Dark Gorge: A Table Mountain hike less travelled, for a reason

cape town dark gorge table mountain hike

Mystical and concealed. Tick.
A steep hike. Tick.
Rocky sides. Tick.
A deep and narrow passage. Tick.
Cairns that guide you to the top. Tick.

Actual ticks? Well, not that we found… not this time anyway. But it has been known to house a Boomslang or two. Ready to rattle up Dark Gorge, then? Let’s go.

Disclaimer: The Dark Gorge is situated adjacent to the recommended hiking route, Newlands Ravine and should not be attempted without the proper gear or without somebody experienced (preferably a qualified guide) leading the group. There are many small to medium-sized rocks that have rolled down the ravine over time. These rocks can be dislodged quite easily and result in a mini rock slide, which can be dangerous not just for the person climbing, but the people below them. Be extremely careful with foot placement on this route. If you decide to pursue Dark Gorge after reading this blog, we cannot be held responsible for any injuries that you or your hiking party may sustain.

The date on which the post was published does not always represent the date or the proximity to the date the hike was originally completed. As such, please make sure you check the latest safety information on any route before attempting it. Mother Nature is volatile and everything from weather to wildfires can affect the safety of a route.

Do not tackle this route when it has been raining or for a few days after there has been rain. It’s a great summer option, but not worth the risk during the wetter months.

The Dark Gorge in Newlands Forest: Mystery and magic

A hiking trail less travelled, Dark Gorge is cloaked in secret and very few dare to trudge up this passage – heck, even the sign shouts ‘Do NOT attempt ascent’ – but if you have decent fitness levels, an ability to scramble up rocks and some common sense then it is a beast that can be tamed.

While its parallel neighbour Newlands Ravine is full of twists and turns with the skyline and the heavens – if you hike on a sunny day – peaking out every now and then, Dark Gorge is a steep, direct and shadowy route that takes you to the summit.

Before you even consider tackling Dark Gorge, be warned it is NOT for the fainthearted or for those who are afraid of heights and only meander along flat surfaces.

If you have only tackled the likes of Platteklip Gorge and Devil’s Peak, then be warned this is a different type of challenge, but if you have climbed the aforementioned trails in recent weeks without feeling like you are dying, then your fitness levels should be decent enough to give Dark Gorge a go.

And before we get to the actual route, here is a pro hiking tip for Dark Gorge: ALWAYS FOLLOW THE CAIRNS/MARKERS. Yes, in capitals. If you don’t know what a cairn is, maybe don’t do this hike. But for reference, here is one in all its glory.

rock cairns hiking marker dark gorge cape town hike route

Here is another pro hiking tip: ALWAYS KEEP AT LEAST FIVE-METRES BETWEEN YOU AND OTHER HIKERS. (Ed’s note: And not just in the time of social distancing, loose rocks fall pretty fast down a steep incline).

Dark Gorge hike: Route overview

Get yourself to Newlands Forest and from the parking lot, you venture through the gates and walk past the helipad and Working on Fire helicopters on your right. Once you hit the gravel and Newlands Forest sign, there are various trails – including the well-marked Littlewort Trail, Fernwood Track and Woodcutters Trail – that will lead up you up to the Contour Path.

Be warned: Unless you know Newlands Forest to a tee, you are likely to still get lost on your way to the Contour Path, but never be discouraged by that as it happens to the best of us.

Once you are on the Contour Path (we assume you are coming from the left), continue on the wooden boardwalk until you find the wooden picnic spot, which also marks the start of the Newlands Ravine trail. It is perhaps now a good time to take a breather before you start your gruelling ascent up Dark Gorge.

When you get cracking again, turn right from the picnic spot and continue for another 60m or so and you will spot a rocky passage/opening on your left. A tree damaged from a forest fire is quite visible and this marks the start of Dark Gorge, well not officially as the sign is a bit further ahead.

dark gorge trail start fire damaged tree marker
The marker at the start of the Dark Gorge trail.

This is where your relationship with the cairns/some yellow markers start and here is just another reminder: ALWAYS FOLLOW THE CAIRNS.

dark gorge hiking route start sign
The official Dark Gorge start sign – with a warning.

Within 100m of the fire-damaged tree, you will get to the Dark Gorge sign and now the real fun starts. So far most of your hike has been on solid rocks with mysteriously looking trees, but soon you will encounter mostly small loose rocks and yet this is not the worst.

The path ventures slightly to the right at some point and then you will hit some sandy parts/trees where it you might find yourself sliding a few metres if you are not wearing shoes with good grip (always wear decent trail/hiking shoes).

However, before you know it the trail hits the centre of the gorge again and now you find yourself with big loose rocks. Again, make sure you give your hiking partner/s five-metres breathing space at a minimum.

Continue to follow the markers (if you haven’t seen any cairns for a while and don’t see any ahead of you for a good few metres, then go back to the last time you saw one and start from there again) and at some point, you will see a nice ledge to the left, basked in sunshine if that bright ball of fire is out, which is a good spot for a break.

dark gorge rock overhang
Are we there yet? A good ledge for a break during the Dark Gorge ascend.

Once you get going again, just continue straight up the middle of the rocky gorge and every now and then you will need your hands to get over a boulder. At some point, the cairns will lead you slightly to the left and when you get close to the top it will get slightly sandy again with quite a few trees and branches.

As you get closer to the top, your hands become very, erm, handy as you need to scramble and use the old tree roots to pull yourself up, but the worst is now behind you as before you know it, a crack will open up behind you and you will see the beautiful skyline. And after another 100m or so, which can feel like a kilometre, you will reach the top.

Being able to see the clear skies after spending a couple of hours shrouded in “darkness” will definitely put a spring in your step and you can now give yourself a pat on the back as you have conquered Dark Gorge.

Sadly, you won’t be able to go descent via Dark Gorge (but you will have found out that while you made your way up) so your best option is to go down Newlands Ravine. You can also walk across The Saddle and descent via the Contour Path on the front of Table Mountain, but you will need to add a few more hours and kilometres to your trip.

dark gorge on strava map
Strava’s map tracking the Dark Gorge adventure.

In total, the round-trip took 12km, but we did get lost before we even hit the Contour Path. See, told you, it is easy to get lost in Newlands Forest.

Grade: 3 *** Mild exposed scrambling at the top

Height gain: Starts off at 90m at Newlands Forest Station and reaches about 700m at The Saddle

Time: Roughly four hours up and, depending on the route you take down, about two hours

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 that 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.
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