Table Mountain Water Secrets

On a good day, when a moist and deep southeaster is blowing, they also get treated to a show of the “table cloth” of white layered cloud unfurling itself over Table Mountain and tumbling down towards the city bowl. Photo: EPA/JON HRUSA

CAPE TOWN - The iconic Table Mountain demands the attention of many who set foot in Cape Town. This natural wonder continues to awe even some who have lived in the Mother City for ages!

Coming into the city from the southern suburbs the rocky monolith just seems to grow larger and larger until it towers above you as you reach the City Bowl.

Those driving in from the Northern Suburbs and the West Coast are treated to a daily eye catching backdrop to the Cape Town CBD.

Whilst many visitors to Cape Town make a point to hike or take the cable car to the top of Table Mountain, few get to see the secrets it hides away from its flat summit. 

Under clear and cloud free skies, they get to see the “tableness” of the geologic wonder all the time.

On a good day, when a moist and deep southeaster is blowing, they also get treated to a show of the “table cloth” of white layered cloud unfurling itself over the mountain and tumbling down towards the city bowl.

Whilst many visitors to Cape Town make a point to hike or take the cable car to the top of Table Mountain, few get to see the secrets it hides away from its flat summit.

Most people, when looking at Table Mountain from the City Bowl, see the flat summit and think that’s all there is about the mountain.

However, behind this flat summit lies a larger but undulating area often referred to as the back table or lower plateau. It’s this back table that harbours the secrets I mentioned earlier.

And the secrets are water reservoirs. Yes there are dams on Table Mountain. Five of them.

Table Mountain has been a source of drinking water for eons, first to the Khoi people, and later to Europeans who started arriving in the Cape Town area some five or so centuries ago.

Cold fronts that hit the Western Cape during the winter season, together with the heavily condensed “table cloth” cloud bring this water to the mountain.

You see, early European settlers in the Cape Town area made use of streams and springs on the slopes of Table Mountain for their source of water.

But as more and more people arrived in the area, the streams and springs became inadequate especially during the dry summer months.

Some long gone reservoirs were built in the area where the present day Cape Town CBD lies. These quickly ceased to meet demand and eventually, between 1890 and 1907 those who ran the affairs of the city decided to dam some of the streams on the back table of Table Mountain.

Woodhead was the first reservoir, whose construction started in 1890 on a gorge of the Disa River. A year after its completion in 1898, a bigger reservoir, the Hely Hutchinson was constructed upstream of the same river. Construction of these two dams was not any easy task.

Labourers carried building materials up ravines around the Twelve Apostles area while a steam-driven cable car, with a base in the Camps Bay area, helped with heavier materials.

A small steam locomotive (which was carried, part by part, and reassembled on top of the mountain) also helped in moving construction materials and equipment. (You can see the remains of the steam-driven cable car crane and the locomotive at the Waterworks Museum next to the Hely Hutchinson dam wall.)

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