Table Mountain, by any standards the definitive landmark of my home town, is a very large and roughly tabular (from the front, anyway) hunk of sandstone which is at times covered by a white cloud referred to very predictably as “the tablecloth”. It’s the south-east wind that lays the table: it blasts in off the South Atlantic, collides with the back of the mountain and is very quickly forced up to several hundred metres above sea level. It condenses into a very impressive cloud and then pours straight back down the front of the mountain, looking for all the world like a slightly ragged-fringed white linen cloth.

That’s the prosaic story. The folk tale, which is more fun and also explains why the flanking hill to the mountain’s right is called Devil’s Peak, goes like this:

Sometime round about 1700, give or take twenty years or so, a man called Jan van Hunks lived on the slopes of the mountain with his wife and daughters. Old Van Hunks was an easy-going man who liked nothing better than to sit on his stoep of an evening smoking his pipe and watching the world go by. Unfortunately, his house being full of women and women being what they are (industrious, I mean; what did you think I meant?), opportunities for peaceful pipe-smoking rarely came his way. So, Van Hunks took to wandering up the mountain with his pipe and a pouch of good tobacco, and settling into the lee of a rock for a good, refreshing smoke.

One day while he was up there, puffing away on his pipe and watching the worker ants scurry about down below, a stranger wearing a dusty cloak and hood approached, settled down beside him and produced a pipe of his own. The two men chatted idly, as men do, and by and by the conversation turned to the gentle art of smoking. Now Van Hunks was known by all the Cape as a prodigious smoker, and so he was surprised and not a little put out when the stranger began to brag of his own prowess. Van Hunks matched the stranger boast for boast, and before long a bet was made. The two men set about once and for all to determine which of them was the more powerful: they refilled their pipes, set their backs to the rock and smoked with grim determination.

The afternoon passed, and then the evening. By morning the smoke of their efforts had begun to spill out of the dell where they sat, but still the two men applied themselves doggedly to their pipes. They carried on for another day and a night, puffing up a cloud that covered the whole mountain, and neither prepared to concede defeat. At last, towards noon on the third day, the stranger was overcome by the smoke and the heat of the sun and cast aside his cloak in an effort to cool down. For the first time Van Hunks saw his horns, his tail and his cloven hoofs and realised the true identity of his antagonist. All thoughts of competition gone, his dropped his pipe and took off down the mountain as if… well, as if the very devil was after him.

The devil, for his part, smiled in satisfaction – he had won, after all – and disappeared in one last puff of smoke. But every time the cloud starts spilling over Table Mountain from the direction of Devil’s Peak, people know he’s back.

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