A natural wander: Discovers the delights of Cape Town's Disa Gorge trail

I thought I knew Table Mountain. After five years as a foreign correspondent in South Africa, I thought I had rambled and scrambled over pretty much all of this rocky wilderness half a mile in the sky above Cape Town. Then a friend said: "Ah, but you haven't been up Disa Gorge. You've missed the best bit."

This was a challenge, in more ways than one. Disa Gorge, named after a rare orchid that blooms there, lies in a protected reserve of Afromontane forest, and a maximum of 12 people a day are allowed to enter it. This accords it semi-mystical status among aficionados of the mountain. The good news is that the National Park has begun catering for them with guided hikes that include a night in the forest and an ascent of the gorge.

First, a confession. I love this mountain. Amid the noise and confusion of Cape Town, its rumpled table top is a haven of serenity and beauty. It is a kindly rock of ages six times older than the Himalayas, a place to wander and muse on nature's grand designs. Not far from the crowds at the cable car station lies a cornucopia of exotic flora with more species than all of the UK, among rocks weather-worn into a maze of surreal sculptures.

In 1588 a Portuguese explorer, Livio Sanuto, clambered to the top and was enchanted by what he found: "A great plain, pleasant in situation, which with the fragrant herbs, variety of flowers, and flourishing verdure of all things, seems a terrestrial paradise." The lions and leopards he also saw are long gone, but otherwise it doesn't seem to have changed much.

My guide, Andre, was a kindred spirit. Half an hour into our hike, he paused to admire a panorama of a horseshoe-shaped bay framed by the Hottentots-Holland mountains. "I love this place. You feel so free," he said. So did the gentleman we later spotted swimming alone in a small reservoir, who clearly saw no need for trunks.

We'd begun the two-day walk on Constantiaberg, a foothill of Table Mountain. Here the peaks around us were reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands, with a couple of notable differences. One is that there were no dark, menacing clouds above them. The other was that they preside over the Cape floral kingdom, which is one of the richest botanical areas, for its size, on the planet. Much of it comprises fynbos, low shrubby vegetation renowned for spectacular floral displays. Andre pointed out the crimson flutes of Watsonia, whose bulbs were a staple diet of the indigenous Khoi-san people, and the sweet-scented Imphepo plant, the leaves of which are still burned to expel evil spirits. Sour figs abound and are used to make jam, providing the baboons don't get to them first.

Our path began as a mosaic of flat stones, honed by women from the townships as part of a poverty-relief programme. But soon the trail grew wilder, and we reached a high pass to see sheer buttresses plunging to the sea at Hout Bay, an old fishing community guarded by a mountain that looks like a monstrous shark fin. This is the realm of black eagles and peregrine falcons, and in June the dark shapes of southern right whales can be seen gliding in the shallows below.

It is also a good place for lunch, in a shady spot by a dry river bed, with a musical accompaniment of rustling leaves and birdsong. The afternoon passed quickly. A stroll over a neighbouring hill lead to a patchwork of vineyards, and a path to our camp in the hallowed forest. This is the way tented camps ought to be a cluster of A-frame wooden huts on raised platforms, containing tents and comfy beds that are always dry, and hot showers open to a great, shaggy green cloak of Afromontane forest clinging to the flanks of Table Mountain. Throw in a fire pit for barbecues and a fridge for cold beers and chilled wine, and life at the end of the first day's trail was sorted.

This is a self-catering excursion, and provisions and sleeping bags are usually portered to the camp, but my wife and in-laws were joining us for the night and brought our things with them. Andre was appointed fire master, and was duly rewarded with boerewors (spicy sausage) and kudu steaks cooked over his wood fire by moonlight. A jackal buzzard drifted by on a rising wind, and sleep came easily.

We were camped in a remnant of woodland that clothed much of the Cape highlands until Dutch settlers arrived in the 17th century and chopped it down for ships and vineyards. What they left behind is like a rainforest without the incessant rain. Yellowwoods compete for sunlight in a dense profusion of Cape beech, alder and holly and saffron, whose reddish bark gives the reserve its name: Orange Kloof. The dawn chorus was an avian concerto by unseen denizens of the forest, Cape Batis and White-Eyes, with occasional solo trills by Cape Siskins.

The next day, as he lead us on an undulating path, Andre identified plants that were medicinal or murderous Pelargonium heals wounds, stops diarrhoea, and produces delicate scents, while the straight limbs of the assegai tree were used by natives to fashion spears and bows. In the half-light of the forest, it was easy to conjure fleeting images of a Khoi-san hunter, tracking his prey.

Emerging from the trees, we began the hike into Disa Gorge. The path rose steeply into a narrowing defile bounded by towering walls of rock, and through a natural botanical garden of astonishing diversity. There was a feeling of timeless beauty, ancient wisdoms, and a profound calmness of body and soul. A few steps on, we saw our first red disa. Known as the Pride of Table Mountain, it is an evergreen orchid that grows by streams and wet cliffs, and the locals get very excited when they see them. We were lucky. We saw not only two disas, but a black and gold butterfly in the act of propagating the species. In botanical terms, this was about as good as it gets.

The top of the gorge is sealed by an old stone dam, and Andre led us to a shallow cave overlooking the reservoir for a picnic lunch. This is where we learned, via his two-way radio, that the cable car was closed, due to high winds on the other side of the mountain.

So we abandoned plan A to hike to the cable station, and reverted to plan B, a descent on a broad track that offers a skydiver's perspective of the leafy suburbs of Cape Town. The views were magnificent, but it was the spiritual ethos of Disa Gorge that lingered in the memory. My friend was right. For years I'd missed the best bit.

Travel essentials: Cape Town

Getting there

* Cape Town is served by BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com), SAA (0871 722 1111; flysaa. com) and Virgin (0870 380 2007; virgin-atlantic.com) non-stop from Heathrow.

Getting around

* The Orange Kloof Trail is a two-day, 25km hike for a minimum of six and maximum of 12 people. Individuals may join other groups. The cost, including tented accommodation, is 420 Rand (28). It is part of a planned six-day, 100 km trail due to open in June next year. Bookings through Table Mountain National Park (00 27 21 465 8515; tablemountainpark.com).

More information

* Southafrica.net

newsGlobal index has ranked the quality of life for OAPs - but the UK didn't even make it into the top 10

Kirstie Allsopp has waded into the female fertility debate again

footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Gillian Anderson was paid less than her male co-star David Duchovny for three years while she was in the The X-Files until she protested and was given the same salary

Gillian Anderson lays into gender disparity in Hollywood

Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs

The Sistine Chapel is set to be illuminated with thousands of LEDs

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsA Welsh town has changed its name - and a prize if you can notice how
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
Ronaldinho signs the t-shirt of a pitch invader
footballProof they are getting bolder
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Service Charge Accountant

    30,000 to 35,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: We are currently recruiting on...

    Management Accountant

    28,000 to 32,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our client, a hospitality busi...

    Food and Beverage Cost Controller

    18,000 to 20,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our fantastic leisure client i...

    Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive

    £20 - 24k: Guru Careers: A Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive is needed t...

    Day In a Page

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?