Although I’ve climbed Table Mountain more times than I can remember, I’ve never hiked up Skeleton Gorge.
Before you gasp in shock and horror, I have walked down Skeleton countless times. From my first days in Cape Town, I got it into my head that the right way to do things (contrary to popular practice) is to go up Nursery and down Skeleton, because then you can use your arms to take the weight off your wobbly legs on the ladders and scrambly bits. And I’ve never, not even once, tried doing it the other way. Until yesterday, that is.
Our second hike was actually supposed to be rather more exciting: a clamber up Blinkwater Ravine with a look-in at the Valken Labyrinth. But, since we are trying to avoid situations where the likelihood of death goes from merely possible to quite probable, rain and high winds forced us to bank that one for a safer day.
So, good old Skeleton and Nursery – two of the most well-trudged routes up Table Mountain – became our back-up plan. Although I’d done this hike (my usual way) just a couple of weeks before, it surprised me to find how different a familiar route becomes when you walk it in the opposite direction. So, fellow stubbornly-set-in-your-ways hikists, this could be something worth trying: Take that boring old hike you always do and turn it the other way around.
Skeleton Gorge hike details
Elevation gain: 655m
Starting elevation: 183m
Max elevation: 788m
10 tips if you want to hike Skeleton Gorge and Nursery Ravine
- This hike starts and ends in Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. Follow the signs inside the gardens to Skeleton Gorge. (Don’t forget to bring your Kirstenbosch entrance fee. It’s R55 a person these days or R25 for students.)
- Always bring a warm top or windbreaker, even if it’s a warm day. While it’s very sheltered in Kirstenbosch and the lower sections of the hike, the top of the mountain frequently has its own weather, which can include freezing mists and chilly winds. And (I’m going to say this every time): Water, hat, sunblock.
- Don’t wear flip-flops or other silly shoes. The number of people I’ve met slipping around the rocks in utterly inadequate footwear on Skeleton and Nursery is astounding. If you’re going to Kirstenbosch for a picnic on the lawns, sandals are fine. But, just because this hike starts in a civilised place doesn’t mean you’re not climbing up a real mountain.
- Don’t bring people who are scared of heights. While the ladders might seem laughable to climby people, they could be hell for acrophobes.
- Pack a little picnic or a flask of tea to enjoy at the beach at the top. The strange mountain-top beach is an inadvertently man-made phenomenon, caused by the wind and water weathering the sandstone due to the dams.
- If the weather is good, allow yourself at least an extra hour to play around and relax at the top of the mountain. It’s so purdy up there…
- Once you’re at the top, you can reach Nursery Ravine via two different routes: either go around the front of Castle Rock, enjoying the spectacular views and sandstone rock formations, or around the back of it to explore the Woodhead and Hely-Hutchinson dams.
- If you’ve got dodgy knees, this hike will tax them, as both the ascent and descent are unremittingly steep. Wobbly legs by the end of the descent are inevitable for all but the fittest hikists.
- Make sure you check out the impressive king proteas (Protea cyanoroides) just before you reach the tree line on Nursery Ravine, especially in late summer/autumn when they are flowering. This is the protea with the largest flowers, and is South Africa’s national flower. (To answer Virginia’s question: there are 360 species in the Proteaceae family in southern Africa, 330 of which are found in the Cape Floral Kingdom.)
- Have a beer at Moyo afterwards. Or, if Moyo is being unaccountably silly and making people wait half an hour outside even though there are obviously more than 30 free tables, go to Forries and have a beer there instead.
Photographs from the Skeleton Gorge hike
Alison Westwood is the robber’s dog of the 52Hikists. Apparently some people know what this means. You can read her travel writing and see more of her photographs at alisonwestwood.com