The Disa hunters: exploring the top of Table Mountain

Everyone has seen the iconic postcard-perfect view of Table Mountain with its flat top. But did you know that up on top it is not as flat as it seems and there is a whole world up there to discover? When I lived in Cape Town, I used to go hiking often with friends, and I have already explained why Table Mountain is so special here. Recently I was back for a holiday so once again we went up Table Mountain. There are numerous ways you can hike up; often we would go up Skeleton Gorge starting at Kirstenbosch or Cecilia forest. Skeleton Gorge is a lovely shady route in summer and has fun wooden ladders to climb and a few boulders to scramble over.  From there you can take the Smuts track to the highest point of Table Mountain, MacClear’s beacon, and then walk along the edge of the mountain with beautiful views until you reach the cable station. Then we would walk back through Echo valley and past the dams to come down at Constantia Nek (we always left one car there and took one to the start of the hike).

This time, as my friend had recently had bronchitis and her doctor recommended she didn’t do anything too strenuous, we decided to take the cable car up and then walk around on top of the mountain, exploring the numerous trails on top. It’s pretty easy to find your way, as at intersections you will find stone circles topped by a metal map that tells you where you are. It was a sunny day, but the table top was shrouded in mist. After a very hot walk a few days earlier in Jonkershoek, the cool mist was a blessing.

After you leave the cable station, there is a network of paths near the cable station which is frequented by tourists looking at the views and doing some short walks. Many people take a walk to the highest point, MacClear’s beacon, and back again. This walk gives you a feeling for how flat this part of the mountain really is. You feel as if you could be in a valley as you walk among the reeds, listening to the frogs, but meanwhile you are on the plateau that is the table top at around 1000m above sea level. From the cable station it is also only a short walk to the top of Platteklip gorge, a route that is the most direct way up and down near the cable station, but although the path is straightforward it is nonetheless very strenuous because it’s a long series of chunky rock steps from bottom to top, with an ascent of about 700m. It takes longer than you think, and on the way down we were frequently asked by tourists who were only about 30% of the way up how much longer it was going to be. If you walk up here, wear proper shoes (not flip flops), and take plenty of water and some snacks for energy!

Platteklip gorge

If you are walking from the cable station, after you walk down a rocky part of the path assisted by chains, near the top of Platteklip gorge you will find one of the round maps and a path turning off to the right that leads down to Echo valley. The route includes three metal ladders. You can admire some spectacular fynbos on the way down: it is like a natural garden. On the day we were there, the misty clouds that form the tablecloth of Table mountain were rolling over the mountain, and everything looked beautifully mysterious.

Our main goal for the day was to find and photograph some disas (Disa uniflora), which are at their flowering peak in January and early February, although you can still see some up to March. These beautiful red orchids love to grow near streams and waterfalls, and to find them you can take a walk along Disa river and the aqueduct on Table Mountain. Note that Table mountain is a national park, and you cannot pick the flowers, so take only photos and leave only footprints, as they say! Disa uniflora occurs in very limited places, growing only on the sandstone mountains of the south-western Cape, most commonly on Table mountain, and they are dependent on the mountain pride butterfly (also known as the Table mountain beauty butterfly) for their pollination.

Table mountain beauty butterfly

We walked through Echo valley and eventually came to Disa stream (which we also call Disa river, since in South Africa we tend to call everything a river, colloquially, probably because the difference between rivers and streams is just how much rain there was!). Disa river has the Back Table as its catchment area, and flows across the mountain down to Hout bay. You will notice its water is the colour of rooibos tea – this is because of tannins that have leached out of the fynbos.

Any running water on the mountain is safe to drink, and I have drunk from the streams all over in the Table mountain range and the winelands mountains without any problems. Mountain water tastes delicious! However, in summer, Disa river is just a gentle trickle, with intermittent pools. You will see lots of frogs enjoying a swim and in the late afternoon you may hear a frog’s chorus.

From tadpole to frog

As soon as we came to Disa river, we spotted red disas all along the edge of the stream. What a beautiful splash of colour! During the day we came across a couple of other hikers also admiring them and taking photos.

As well as the red disa, Disa uniflora, there are also other disa species. One of the most beautiful is the blue disa (Disa graminifolia), which can also be seen on Table mountain, a bit further away from the water, but where the ground is still moist. I’ve often seen them on the top of Table mountain, frequently near Restios (a type of reed), in places where the ground gets a good soaking when it rains.

Along the trail following the river, there were some enchanting nooks and crannies. Eventually we chose a large flat rock as our lunch spot, with a view down Disa river towards the distant dams.

The path from Echo valley to the Smuts trail takes you along part of the aqueduct wall, and here the red disas were the best of all. I’ve never seen so many as this year.

Once you are on the Smuts trail, it leads to the top of Skeleton gorge. Along the way we saw some patches of beautiful king proteas. It’s amazing that these huge, perfectly formed flowers grow wild. There were lots of long-tailed sugar birds around – they feed on the flowers. We didn’t see any sunbirds this time though.

At the end of the Smuts trail, near the top of Skeleton gorge, we turned right instead and headed to the dams. There are five dams on the Back Table:  Hely-Hutchinson, Woodhead, De Villiers, Alexandria and Victoria. From the direction of skeleton gorge you arrive at Hely-Hutchinson first. Near where Disa river meets the dam, there were also apparently lots of disas a few weeks earlier, but we did not see many there now. We headed past the dams in the direction of the various mountain huts on top, until we reached the trail labelled “Valley of the Red Gods”.

The Valley of the Red Gods trail has a lot of up and down, so be prepared that it’s not as flat as some other sections on top. You have to cross a series of ridges before you end up back at the three ladders that lead you up to the top of Table mountain. As we climbed back up, the mist started to roll in again, covering the trails behind us.

Once back on top, we headed to Platteklip gorge to walk back down to the cars. The path down takes about an hour since there are very many steps. It’s longer than it looks, but you can admire the views over Cape Town city centre on the way down. Once at the bottom, you can admire the view back up at Table mountain.

This is just one route on top of Table mountain, and there are many others to explore! There is something to see at all times of the year, but if you’re around from January to March it’s definitely worth going to hunt for some disas.

 

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