Hiking is a favourite past-time of many Capetonians and Table Mountain is the preferred playground for most. There are several well-known routes to the top, each one offering something different depending on the time of year.
Some routes, you might not even know exists until you accidentally stumble through some bushes and retrace your steps on the GPS when you get home.
Nursery Buttress is one of those routes. There are no signposts marking the start of the path, well, nothing official anyway. There aren’t any yellow footprints to follow, you have to rely on spotting rock cairns placed by hikers who came before you.
This is not an easy route, even if you are in good shape. While all hiking routes, including the glorified Stairmaster not-so-affectionately known as Platteklip, come with a safety disclaimer, Nursery Buttress is not a route to be taken lightly.
Make sure you read the safety guidelines below as well as on other sites like Mountain Meanders. It is best to do this route with somebody familiar with the way.
If you prefer just getting down to the details, without the scenic background and personal interlude, go here for the Nursery Buttress route description.
Nursery Buttress guide: The scenic route
If you have ever looked up to the landscapes above Kirstenbosch, you’ll have seen the buttresses that punctuate the sky, lurking imposingly above the mountain range. Standing in the gardens, it doesn’t look like much. Well, you know, other than the general magnificence that is Table Mountain.
But Nursery Buttress, and all its buttress friends, offer lesser-travelled routes to the top of the mountain – useful for when lockdown restrictions close the beaches and result in the usually popular hiking routes becoming even more popular.
My concept of risk is almost always outweighed by the promise of reward, otherwise known as being irresponsibly impulsive. Not that this hike was approached impulsively. In fact, the full scramble to the top was preceded by a recce before the full ascend. However, even with a brain wired for lusting after adrenaline, there were a couple of times on this route where I felt just a brief moment of heart-sinking.
While the Nursery Buttress route starts off innocuous enough, it becomes increasingly difficult with more exposed scrambling and the route markers becoming more difficult to spot. Whether that’s because of the toll tiredness takes, I’m not entirely sure.
The route is littered with the worst kinds of plants you’ll find on the mountain. Those beautifully green, lush looking things. So designed, perhaps, to deceive you into thinking they are gentle. Reader, they are not. Those bushes not only sting, but also leave you itching for hours.
While they are usually avoided easily enough on marked out footpaths by wearing appropriate clothing, on the Nursery Buttress route your hands will be drawn to them like magnets every single time you look for a rock grip to lurch yourself up on.
There also comes a point where, having not done the route before, we looked down towards the criss-cross of Nursery Ravine below and considered leaving the full scrambling and simply linking up with these trails from the side. It soon became quite apparent that this was not going to happen. The only way down was up.
Once out top and in the clear, though, endorphins take over and everything is forgotten. Even on a day where the table cloth is rolling in and you can’t see more than 36 cm never mind having a 360 degree panoramic of the city.
In terms of feeling a sense of achievement – especially during an extremely challenging and demanding time – the reward offered by Nursery Buttress once you get to the top is hard to beat. The circle of hell which Dante didn’t even bother to write about – the trail otherwise known as Nursery Ravine, which usually feels like you are on a stairway down into the deepest pits of hell – feels like a light stroll at the end of it all.
Nursery Buttress: Route guide
Worth knowing: A classic scramble up the buttress between Nursery Ravine and Skeleton Ravine. Has some tricky, exposed rock pitches where a rope may be advised. It can get hot in summer, but best avoided in winter after rain because some of the scrambling parts might be slippery. Park at Rycroft Gate rather than the main entrance to Kirstensboch, your legs will thank you. Also remember that if you do not have a membership card for Kirstensboch, you will have to pay the entry fee.
Grade: 4 **** Some exposed sections
Height gain: 560m
Time: Three to four hours up and one to two hours down.
Take the path from the Rycroft Gate up to the contour path – it is well marked. Turn right and go north on the contour path towards Devil’s Peak and cross Nursery Ravine – also clearly signposted. About 200m further along, scramble up a steep narrow gully, hardly noticeable to the naked eye. The start should be marked by a cairn, but sometimes these can get dislodged.
Climb this until one can scramble out to the left to the base of the first rockband. The gully can be running with water in winter, but is quite climbable even if wet.
Traverse along this rockband following the (rough) path to the base of a 10m high Grade 4 pitch – marked with cairns. Climb this straight up, or traverse further round to easier ground to bypass this (seldom used so likely to be bushy). This pitch can be wet in winter but dries out quickly so unless straight after heavy rain, it is usually OK.
From the top of this band follow the path upwards in a series of small 2-3m steps until a second 10m rockband is encountered. Move right into an open book where two faces meet. Climb the left-hand face on a clean rock with good holds. It’s easier than it looks, especially if one moves out left on an ascending diagonal. More exposed, but a series of easy ledges make a ‘staircase’.
Above this, follow the path to the top, once more climbing several short rock steps, eventually passing directly between the twin towers of the Buttress. Ends on top in a shady dell with a cave which makes a great tea spot.
The main path from Constantia Corner to Maclear’s Beacon passes a short distance away. Once on that, turn left to go down Nursery Ravine, or right to the top of Skeleton Gorge. Also possible to explore around to the right from the tea spot through a cave and traverse and meet the main path further along towards Skeleton.
You can also traverse to the front of Table Mountain from here (another two to two and a half hours of walking) and take the cable car down.
Nursery Buttress route information and description taken from Mountain Meanders with some adjustments.
Emergency contact numbers, cell phone access and safety guidance for Table Mountain hikes
- All Table Mountain hiking routes come with the usual disclaimer: Do not underestimate the mountain. Go equipped with the right gear – that includes the correct footwear and enough water – and make sure you tell somebody where you are going.
- Many of the walks, hikes and scrambles on Table Mountain are difficult and dangerous. Do not attempt any Grade 3 or higher route unless you are experienced with exposed rock scrambling and on lesser travelled routes which might be overgrown, do not go on your own without sufficient preparation.
- If at any stage during your hike you feel like you cannot go on – whether that is because you are tired or you are daunted by any of the climbs, turn back.
- There are many places on Table Mountain without cellphone reception. In the case of an emergency, you’ll have to traverse to the closest ‘edge’ – meaning anywhere that you can see the City from.
- Wilderness Search and Rescue (WSAR) is the main organisation that coordinates rescue operations in the Western Cape, but do not contact them directly – contact Metro Rescue first at 10177 or 021 937 0300 who will then contact Wilderness Search and Rescue (WSAR). (Note that the Metro Rescue number changed in August 2008. The old number which is listed in many places still works, but use this new number in preference.)
- Mountain Club of South Africa safety guidelines
- University of 3rd Age Safety notes and statistics including information on rescue costs.
- Hikers Network has a comprehensive set of notes on mountain safety, first aid and more.
- Cape Nature also has an extensive set of notes, with particular relevance to country areas.
Antoinette is a recovering journalist, having written for Sports Illustrated, The Guardian, Daily Maverick and others. She has won multiple SAB Journalist of the Year awards, across a variety of categories. She thinks it’s strange writing about herself in the third person, unless she’s playing as herself in The Sims…which she’s been doing for over 20 years.