Wednesday, March 8th, 2006
The dominant and signature feature of the city of Cape Town, South Africa is, without doubt, Table Mountain. This huge flat-topped mound of ancient stone looms high over the bright lights, office buildings and neighborhoods of Cape Town. A soaring wall of stratified rock behind Cape Town, it seems more like a massive primordial fortress created eons ago before the ice ages by a race of giants now long gone than any possible natural formation. London has Big Ben. Paris has the Eiffel Tower and L’Arc de Triomphe. San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge. Cape Town has Table Mountain. A day spent at the top of Table Mountain is well worth it. You can hike up and down if you have the legs for it or you can take a completely state-of-the-art cable car to the top. From the “Table Top” the vista is truly stunning. The panorama of the city and the harbour appear far below—a shimmering sea stretching to the horizon, Robben Island (university to today’s leaders of this amazing country), ships from many nations at anchor in Table Bay awaiting their turn to come in to discharge or load at the wharves of this busy port—all give the mountain-top gazer a sense of god-like outlook on the small world below. The wily rock dassie will be lurking in wait for you as you serenely cast your eyes from this top of the world.
But this exquisite view is not always possible. Sometimes it is lost to us small mortals. In fact, at times even the very mountain itself disappears from view. The Table Cloth is responsible for this Olympic conjuring trick. What is this “Table Cloth”? What does the arrival of this old rag portend?
Our Table Cloth is a layer of cloud that builds up on the southeastern side of Table Mountain, the side away from the city, created by moist sea breezes blowing in off the warm Indian Ocean. This layer builds and builds and finally pushes over the perimeter of our Mountain forming a snow-white cap to Taffel-Berg and then a fringe spilling over the edge tumbling down the shear face seemingly towards the city, like a slow-motion waterfall of wispy cotton. It gives every indication that this white miasma will absorb the city and make it disappear. But this does not happen. The clouds tumble over the side and evaporate like so much opaque mist burning in the white-gold sunlight baking against the hot rocks.
What does the Table Cloth mean? It means is that it is going “to blow like holy hooly!,” to quote one Miss Kimberly Helms. It is going to blow a stiff gale out of the southeast or what they call hereabouts a “South East Buster.” Gales; ships at anchor let go a second hook and let out more chain or try to get into the harbour. White caps will form in the short fetch of inner basins of the port. Ship maneuverings inside the breakwaters may be put on hold for a day or two lest a tanker or container ship get out of control even with the aid of powerful tugs. Our little ship will list in the gales right at our snug berth at the Victoria & Alfred Basin, dry dust blowing hard across her decks. And then in a day or so the winds will become breezes, even gentle ones. The Picton Castle will rest at her moorings, ships will arrive and sail again, and the sharp, flat edge of Table Mountain will once again become the skyline of Cape Town, South Africa. The African sun never left us as the blasting wind scoured this southern tip of the continent.