Table Mountain offers buffet of the human condition
Travelers from many nations, backgrounds visit Cape Town’s iconic landmark: “Life is not a rehearsal”
Most of the global community knows Africa’s southernmost metropolitan area by the immediately recognizable, iconic image of Table Mountain, towering some 3,500 feet above downtown Cape Town.
From the lower terminus, visitors reach the summit in a scenic aerial cableway ride, reaching what locals call the “pepper pot” upper station that protrudes from the westernmost edge of the “table” in about four minutes.
In October, the Table Mountain Cableway won the coveted title of World's Leading Cable Car Ride in the 2021 World Travel Awards.
It was a warm, summer afternoon Feb. 5 when I joined throngs of adventurers on this magical journey to the top. The gentle breeze had cleared most of the city smog, affording panoramic vistas of about 30 miles towards the Hottentots Holland mountains on the northeast side of the Cape Flats basin.
During my three-hour exploration, I encountered a cross-section of visitors from near and far, each with a fascinating story to tell. Together, they painted a marvelous tapestry of the human condition.
The lower terminus consists of a broad plaza with the usual vendor stalls selling souvenirs, a ticket booth and, of course, the Uber pick-up/drop-off point.
I was snapping some quick pictures when I was greeted by perhaps the most friendly parking attendant I have ever encountered.
Yaya Abrahams, bedecked in his Table Mountain uniform, had seen me shooting the scene and offered to take a shot of me with my camera (later, I realized he’d probably done this countless times before).
As I sometimes do, I hammed it up for the camera resulting in the image above. You have to squint to see me in the foreground – blue shirt and black shorts. Click the image to enlarge.
It was just a brief wait in a mercifully short line for the cable car to pull in to take us to the top of the mountain.
Four minutes later, we arrived.
A short walk after exiting the terminus, one encounters an historical marker titled “Table Mountain – Place of many names.”
It’s first entry reads: “The indigenous inhabitants of the Cape, the Khoekhoe, called Table Mountain Hoerikwaggo meaning “mountain of the sea” or “Sea Mountain.”
A little further along on the plaque we discover that on World Environmental Day in 1988 then-President Nelson Mandela declared Table Mountain a “gift to the Earth.” Not an understatement!
The aerial cable way was officially opened to the public on Oct. 4, 1929. The first cable car had a tin roof and wooden sides and carried 20 passengers.
A major upgrade and redesign was completed in October 1997. The new revolving cars carry 65 passengers, who have included George Bernard Shaw, King George VI and the Queen Mother.
Soon after emerging on top of the “table” I encountered what has become a ubiquitous sight at virtually every tourist destination on Earth: someone risking life and limb to obtain a Selfie, oblivious to their present danger.
Sam Higginson and Joe Alvarez, both 27, were not in imminent danger, as you can tell from the image above, but many others I saw later were hanging precariously over a precipice thousands of vertical feet above ground to get their Selfies.
The couple is visiting friends in Cape Town from their home in London (they both have delightful cockney twangs, mild not broad). “Omicron is really bad at home,” Higginson said, “so we decided to come here, where it’s not so bad.”
For virtually everyone I encountered on the mountain, the fear of the highly transmissible COVID variant has diminished to the point of a minor inconvenience.
Officials were strict about enforcing mask rules, and signs proclaiming “No mask, no entrance” are everywhere. Compliance is extraordinary. In my neighborhood in Los Angeles, my guesstimate is it’s about 80% compliance with the statewide mask mandate; in South Africa it seems closer to 100%.
“We are not scared,” Higginson said.
You can tell from their picture … this handsome pair was obviously having a ball! So was I.
According to his IMDb profile “Lanky, charismatic and versatile actor with an amazing grin that put everyone at ease, James Coburn (1928 – 2002) studied acting at UCLA, and then moved to New York to study under noted acting coach Stella Adler. After being noticed in several stage productions, Coburn appeared in a handful of minor westerns before being cast as the knife-throwing, quick-shooting Britt in the mega-hit ‘The Magnificent Seven’ in 1960.”
While bearing a remarkable similarity to the world-famous movie star, the James Coburn I met atop Table Mountain was a unique character in his own right.
Seen at left in the image above with his traveling companion Noel Hanna, the 68-year-old Coburn is very much alive and joked about his “fame” with a remarkable Irish sense of humor.
“I’m famous, y’know,” he says to me with a broad grin by way of introduction, while I’m setting up to take the shot. Done shooting, I pull out the reporters’ notebook to get his name. “James Coburn,” he says.
I look closely at his face and did a double take. “You mean the famous movie star?” I asked, incredulous, not immediately remembering the real deal was long dead!
He laughed out loud as he explained with his mild Irish brogue. Perhaps three or four generations back, he shared an ancestor with the actor from their tiny hamlet Dromara in County Down. That would account for both the same name and physical resemblance.
He is such a genuine human being, I put aside my journalistic bullshit detector and laughed along with his tale.
Coburn actually did not take the cableway up Table Mountain. He showed me is two, red hiking sticks. “I hiked up,” he said, like it was a stroll in the park. And, for him, it was just that. “I’ve been up Mt. Kilimanjaro (in Tanzania) and Mt. Fuji (in Japan),” he says, not a bit boastful.
His companion, Noel Hanna, 55, is way too modest. He shared his web site address with me and when I asked what he does on the web he said, “Not much!”
Talk about an understatement: at Noel Hanna – Adventurer a surprise awaits: “A renowned adventurer of the highest order and a native of Northern Ireland, Noel has scaled summits and competed in sports adventures the world over.
“In February (2019) Noel accompanied the youngest person ever to climb to the summit of the highest volcano in North America – Pico De Orizabo, 5,636 meters in Mexico – 12 year old American Decatur Boland along with his father Daniel.
“On 16th May (2019) Noel accompanied Sarah Khumalo to the summit of Mt. Everest 8,848 meters – making her the 1st Black African female to reach the summit of the highest mountain on earth.”
“I used to live in Johannesburg,” was about all he revealed about himself to me. Was he worried about Omircon? (I feel a bit idiotic now about asking that of him!) “You have to live life to the fullest,” he said. “Life is not a rehearsal.”
Of all the folks I encountered atop the mountain, it seemed like the majority of visitors from abroad had arrived from the United Kingdom.
Since Omicron has largely abated in South Africa, this should come as no surprise.
According to the official UK government website for data and insights on coronavirus (COVID-19) the situation is improving rapidly but still serious. As of Feb. 5, daily new cases were 60,578 with the seven-day total at 599,229, a decline of 4.2% from the previous period. The daily reported deaths were 259, with 1,729 in the previous week, a decline of 5.4%.
Tracey Henshaw, her husband, Dean Henshaw and their companion Tony Dumighan, pictured above, were just a few hundred yards down the scenic walking path when we met.
Dumighan was with Northumbria Police in Newcastle upon Tyne in northern England. From 1985 to 1990 he served in the Royal Air Force as a Military Police Officer and police dog handler.
Dumighan was the spokesperson quoted in the Nov. 18, 2002 article in The Northern Echo Attack on blind pensioner 'cowardly' – police
“Police have condemned an attack on a blind pensioner as she was leaving church,” the article says.
“The 85-year-old woman was on her way home from St Cuthbert's Church, in Durham City, when the attack happened, at around 12.20 pm on Sunday…
“Detective Sergeant Tony Dumighan said the victim was aware of cars passing as she lay on the ground after the attack, and that other vehicles would have passed her on her way from church.”
He issued a public appeal for witnesses to the attack to come forward.
Dumighan, of course, did not mention a word of this when we met atop Table Mountain on Saturday. He did, however, share his age – 56 – and that he lives in Durham City.
The Henshaws, Tracey, 56 and Dean 54, are from Nottingham, almost in the dead center of England.
Of course, no article about Table Mountain would be complete without at least a cursory reference to the magnificent view.
The image above is the scene approximately northwest looking out over, in the foreground, Lions Head on the left and Signal Hill on the right.
With a bit of imagination, you can see in the shapes a slight resemblance to the Sugar Loaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
In the foreground on the extreme right is a tiny piece of the city center; between Lions Head and Signal Hill (peeking out from behind the hill) is a smidgen of Sea Point – a densely built-up strip of mostly high-rise beach-front apartments. After they retired, my parents lived their final years in Sea Point – first in one of a handful of houses on the beachfront, then in an eighth floor apartment with a spectacular view.
Vaguely discernible in the ocean near the horizon is the world famous Robben Island, notorious as the prison home of Nelson Mandela, who spent almost 20 years there as a captive of the Apartheid government.
He was not the only notable member of the African National Congress held on the fortress island, seven miles off the coast; several others released after Mandela was freed on Feb. 11, 1990, followed him on the long walk to freedom, some ending up in his Cabinet after elections in 1994.
It’s a rather sad commentary on the interconnected, social-media-dominated world we live in that many virtual residents of the digital realm require “proof” of reality via the ubiquitous Selfie.
More than a few netizens quite incorrectly suspend their belief until you insert yourself into an iconic scene to verify you were there.
Well, I chose a location for my Selfie, above, on quite a different basis. My camera is pointing due south towards Cape Point, with the Chapman’s Peak mountain range in the foreground. I’m not going to volunteer the reason for why I chose this spot for my Selfie, but if you look closely in the bottom right hand corner of the image, you’ll figure it out. Go figure!
While the sights and sounds travelers of all stripes encounter on their trips are commonplace, what makes each experience unique is the people one can meet along the way.
Travel stories abound about the views and attractions of a popular destination, but the best stories are those that introduce the reader to something unique: a snapshot of the people present at a given moment in time.
That is my goal. You’ve met a few who were atop Table Mountain on Saturday afternoon. Stay tuned for the next installment, coming soon.
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