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Who gave Table Mountain its name?

06 August 2012, 16:16

For those who don’t know, Table Mountain got its name for its uncanny resemblance to a table. And the man who first called it so was Antonio de Saldanha, Portuguese explorer. In 1503, he became the first white man to hike up Table Mountain and named it Taboa do Cabo – Table of the Cape.

The name was unknowingly confirmed in 1601 by the Dutch explorer, Joris van Spilbergen, when he named the bay at the foot of the mountain – and what he thought was a new discovery – Tafel Baay (Dutch for Table Bay) on account of the “high hill, flat and square like a table.” Thus the mountain became known as Tafelberg (Table Mountain) to the Dutch settlers of 1652 – the first Europeans to settle at the Cape.

I sometimes wonder if De Saldanha had other names in mind for Table Mountain – something more exotic or evocative. There he was, thousands of miles of uncharted seas behind him, an unknown continent before him, standing on the summit of an imposing mountain rising almost sheer from the ocean at the southern tip of darkest Africa and all he could compare it with was a piece of furniture!

To the indigenous people of the Cape, the Khoisan, Table Mountain was known as Hoerikwaggo, meaning ‘mountain in the sea’ – more inspiring than ‘Table of the Cape’. The fate of a prosaic name did not befall Table Mountain’s sister peaks, Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak.

It would take a grand name indeed to do Table Mountain justice. Who knows, we might revert to Hoerikwaggo one day. But at the end of the day, a name’s just a name and carries little significance – as a hike up one of Table Mountain’s many routes will remind you.

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