Friday, August 5, 2011

Table Mountain

At the summit of Table Mountain, 3,563 precipitious feet above sea level, there is a small plaque affixed to a stone wall that carries the inscription “Great are the works of the Lord,” Psalm 111:2a (RSV). I daresay a suitable response might be “O God, thou knowest my foolishness,” Psalm 69:5a (KJV). True, from here you grasp the full splendor of the Western Cape—the rampart-like formation of the Tafelberg itself, as narrow as it is preposterously high, and the scale of Duiwels Kop (Devil’s Peak) adjacent; the puniness of Signal Hill, and the stunning spectacle of the Twelve Apostles, which Jan van Riebeeck first named the Gevelbergen, invoking the supremely Dutch analogy of gables. This spectacular chain of mountains tumbles southwards to the Cape of Good Hope. However, Table Mountain is fearfully exposed, and long stretches of extremely low parapet beckon playful toddlers to opt for the fast way down. On the whole, for me it was not so much a Caspar David Friedrich moment as an Edvard Munch. Perhaps this is evidence of the strengthening grip of middle age. There is also the tafelkloot or “tablecloth.” This remarkable cloud from time to time forms over the length of Table Mountain and spills over the edge before dissipating, the product of moisture thrown upwards by a brisk southeaster. The French called it la perruque, the wig, which is better because it takes account of the billows, swirls, and curls. According to legend, the tablecloth was the product of a long pipe-smoking contest between the Devil and a Dutch pirate called Jan van Hunks. The cloud, it is said, serves to remind the Devil of Van Hunks’s victory—but innumerable later events suggest that it was the other way around.

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