India Venster Trail
The India Venster trail is the most direct route to the three main rock climbing “crags” on Table Mountain. It also seems to be on the "must do list" of many ordinary people who are physically ill prepared and poorly equipped for such an undertaking and who willingly or unwillingly fail to appreciate its inherent dangers.
The first two climbing crags can be seen from the lower Cable-way station and are the two obvious buttresses that are visible up and to the left. The main climbing area that is home to the quality routes is situated on the final 100m or so of rock cliffs that support the upper cable way station on the north-east side (“Africa Ledge”) overlooking the city and also the west side (“Fountain Ledge”) that graces one with the most spectacular views of the Atlantic seaboard and sunsets that get sucked into the ocean.
The trail gets is name from the shape of the ravine that is situated between the two large rock buttresses already mentioned - it is shaped like the Indian subcontinent. The “Venster” (window in the Afrikaans language) is attributed to a view point framed by rocks on the trail although it is no mean feat to actually identify it. Local die-hards will usually fight off old age by trudging up the India Venster route to get to the primary climbing ledge fondly known to locals as “The Ledge. This is the quickest and most efficient way of getting there but is by no means trivial for the un-initiated and inexperienced. Many seemingly competent and experienced individuals have been victims of gravity and have met with an unfortunate outcome (including paralysis and death). So it is wise to familiarize oneself with the route and preferably find a companion au fait with it.
Map of 1st ½ of trail
The hike starts about 50m to the right of the Cable-way ticket office where the bus parking ends and takes some formal steps to get going. The steps are often concealed by the buses parked there. The trail is well built here and finds its way to a very well constructed stepped section that is situated directly under the cables of the cable-way. This continues to the contour path for about 10 or 15 minutes.
On meeting the contour path there is a sign that designates the trail and also warns one of its dangers. From time to time the trail is marked by painted yellow foot-prints and blue dots. From here the trail starts up to the left but almost immediately veers right (west) and gradually ascends the gully on the west (right) side of the right side buttress (also known as Venster buttress) mentioned earlier. After 20 minutes or so one actually finds oneself almost directly on top of this buttress and although there is no shade there is often a cooling breeze here and this is a good time to take stock and enjoy the view.
The trail is partly visible as it ascends and contours to the left (east) below the rock amphitheatre and the cables of the cable-way to a point that almost reaches the sky-line visible higher and about 500m away way to the left (SE). The trail is well worn and if one should deviate from it, then it should be obvious to retrace one’s steps or merely look back and see where you digressed from it.
Map of 2nd ½ of trail
As one approaches the east/left side of this amphitheatre, the trail abruptly becomes steeper and one is faced with relatively easy scrambling that should not ever result in difficulty. Again the passing of many thousands of people has caused the trail to be well worn and if it is not obvious then turn back and look again. There is no diversion, here or anywhere, that does not result in the trail becoming tenuous. Continue up this section for about 50m in vertical height and find the trail that goes left and to the sky line. (Do not continue up onto the broken scree of rocks above that clearly goes nowhere.)
The dangerous part starts now.
There is a 15 to 20m Grade C (US 4th class) scramble that has claimed many victims but anyone that is practised with any level of scrambling and 3 point climbing should find it easy. (It was also engineered with staples and chains in May 2009 that renders the scramble more user friendly and much safer.)
If one chooses not to use the metal staples and chains then you will find that the scramble is well worn and some of the holds are rounded as a result; but the climbing is positive and the friction of the rock is good unless wet. It is not particularly steep and not very intimidating and this is, perhaps, why so many accidents occur here. As one reaches the skyline the scramble is back and behind one up to the right in a series of stepped right facing corners and chimney cracks. One then enters a deep shady gully with easier scrambling until one tops out onto the buttress above. At this stage the upper cable-way station is about 400m above and slightly to the right.
The trail now wanders easily up and to the right to the next buttress (keep an eye open for the yellow footprints) and one traverses to the left (SE) of this on level ground till the trail ascends steeply again up and to the right directly below the Cable car station and 100m from the top. This is “The Ledge” and any trained climber’s eye will recognize this as such.
On this side, facing NE – called Africa Ledge – there are two tiers with the upper tier boasting very steep and overhanging buttresses with grey and white rock. And the dominant features are rails, overhangs and dramatic arêtes.
The trail splits and takes one left about 150m to the “Lily pond” where there is perennial water; or, right and around the corner to "Fountain Ledge" that faces west and the Atlantic Seaboard and ocean. About 100m or so to the left and before the Lily pond is an overhang where one can cool off and compose oneself in the shade. This is colloquially known as the “Tea Cave” where much posturing, psyching up, procrastination and tea drinking occurs. This is the centre of this little climbing universe and should you find any old geezers drinking tea there, you are likely to be heartily welcomed (which means that you are going to be dissed and insulted.) If anyone is nice and kind to you, it probably means that they disapprove of you and you should move on.
Ignore their manners, get over yourself, drink their tea, eat their biscuits and give as good as you get. They will give you invaluable information of the conditions and the routes and, if nothing else, make your day memorable.
Water can be found about 50m beyond the cave at the “Lily Pond” so called because it is embraced by Arum lily plants. It is probably safe to drink and there are no reports of illness to date. (The weather in Cape Town can be very dry from December through to April and this results in the water becoming stagnant so it may be risky. And this is why climbers drink tea as the water is first boiled) The water is also shared by the local fauna – in particular the so-called Dassies (Hyrax or Rock rabbits). But Himalayan Thars are also sighted from time to time as has been a venomous cobra! (Ringhals).
This part of the trail peters out about 100m further on past some large overhangs and the yellow foot steps and blue dots are noticeable by their absence. To get to the top of the mountain one has to follow the trail back to where the trail splits to go round to the west – overlooking the splendid sickle shaped Camps Bay beach and the Atlantic ocean. The yellow footsteps re-appear at intervals. As one rounds the corner heading SSE there are impressive cliffs high up on the left supporting the Cable car station. One continues almost horizontally for about 300m round another corner where an old rusty fence blocks what appears to be the obvious way to go. The trail rises steeply behind and left and up for about 20m to a higher ledge system below some massive overhangs where abseilers and climbers are often noticeable. Again the trail continues horizontally to round another corner to the left and one is now heading away from the sea in a southerly direction. This part is invariably shady except late afternoon and can be very cold, misty and gloomy if the "South Easter" wind is blowing. From here the trail gradually ascends and one notices a square concrete building up to the right. Just before reaching it the trail splits. If one intends descending via the Platteklip route then head past the square concrete building to meet the end of the Platteklip trail at the head of the Platteklip Gorge where signs will also direct you to the upper Cable-way station which is about 10min walk. If one takes the left split in the trail one ends up on top of the "table" and at a fairly wide and built path. Turn left to attain the Cable-way and right to get to Platteklip.
The vertical height of the trail is around 700m
The average time for conditioned hikers with a light pack is around 2 1/2 hours up and about 90min down Platteklip.
Objective Dangers: This trail is extremely dangerous for a five main reasons.
1. Its start is seductive as it begins at the hub of activity at the lower cable way station up a very well engineered section below the cable of the cable-car. This is so despite any warnings. The difficulty starts much higher when the summit seems to be very close and one feels compelled to continue and very reluctant to turn back. The top that seems so near and lures one upwards at that point!
Ideally one should be accompanied with someone with recent experience of the route and that is also familiar with your level of competence and experience.
2. Capricious weather that can occur all year round is the second important reason . In summer it can get extremely hot even early in the morning as the trail is nestled in an Amphitheatre that is a heat trap and that is directly exposed to sun-shine till well in the afternoon. Ideally start at or soon after sunrise. This will result in one being in shade for about half the time and especially when one rounds the corner to the Fountain Ledge system. If the “South Easter” wind is forecast then it is likely to strengthen later in the day.
It is extremely unwise if not insane to attempt this route without ensuring inclement weather is not forecast and without extensively familiarizing oneself of its dangers.
Cape Town is one of those cities that can have 4 seasons in one day. The temperature on starting the route can be in the mid or even upper thirties degree Celsius. On approaching “The Ledge” one can be blown away by a gale force South Easter wind that can result in a temperature drop to as low as 4° C. Not only this, but one can be completely enveloped in thick cloud as one continues round to Fountain Ledge and heads for the top and visibility can drop to a few meters. This is extremely dangerous!
It is imperative to check the weather by logging onto the Table Mountain Cableway website: http://www.tablemountain.net/ and noting the conditions mentioned, viewing the webcam images and viewing http://www.weather.co.za/cape-town/ for the 2 day weather forecast. This will give one an idea of what is coming especially with respect to wind and rain.
3. Runaway fires plague the Cape Peninsula in the hot dry (tourist) season from January to May. There have been incidents of arsonists and negligent smokers starting fires that have resulted in deaths. If such a fire ignites up wind of you immediately escape down-hill as the fire will race up-wards at incredible speed due to the up-drafts that occur.
4. Water: There is plenty of water seeping from the mountain in Winter and it is usually cooler so water is less critical. But very hot days can still occur till late in July. One must not embark on this trail without at least 2 or even 3 litres of water per person and even more on a hot day. There is no guarantee one will not get lost and the “Lily pond” is fairly well disguised. Physical exhaustion, dehydration and heat exhaustion are common reasons for hikers being rescued.
5. Getting lost is a common occurrence on this trail - even in good weather. This can cause delays. It must be emphasized again that one should view the Cable-way website or call them to check the conditions prevailing or forecast for the top of the Mountain. The Cable-car can terminate operations at any time due to high wind on top of the Mountain even though it can be virtually windless at the lower station. The closure of the Cable-way is heralded by a siren that one will first hear about 30min before the final car leaves. If your intent is to walk to the top of the mountain and descend with the cable car then, depending on circumstance, the following actions are advised
If you hear the siren and you have not progressed well along Fountain Ledge, you will probably miss the final car down and then it is best to continue to Platteklip Gorge and hike down that way. One can also call the Cable-way office and inquire as to the time of the final car down. (+27214240015). The operator may be prepared to delay the final car down.
If you have not yet reached the scramble section then turn back.
If you are above the scramble you can continue to Platteklip Gorge or turn back depending on how difficult you found the scramble and if the visibility is deteriorating due to in-coming cloud and/or night fall. It will take the average hiker more than an hour to reach the Cable Car station from the top of the scramble. At this latitude the twilight period is relatively short.
If you are in a quandary or at all unsure, exhausted and dehydrated, bank your ego and call the SOS number and ask for advice. There are also care-taker staff permanently stationed at the upper station but it may be difficult for you to find them in high wind and poor visibility so call while you have cell phone reception.
Always take a cell-phone with a fully charged battery with you and store the Rescue services number in your contacts (+2786106417). The telephone number is noted at the warning sign at the contour path. Ideally take an MMS or E-mail enabled phone with a camera so that images taken of the landscape where you are stranded or lost and can be sent to the rescue personnel should you need to be rescued.
Be aware that there is no cell phone reception on top of the Mountain "table" away from the edge and there is no reception on the back table. Cell phone communication is invariably obtained if one has direct line of vision of the City or the Camps Bay beach but high winds can make the reception sketchy and then MMS, or text messages and E-mail may work better.
On the day you wish to do the route before leaving:
Ensure your cell phone is fully charged. Check the weather on the local weather website. Check the Cableway website and view the webcams. Call the Cableway office around 08h00 to inquire about conditions on top of the Mountain.
What to take:
If the forecast is for the maximum temperature to exceed 30° then take at least 3 litres water per person preferably partly frozen! No matter what the weather forecast, take a head torch, sun-hat, sun screen, a decent warm and wind and water proof jacket, a UV rated long sleeve shirt, especially if you have fair skin and a decent selection of snacks.
The vast majority of people that embark on the India Venster trail complete it successfully and have a wonderful "world class" experience. Being informed and prepared is the best way to guarantee this.