’s amazing to see them frolicking and posing for photos in such a busy hub.
To better understand South Africa’s troubled past and the hardships that Nelson Mandela endured, make the pilgrimage to Robben Island. It’s only a ferry ride away.
Robben Island and Table Mountain are the only two World Heritage Sites that are visible from each other.
Then there’s the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. It’s called “the most beautiful garden in Africa”, and I don’t think is an exaggeration. You can spend hours losing yourself in its dazzling plant life and still not realise the true scale of Kirstenbosch, which covers a full 36 hectares on the slopes of Table Mountain. There’s a VoiceMap tour there too, by botanist Jeanette Clarke, who you’ll also hear from on the Tabletop Tour. Jeanette calls Kirstenbosch her church, and she’s visited the gardens almost every week for decades.
Were you keeping count? I’ve mentioned Cape Point, Groot Constantia, the Waterfront, Robben Island, and Kirstenbosch. If you add Table Mountain, you get six, not seven. That’s because the Big 7 used to be the Big 6. I’ll tell you about the seventh member, the City Walk, in a few minutes.
The Khoisan God, Rastas, Ley Lines
Table Mountain is more than a popular tourist attraction. It plays an important part in the religion of the Cape’s original inhabitants, the Khoisan, who believe their god lives here.
Local churches hold regular prayer meetings on its slopes too, and the Rastafarian community has an especially close bond with the mountain. A number of Rastas actually live on it. They weave clothes from the fibres of its plants and eat the berries and roots that grow here, seeking a life that is in perfect harmony with nature.
Over the years, the mountain has brought together people of many different religions. They all find tranquillity here – a tranquillity that spiritual healers think they can explain.
Apparently two major ley-lines intersect at this exact point, right where you’re standing. These ley-lines are described as energetic currents that flow beneath the earth. You could compare them to the ‘chakras’ yoga instructors talk about.
People who believe in ley-lines say that this is one of the planet’s 12 main energy centres. If they’re right, it might help to explain why so many people never want to leave. And there are definitely some Capetonians who agree. This is the mountain, dude, and we’re all constantly resonating with its energy.
The End of the Queue
A quick reminder: if you’re getting close to the end of the queue, don’t forget to close this tour and take out your headphones. You can start the Tabletop Tour when you exit at the top station.
Table Mountain’s Feng Shui
Table Mountain has a few neighbours. If you’re standing with the cableway station on you left, Lion’s Head is the peak straight ahead, with a neat ring of granite just below its top. Signal Hill is the lion’s back, bending down to the right. Then there’s Devil’s Peak, which I’ve pointed out already.
You’ll get a better look at them from the top, but while you wait, let me tell you how these all contribute to Cape Town’s Feng Shui.
In this Chinese philosophical system, four celestial animals need to be present in a perfect structure: in the north, the Black Tortoise; in the east, the Green Dragon; in the west, the White Tiger; in the west , the Red Bird.
But here in the Southern Hemisphere, these four coordinates need to be turned around. This would make Table Mountain the Black Tortoise. Devil’s Peak would be the White Tiger, and Lion’s Head and Signal Hill would be the Green Dragon.
In Feng Shui, these three animals should be placed at the back of a space, where they offer protection. In front, there should be water, to prevent good energy from leaking.
Feng Shui practitioners consider Cape Town’s location extremely auspicious. Have a good look at the mountain range around you while you wait. Do you see what they’re getting at?
The City Walk
You’ve heard about six of attractions that make up the Big Seven. The last is the City Walk, which was only added recently.
Look down into the city. Can you should see a rectangular area filled with green trees? It’s right in front of the tallest buildings.
That’s the Company’s Garden, and it’s where the City Walk starts. From there, it winds through pedestrianised sections of the city’s throbbing, historic heart. You’ll find public art, galleries, restaurants, and every kind of shop. You’ll also find people of every colour and class getting on with the business of being Capetonian.
There are signs en route to help you find your way, but if you’d prefer to join a walking tour, groups leave from the Taj Hotel every day.
The City Walk really comes into its own on the third Saturday of every month, on City Walk Saturday. Locals are invited to take over this public space, and you’ll find giant board games, chalk painting, food stalls, jumping castles, street dancing, mime, and the buzz of a people enjoying their city.
There is a Xhosa myth about Table Mountain that has been passed down through countless generations. It tells the tale of the god Qamatha, who wanted to create dry land, and the sea dragon Nkanyamba, who tried to stop him.
Qamatha and Nkanyamba fought repeatedly until Qamatha’s mother intervened. She was the powerful goddess Jobela, and to aid her son, she created four giants. The giants battled the sea dragon and with their help Qamatha achieved victory. Dry land was created, and the four giants were turned to stone so they could continue watching over the land.
The southernmost giant is watching over you right now. Yes, that’s right, I’m talking about Table Mountain. The name of this giant is Umlindi Wemingizimu, which means ‘Watcher of the South’.
Have a Jol
While you’re in town, you should definitely have a good ‘jol’. Let me explain: ‘jol’ is South African slang for a party, and South Africans are big ‘jollers’.
Cape Town’s most lively party strip is the infamous Long Street. On a Friday or Saturday night, you’ll find crowds of both tourists and locals making their way up and down Long Street, going from one bar or nightclub to the other. You can check out the local live music scene, dance all night to hip hop, kwaito or the global Top 40, or just grab a beer and a pizza at a place with some atmosphere. You’ll find it all on Long Street.
Now, look towards Devils Peak. Follow its slope down, to the suburb below.
That’s Observatory. It’s popular with the city’s students because there are university residences nearby. You’ll find a more low-key, bohemian atmosphere in Obs, with great-value restaurants, pool bars, and pubs that have open-mic nights, as well as craft markets and live music. It’s worth going there during the day too if you’re interested in digging out a bargain at second-hand stores that sell books, records, clothes and antiques.
If second-hand bargains aren’t your thing, take a hike. I mean it. Cape Town has a dense network of hiking trails that criss-cross both the mountain slopes and the suburban greenbelts below.
Take a look at the face of Table Mountain, rising up above you. Can you see where it splits, off to your left?
Hikers and climbers divide Table Mountain into two parts: the Left Face and the Right Face. The split is called Platteklip Gorge, and there’s a two-hour hiking trail which zigzags up it, to the top of the mountain.
India Ravine is another nearby hiking trail. It’s named India Ravine because when you trace the route out on a map, you get a shape that looks just like the outline of India. Other hikes with interesting names around Cape Town include Skeleton Gorge, Deception Face, Mystery B, Porcupine Arete and the Twelve Apostles.
During the busy summer season, Table Mountain is lit up at night by five gigantic floodlights. And on special occasions, these floodlights shine different colours onto the mountain face. To give you one example, in the week after Nelson Mandela passed away, the mountain was illuminated with bright green lasers in the shape of the great man’s face. For that week, the whole city could see Tata Madiba smiling down at us.
Cape Town Weather
Visitors to Cape Town sometimes find the weather a bit confusing. Don’t worry: locals do too. We arrive at work dressed for summer, but go home shivering because of icy winds. We make the opposite mistake just as often, and leave the house in a winter coat, then find themselves sweating by midday.
The weather here can change in a heartbeat, and you’ll hear Capetonians talk about a four-season day. But it can be predictable to the trained observer.
For instance, on a good day when a moist southeasterly wind is blowing, you will usually start to see the classic tablecloth cloud forming on the flat surface of the mountain. This wind is also called the Cape-Doctor, referring to the fact that it blows away the city’s pollution and clears the air.
The southeaster usually accompanies good weather, but when it’s intersected by a sudden drop in pressure, it can cause heavy rain to fall. In winter, the Cape becomes chilly and wet, and on some rare occasions the tabletop is even dusted in snow. Whenever a cold front hits the mountain, clouds gather, sometimes obscuring our view of the mountain for days on end as the driving rain falls.
But even this has its uses: the water replenishes our dams, and breathes new life into the soil. By mid-winter, the Cape is usually green and lush, just in time for the spring flowers.
That’s all you’ll hear from me down here, at the bottom station. If you’re not at the front of the queue yet, hang in there. We appreciate your patience.
When you do get to the top, you can take the other free tour provided by the Cableway. It’ll lead you out past the crowds to Table Mountain’s most beautiful views.
We’d love to hear about your Cableway experience. There’s a survey form at tablemountain.net. You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tripadvisor.
Thanks for using VoiceMap. If you aren’t tuning in again up top, make sure you check out a few of our other tours. Until our next journey, goodbye.