Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Living in the shadows of Cape Town's Table Mountain

By Errol Barnett, CNN
February 6, 2012 -- Updated 1657 GMT (0057 HKT)
CNN's Errol Barnett above the clouds at more than 1,000 meters atop Table Mountain, South Africa CNN's Errol Barnett above the clouds at more than 1,000 meters atop Table Mountain, South Africa
Table Mountain: wonder of nature
Table Mountain: wonder of nature
Table Mountain: wonder of nature
Table Mountain: wonder of nature
Table Mountain: wonder of nature
Table Mountain: wonder of nature
Table Mountain: wonder of nature
Table Mountain: wonder of nature
  • CNN's Errol Barnett visited the Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa
  • A descendant of Khoi, the first people to live near the mountain showed Barnett a sacred place
  • Barnett also met an environmentalist to learn about water protection in the region
  • The journey ended with a breathtaking view as Barnett reached the top of the mountain

Table Mountain, Cape Town (CNN) -- For hundreds of millions of years it has dominated the coastal skyline of southern Africa, imposing a dramatic and domineering backdrop to an idyllic location.

Table Mountain, recently voted one of the "New Seven Wonders of Nature" by a global audience, now joins the ranks of the Amazon rainforest of South America and other exotic sites throughout Asia. My task for 'Inside Africa' is to meet the most interesting people living in its shadow, connected to its spirit.

The first people to live near this majestic mountain were the Khoi, migrating here some 2,000 years ago. As I hike through its rugged terrain near a feature called Lion's Head, I approach an unassuming man standing amid the rich biodiversity of flora and fauna.

His name is Kerneels, a direct descendant of the Khoi, and he wants to show me a sacred place he visits regularly, but first he hands me something.

See also: A journey through South Africa's stunning wine region

"This is wild sage," he tells me as I raise it to my nose, "anytime we journey to the shrine, we bring this to burn. It releases all negative energy." I clutch it tightly as we make the 30-minute trek, off the hiking trail, up the steep terrain walking where few people venture. Kerneels stops along the way telling me every plant growing around us was used in some way by his ancestors.

He snaps in half a stiff aloe vera leaf revealing a green goo and begins to apply it to his hair - I do the same. Kerneels says among medicinal uses, aloe keeps hair shiny and wavy.

When we arrive at the shrine all I see are large rocks grouped together overlooking the coastline and South Atlantic Ocean - it was simply beautiful. In the center just an open space to sit; no pictures, no idols, no markings whatsoever. This is a place to be alone with one's thoughts.

As wind whistles through the rock formations Kerneels whispers to me, describing how hard it is to be one of the few remaining Khoi people here. Their philosophy was one of use only what you need, and respect all forms of life on the mountain.

A mantra almost lost with time as the modern world crept in, colonized the area, violently pushing out the Khoi. I sit silently allowing him to gather his next thought. He says my energy is positive, so we don't need to burn the sage.

He sends me off with a heartfelt wish that visitors to Cape Town respect the hallowed ground and remember the first people to call this place home. Adding that while his "people" may be broken they are not defeated.

In many ways Kerneels' request is being carried out by mother of two, Caron von Zeil. She's the founder of the "Reclaim Camissa" project. The Khoi first called Cape Town "Camissa" meaning "the place of sweet waters" because of its natural and clean streams stemming from the mountainside.

Flowers of the Cape

The Dutch colonized it because of the abundant fresh water between the mountain range and the coast. But as the city grew, the waterways were gradually closed off (to limit pollution) and now all of it gets dumped into the South Atlantic.

Blog: Discovering the real Zambia

I meet Caron at the foot of Table Mountain with her 10-year-old son. With a Master's degree in Environmental Planning and Landscape Architecture, Caron explains her research requires she map each and every stream, step by step, turn by turn.

Her son likes to join the adventure. We pull back branches, jump over puddles and discover pristine waterways rushing down the porous sandstone of the mountain and over the solid granite of the ground.

Beyond the challenges of local bureaucracy Caron feels a deep-rooted commitment to the project and her Capetonian neighbors

Later, Caron unlocks an old fence, walking me to a mysterious underground housing. Behind the four-foot-high Dutch style door is a pitch-black room. Inside, crystal clear water on its way to the ocean. Her calculations tell her there is enough fresh water in this system for all residents living in the immediate surroundings.

Caron explains that efforts to lobby officials to reopen these water sources are falling on deaf ears - but still she charges on. Beyond the challenges of local bureaucracy she feels a deep-rooted commitment to the project and her Capetonian neighbors.

Of course, the views atop Table Mountain are breathtaking, watching from 1,000 meters in the sky as white clouds roll over the cliff's edge, explaining why locals call this the "tablecloth."

This is also one of the most photographed places in the world, but I wonder how many people truly see the beauty. I purposely didn't want to write about the sights, the awe inspiring views this week because of that.

Instead I want people going to Cape Town to remember Kerneels and Caron; look closer, dig deeper and reflect on what the people of Table Mountain represent.

My journey of discovery 'Inside Africa' has taken me through Victoria Falls in Zambia and all around Cape Town, South Africa and now I'm setting my compass to West Africa and the sights of Senegal... stay tuned.

Part of complete coverage on
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
To save the rhinos, one charity is moving them out of South Africa, where poaching is at an all time high.
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1542 GMT (2342 HKT)
mediterranean monk seal
Many of Africa's animals are facing extinction. Is it too late for them? Our interactive looks at the many challenges to survival.
June 13, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
No one knows what causes "fairy circles" in Namibia's desert. A new study, however, may have solved the mystery.
August 11, 2014 -- Updated 0957 GMT (1757 HKT)
Known as the 'warm heart of Africa', Malawi has friendly locals, good weather, and a new-found safari industry (minus the crowds).
April 3, 2014 -- Updated 1054 GMT (1854 HKT)
A picture shows the Rwenzori mountain range on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo on March 8, 2014. At 5,109 metres (16,763 feet), Mount Stanley's jagged peak is the third highest mountain in Africa, topped only by Mount Kenya and Tanzania's iconic Kilimanjaro.
The 'African Alps' are melting, and it may be too late. Now may be your last chance to see the snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 0934 GMT (1734 HKT)
The Hadza are one of the oldest people on Earth. Today, they battle for land, and continued survival.
August 5, 2014 -- Updated 1438 GMT (2238 HKT)
One company thinks so. They're investing in insect farms in Ghana and Kenya. Could bugs build an industry and curb malnutrition?
January 29, 2014 -- Updated 1117 GMT (1917 HKT)
The ruined town of Great Zimbabwe is part of a kingdom that flourished almost 1,000 years ago, and a bridge to the past.
March 21, 2014 -- Updated 1020 GMT (1820 HKT)
Morocco is famous for its historic cities and rugged landscape. But it's becoming known as a surfer's paradise.
March 6, 2014 -- Updated 1027 GMT (1827 HKT)
A photographer took to an ultra-light aircraft to capture Botswana's savannah from above. The results are amazing.
June 3, 2014 -- Updated 0437 GMT (1237 HKT)
Vintage helicopters, ziplines, private flying safaris offer new, spectacular views of wildlife and rugged terrain.
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 1016 GMT (1816 HKT)
Makoko Floating School
A new wave of African architects are creating remarkable buildings in the continent, and beyond.
March 14, 2014 -- Updated 1415 GMT (2215 HKT)
A huge spiral in the Sahara had Google Earth users baffled by what it could be. So what exactly is it?
May 8, 2014 -- Updated 1050 GMT (1850 HKT)
Unhappy with Liberia's image on the Internet, a photographer decided to present his own view, using GIFs.
April 25, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
IBM asked Africans to photograph the continent's greatest innovations and challenges. The results are breathtaking.
Each week Inside Africa highlights the true diversity of the continent as seen through the mediums of art, music, travel and literature.