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This huge, time-sculpted slab of shale, sandstone, and granite that rose from the ocean some 250 million years ago is Cape Town's most instantly recognizable feature. A candidate for selection as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature (www.n7w.com), the flat-topped mountain dominates the landscape, climate, and development of the city at its feet, and provides Cape Town with a 6,000-hectare (14,820-acre) wilderness at its center.

The best view of the mountain is from Table Bay (another good reason to take a sunset cruise), from where you can get some idea of the relative size of the mountain -- while the city shrinks to nothing, the "Mountain of the Sea" is visible some 150km (93 miles) from shore. Other views of the mountain are no less beautiful, particularly from the wooded eastern flanks of Constantiaberg, which greet the sun every morning, and the bare buttresses of a series of peaks named the Twelve Apostles, kissed by its last rays. The mountain is thought to be the most climbed peak in the world, with some 350 paths to the summit and more plant varieties (some 1,470 species) than the entire British Isles.

You can ascend the mountain on foot or via cable car and, once there, spend a few hours or an entire day exploring. The narrow table is 3km (1 3/4 miles) long and 1,086m (3,562 ft.) high. Maclear's Beacon is its highest point, and really suitable only for serious hikers. From Maclear's, it's another hour's trek to the upper cable station and restaurant, which are on the mountain's western edge, from where you can view the Twelve Apostles towering over Camps Bay. (Walk eastward and you'll have a view of the southern suburbs.) The back table, with its forests, fynbos (shrublike vegetation), and the reservoirs that supply Cape Town with its water, is a wonderful place to hike, but much of it is off-limits.

The most commonly used route to the top is via Platteklip Gorge -- the gap is visible from the front, or north face, of the mountain. The route starts just east of the lower cable station and will take 2 to 3 strenuous hours. Be sure to bring water. A more scenic route starts at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and climbs up the back via Skeleton Gorge. It's steep, requiring reasonable fitness, but should take approximately 2 hours to the summit; your efforts will be rewarded with fine views of False Bay and the Constantia Valley. Rather than walk another hour to the upper cable station, most return by walking down via Nursery Ravine. Those who take their hiking seriously, though, continue to Maclear's Beacon, and then head for the cableway. Be aware that the mountain's mercurial weather can surprise even seasoned Capetonians -- more people have died on Table Mountain than on Mount Everest. Don't climb alone, stick to the paths, and take water and warm clothes. For guided hikes, you can contact Table Mountain Walks (tel. 021/715-6136), or call Riaan Vorster (tel. 021/438-6073 or 083/683-1876), a qualified and highly experienced mountain guide (and rock-climber) who will take you up the mountain -- on any of more than 20 routes -- armed with an extensive knowledge of its geology, flora, fauna, and history.