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4 March 2015

Watch the Sun Set on Lion’s Head

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Just as every city has its own topography of hills and neighborhoods, every city has its own particular topography of culture and traditions that can be mapped just as effectively as the change in elevation. If one were to map such a topography of Cape Town, South Africa, there would be plenty of geo-cultural data points: on one end of the spectrum, Table Mountain, of course and on the other, District 6, unavoidably. But between the extremes of natural and man-made obstacles, there are points of intersection, points at which nature and culture meet to form a tradition like hiking up to watch the sunset on Lion’s Head and also see the moon rise.

The view from Lion's Head in Cape Town, South Africa

We first read about it in our guidebook, dubiously. The suggestion was to hike a mile or so up a small mountain that overlooks Cape Town and watch the sun set, which meant we would then rely on the light of the full moon (we had neglected to bring head lamps) to hike back down. After being bludgeoned by everyone with the dangers of Cape Town, hiking into the wilderness at dusk tripped a few alarms. But hell, we asked the woman who owned the hotel about it, and she knew of the tradition. It was, apparently, within walking distance.

The view from Lion's Head in Cape Town, South Africa

That settled it. We set out, climbing the hill to the pass. It was not what you’d call a trail. Or even a street. It was a highway, and it spiraled up the foothills of Table Mountain toward Kloof Nek and Camps Bay on the other side. The air was thick with exhaust and toxically still: an honest rarity here on the Cape coast. We kept walking up the road, to the neck, and then turned and walked on even further to the trailhead. Once we got there the scenery was more along the lines of what I’d imagined. The trail was initially wide, like off road vehicle-wide. The thought of climbing down here in evening light wasn’t too bad, but as we looped around the peak, the trail became more narrow.

The view from Lion's Head in Cape Town, South Africa

At every clearing in the brush, a more dramatic view revealed itself. The trail looped around enough that the scenery became familiar but changed in subtle ways as the altitude increased and the sun sank lower in the sky. New colors appeared across Cape Town: new blues in the city, new reds by the beaches. At the top we set up a modest meal of meat, bread, and cheese; we weren’t the only ones. There were people picnicking, drinking wine, and laughing everywhere. They faced to the West and pointed at all the colors radiating from the deep yellow of the sun over the ocean. They faced to the East and pointed at the rising moon, purely white over the iridescent blue of the city below. Between their horizons Table Mountain changed its complex patterns, almost animated in the light. The sun slipped below the horizon in a climax, and I could swear I heard someone gasp.

The view from Lion's Head in Cape Town, South Africa

As soon as the sun set, we set off on our descent, first by chains fastened to rock, then gravel trails, then the wide of the bottom segment. Down, back down in the darkness, we crossed the same streets as before, feeling that we knew them differently. We had seen these streets first by the light of day, and then we saw them transform in a flurry of life before glowing with their own energy. Behind us lay the faded sky, still a hint purple, but in front of that, crawling over the looming black mass, we could see the pinpricks of headlamps descending Lion’s Head.