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Student news: Table Mountain: A physically challenging, naturally rewarding climb

Friday afternoon, the 30 UW-Madison engineering students in Cape Town, South Africa, stocked up on water bottles, laced up their hiking boots, and climbed a mountain.


The Ascent

As the afternoon reached its warmest at 2 p.m., the students—2008 LeaderShape participants—began hiking up Cape Town’s famous Table Mountain. At its highest, the mountain is 3,566 feet. However, the students didn’t hike quite that high.

The group used a trail that stems from the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, a 2-square-mile area of cultivated garden and wild forest preserve. In the morning, they roamed around Kirstenbosch and studied the plant life. Massive aloe plants (which look like small spiky palms) appeared periodically and more than one sunburned student wished to pluck a leaf (but didn’t) for the plant’s soothing juices. Actual palms also spread across the garden, as well as smelly fig trees and balloon milkweed, a tree that sprouts puffy air-bubble-like growths with spines.

Duncan Fraser

Duncan Fraser, UCT associate professor of chemical engineering, at the base of Table Mountain on Thursday's hike. Fraser's wife says he has his foot tied to the mountain, and he doesn't disagree. (large image)

When Duncan Fraser, an associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Cape Town, arrived, the students abandoned their leisurely garden tour for a brisk walk up the mountain trail. The entire hike would take six hours—the first few of which were on endless rock steps. The initial briskness ended as students’ calves started stinging, and the group made frequent stops to breathe and appreciate the surroundings, which included a deep gully called Skeleton Gorge.

The trip became more physically challenging when the students reached a steeply sloped section. Students clambered over rocks, under logs and around a stream.


The top

“No picture can really capture this,” one student commented when the group reached the top at around 4 p.m. The sunny afternoon provided an exciting view of Cape Town and far into the Atlantic Ocean.

Fraser ushered the students across the mountain mesa known for its indigenous fynbos (underbrush, pronounced fain-bose) plants. Abruptly, the rocky ground changed to white sand, and when students climbed a small hill, they found themselves staring at a beach and a lake!

In actuality, the lake was a reservoir that serves as a minor water source for the city, which meant no swimming was allowed. Fraser says the sand is left over from when Table Mountain was submerged under an ocean.

“This day has been just about perfect,” said Emily Andrews, a biomedical engineering student, as she surveyed the top of the mountain. When Fraser asked if the hike up was worth it, no one said no.

The group followed the shore of the reservoir to its dam, set above a deep ravine. Crossing it, the students trekked along until they reached the other side of the mountain and an outlook known in English as Castle Cliff. Again students took in an expansive view of the ocean, along with the other section of Cape Town, but strong winds on this side of the mountain buffeted them and dropped the temperature.

The Descent

When students finished taking pictures, the final, and for some, the most challenging part of the journey began: going down the mountain. Fraser warned that the trip down would take a couple of hours, and he was correct. Steep rock steps went down almost vertically in some areas, and students didn’t dare take their eyes away from the ground for long.

Mitchelle Lyle at a stream on the Table Mountain hike

Mitchelle Lyle at a stream on the Table Mountain hike (large image)

Some thought the trip down was more tedious because the group could see how far from the ground they were and how slowly they were progressing. Exhaustion and hunger also contributed to a sense of urgency to arrive safely at the bottom, but the route—also populated with giant beetles and prickly ankle-catching plants—was not intended to be quick.

However, one final vision awaited the students as they neared the bottom. The sun set over the ocean with the large part of the mountain beside it, and when students reached the park at the end of the trip, they sat and watched the last rays of light disappear over the water. Many laid down on the grass, happy to not move, and at the end of the day, they were well satisfied with a climb that one student called “the coolest thing I’ve done so far.”