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
* 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.
* 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).