Lion’s Head Spiral Route

Lion’s Head

Spiral Route

Lion’s Head (Leeukop) Spiral Path 670 metres • Trig Beacon 51

...for a memorial hereafter we have made a heap of stones on a hill lying west-south-west from the road in the said bay, and call it by the name ‘King James His Mount’.

English Naval Officers, Humphrey Fitzherbert and Andrew Shillinge, issued a proclamation annexing Table Bay in the name of King James I.

The start of the Spiral Route up Lion’s Head. Remember to bring a tip for the car guard.

Lion’s Head

Lion’s Head, at 670 m, is not the highest of the many peaks that make up the Cape Peninsula mountain chain, but it is a mountain in its own right (a mountain is defined as ‘any peak that is over 305 m above the surrounding terrain’) and an important landmark as it is one of the three iconic peaks that frame the city of Cape Town. In addition, Lion’s Head stands head and shoulders above all its neighbours when one takes into consideration the number of people who climb it. It has been estimated that over 200 000 people a year reach its summit, making it the most-climbed peak in South Africa. Many Capetonians have walked up Lion’s Head at least once in their lives, whether during the day or for the popular full-moon pilgrimage, when (along with crowds of other people) one can enjoy a picnic while watching the sun set and the full moon rise before descending by torchlight.

What makes the walk up Lion’s Head so popular,we might ask? One answer is its convenience with regard to time: from the city, its slopes can be reached within ten minutes, and the summit can be reached within an hour of leaving the car park. Other important factors are that it offers breathtaking 360° views of Cape Town (one of the top ten tourist destinations in the world), has Table Mountain (one of the recently proclaimed seven natural wonders of the world) as its backdrop, and is situated in one of the smallest but richest floral kingdoms in the world.

This route should not really be described as just a ‘walk’, for it involves some interesting additional aspects: ladders, a chain traverse, an exposed summit-ridge scramble and the famous chain ladder that has just recently been upgraded to steel handles for safety reasons.There are other walking routes to the summit, but they involve serious scrambling with exposure and these routes have to use the normal summit ridge as well, shared with the standard Spiral Path route. There are numerous rock climbs to the summit but these should only be undertaken by experienced rock climbers or with a qualified guide. This Gateway guide will cover the standard ‘Spiral Path’ which, in its own right, is one of the most exciting walks in the Cape Peninsula.

Before we get into the description of the walk, there are layers of the geological story that need to be told to give you a fuller picture of this peak and to enrich your experience. The story of Lion’s Head is shared with the rest of the Peninsula mountain chain.


A geological marvel

Lion’s Head is one of the few places in the world where you can walk past three different rock units and view, down by the ocean shore, a fourth one that Charles Darwin visited in 1836, on his famous journey around the world in the HMS Beagle.

The different rock units that you encounter on the walk up Lion’s Head today are due to the changing geological environments which altered the nature of the rock type. The story starts about 560 million years ago with the extremely ancient Adamastor Ocean, in which silt was deposited (18km thick), that became the siltstones of the Malmesbury Group, the foundation for all the rock units that we see today on Lion’s Head. These dark grey siltstones can be viewed from Lion’s Head when you look down at the Sea Point promenade. This stone fractures easily: on close inspection, you can see unspoilt lamination from being deposited in a lifeless, oxygenless ocean.

About 540 million years ago, the Malmesbury Group was intruded by molten magma of the Cape Granite, which forced its way into the siltstones and cooled slowly to form a granite pluton (50 km in diameter) 10 km underground. The contact zone between the massive hot magma and the country rock (in Cape Town, the Malmesbury Group) was a focal point of Darwin’s stopover in 1836. These two different types of rock did not just sit side by side when the hot magma intruded. Folding occurred in the Malmesbury siltstone so once-horizontal beds were pushed up to become nearly vertical. The siltstone that was closest to the heat was metamorphosed, forming a tough baked rock called hornfels (‘fels’ meaning ‘rock’ in German), which is very dark grey in colour. The intrusion of granite marked the turning point in the history of Lion’s Head as, for the first time, instead of subsidence taking place, everything started to uplift.

There was a gap of about 20 million years before the sediments of the Table Mountain Group were laid down during the time of the supercontinent Gondwana. The base of the Table Mountain Group on Lion’s Head is a 60 m layer of mudstone and sandstone called the Graafwater Formation, sitting on the uplifted and eroded top of the Cape Granite. The maroon colour of the mudstone is proof that the original mud was exposed to the air, causing oxidisation. This layer was probably made in a quiet estuarine or tidal mud flat. Sand of the younger (400-500 million years) Peninsula Formation was probably deposited in river channels, as the grains     were large enough to settle in faster-flowing water. It must be remembered that it took millions of years and great pressure for these sediments to form cemented rock.

Walking through the Silver Tree forest at the end of the jeep track just after the paragliding launch site.

There were at least five more rock formations above Lion’s Head which have been eroded away. These formations must have applied great pressure in terms of sheer weight to form the hard Peninsula Formation sandstone we see today, which extends to the top of Lion’s Head. It consists of light grey sandstone with 98% quartz (silicon and oxygen – SiO2) with tiny amounts of iron, manganese and other elements.

This formation was deposited by rivers in a sinking basin to a thickness of at least 1200 m. Over time, most of the mountain has eroded away, leaving the bullet-hard sandstone which creates very steep terrain with vertical cliffs and overhangs.Along the Lion’s Rump and Signal Hill, which is made up of Malmesbury siltstone, this section has a rounded appearance as siltstone is a softer rock which erodes much more quickly. All these rock units are hundreds of millions of years old: if you are looking for fossils, you will be disappointed as there were only very primitive organisms lacking hard bodies at this time. If you are looking for something more interesting like trilobites and brachiopods, you will have to visit the Cederberg. The Cederberg Shale Formation, which once covered the present-day summit ofTable Mountain, has since been eroded away.

Walking along the western flank of Lion’s Head, you will find a good outcrop of the Graafwater Formation just above the path on your right. Below the path (bottom left of the photo) you will see an outcrop of Cape Granite, which underlies this formation.

Having fun in one of the many little caves found next to the path. These caves were formed through erosion by wind and rain in the softer rock of the Graafwater Formation.

The Botanical Society Conservatory, showcasing arid-adapted flora.

Relax with friends or family and enjoy a great picnic.

A panoramic view of the Garden showing the Main Pond (centre left) and the Cape Fold Mountains in the distance.

Stepping stones in the Dell

Scene from the Fynbos Garden

Colonel Bird’s bath is found in the Dell, the oldest part of the Garden.

From Gate 2, there is an impressive approach to the Garden, into which one is led through paved open spaces and stone steps forming an amphitheatre.

Some of the Flora & Fauna found in the Garden

King Protea Protea family

This is South Africa’s national flower. It is the largest Protea in the Protea family and is also known as the ‘king’ of the Cape Floral Kingdom.

King Proteas grow wild in the mountains of the Western and Eastern Cape.

Silver Tree Protea family

These trees, with their silky silver leaves, are

unique to the Cape Peninsula. The wild

population is half what it was 60 years ago.

They are rare and endangered. You can see them in the Peninsula Garden, the Fynbos Walk and Silvertree Trail.

Alice Notten, SANBI

Alice Notten, SANBI

Pincushion Protea family

There are 52 species of pincushion, most of which are found in the Western Cape. They make a rewarding garden plant. They can be

seen along the Fynbos Walk and in the Protea, Restio, Erica and Waterwise Gardens.

Alice Notten, SANBI

Whorled Heath Heath family

This species of Erica used to grow wild in the area between Rondebosch and Rondevlei but the spread of Cape Town’s suburbs caused it to die out by the early 1900s. It was saved from extinction and now can be seen in the Garden of Extinction and Erica Garden flowering between November and February.

Alice Notten, SANBI

Albertina Thatching Reed 

Restio family

The stems of this species are used for thatching roofs in the Cape tradition. Restios, reed-like perennials, show a great diversity of form. Some are as small and light as grasses and others resemble bamboo. See them in the Restio Garden, Fynbos Walk and the Useful Plants Garden.

Alice Notten, SANBI

Wild Almond Protea family

It grows wild at Kirstenbosch and is famous for being the species used by Jan van Riebeeck for his hedge in 1660. See these trees at Van Riebeeck’s Hedge, at the top of the Concert Lawn and edge of the Arboretum.

Alice Notten, SANBI

Red Disa Pride of Table Mountain Orchid family

This is the emblem of the Western Cape and is endemic to this region. Disas can be seen in flower in the Conservatory Bulb House from February to March. In the wild, they are found near streams and on mossy cliffs.

Alice Notten, SANBI

Krantz Aloe Asphodel family

This From May through July, the Krantz Aloe bears flowers of bright orange or yellow. Aloes and many other succulent plants can be seen in the Conservatory, Vygie garden, Mathews Rockery and the Koppie. 

Alice Notten, SANBI

White Namaqualand Daisy Daisy family

Spring is when the Namaqualand daisies put on their annual show of colour. In addition to white, these daisies come in shades of peach, yellow, blue, orange, mauve and purple. See them in the Annual Beds, Peninsula Garden and on the Koppie.

Alice Notten, SANBI

Wood’s Cycad Cycad family

This species is extinct in the wild; only 500

survive in botanical gardens and nurseries

around the world. It can be found in the Cycad Garden just above The Dell. Its base is protected from Cycad thieves by a metal cage. 

Alice Notten, SANBI

Lesser Double-collared Sunbird

These small, brightly coloured birds are natural to Kirstenbosch and visit proteas, pincushions, aloes, tube-flowered heaths and similar plants to

feed on nectar. The Orange-breasted Sunbird, with its purple collar, and the green Malachite Sunbird, can also be seen in the garden. 

Alice Notten, SANBI

The Helmeted Guineafowl

These are common in Africa south of the Sahara, but strangely did not appear in the Western Cape prior to 1900. They can invade picnics and become quite aggressive during breeding season. Stay clear and do not feed them.

Alice Notten, SANBI

Caracal (rooikat • African Lynx)

This is a medium-sized wild cat native to Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, Pakistan and northwestern India. It weighs about 8–19 kg and can reach a height of 40–50 cm at the shoulder.

At one time, it was rare to see one on Table Mountain but, with the introduction of the Urban Caracal Project, a lot more have been sighted.

Alice Notten, SANBI

For more information

www.sanbi.org (click on Kirstenbosch)

Join the Kirstenbosch family

Become a member of the Botanical Society of SouthAfrica

Tel: 021 797 2090    •   info@botanicalsociety.org.za

Editing: Shelley Brown and Shelley Woode-Smith

Thanks to Alice Notten for photographs and information

© Richard Smith  • 9th edition, 2023  •  Gateway Guides

Richard Smith

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