I can’t believe I didn’t know this story: How the Mountain got its Tablecloth

Rather than buy a pair for socks for Father’s Day our four-year-old gave Dad an old book. I’d found the book at L’Elephant Terrible Bookshop at 44 Stanley Ave in Milpark, Johannesburg.  It’s a beautifully illustrated and written book on Myths and Legends of Southern Africa by Penny Miller.

After tea and rusks in bed, Dad started to read some of the stories from his book out loud.  I loved this one so much that I just had to share, perhaps you also haven’t heard this legend before:

How the Mountain got its Tablecloth

(edited for digital media use)

No tale about Table Mountain could be better known than that of the confirmed old smoker and retired pirate, Van Hunks.  Van Hunks’s haunt is the prominent clump of rocks standing on the saddle of land that connects Devil’s Peak to Table Mountain.

It seems that Van Hunks suffered one thing in common with his famous compatriot Rip van Winkle: they were both afflicted by nagging wives.  In Rip’s case, he was driven out by his wife because she felt he should help more with the chores around the house.  In escaping these wearisome tasks he took refuge in the Catskill Mountains, where he fell into his celebrated sleep. 

Van Hunks, also took to the mountains to get away from the sharp tongue of his wife. Although he had been a rouge and a fearless villain all his pirating days, the sound of his wife bearing down in a rage aroused more fear in him that the shadow of the gallows tree! The trouble was that she could not stand the smell of his old calabash pipe and the strong shag with which he filled it.  If he dared to light up the beloved comforter in the vicinity of her nostrils, out he went, willy-nilly!  He only climbed the mountain in summer; the cold spray from the seven seas had seeped into his bones and in winter he would take his aching joints into the taverns instead.

But in good weather, high on a saddle of land on the mountain, he would light up his old clay pipe and settle himself comfortably on a warm boulder, and send clouds of blue smoke wafting up from this old calabash pipe, a small keg of the best black shag tobacco cradled between his knees. 

One day, he was slightly disturbed to find his solitude invaded by a rather odd-looking figure who was climbing the mountain path towards him.  An old black frieze coat hung to his knees, almost brushing the heads of purple bushes of Erica as he shuffled upwards, and an old wool cap was pulled well down over his eyes. He dropped down on a comfortable flat rock next to Van Hunks, and mopped his brow.  Van Hunks thought he saw steam emanating from under the brim of his wool cap. “Sit down a moment and cool off matey,” said Van Hunks kindly.  “It’s warm enough for the devil himself today!”

The stranger spoke in a deep voice.  “Well Mynheer van Hunks, it is good to sit here and smoke.  It soothes the nerves and clouds unpleasant memories. Unfortunately, I have run out of tobacco, or I would join you.” 

“You know my name?” said Van Hunks suspiciously. “Oh, I know everyone,” replied the stranger. “Don’t worry, as for you, I like what I know.  You are a man after my own heart.”  Van Hunks, relieved, pushed the keg of shag towards the stranger.  “Fill up mate.  The past is in the past and I have no quarrels left with anyone.  This tobacco is the best and I smoke more if it than any man alive.”

“A great statement,” said the stranger mildly, digging into the key with his long sinewy fingers. “In the port that I hail from we smoke day and night and I’ll wager you here and now that I can smoke more than you at a single sitting!”

Now if there is one thing that could make Van Hunks sit up and take notice, it was the chance of a good wager. “What are the stakes?” the old pirate growled eagerly. The stranger leaned forward. “Your soul against a barquentine of red gold, he whispered evilly, his reddish eyes glinting.

Van Hunks roared in his beard, “You’re a rum cove! My soul went by the board years ago, matey! And as for your red gold, I’ve enough hid away for many a rainy Cape winter yet. However, a bet is a bet and I will smoke against you for the sheer love of the thing!”

A long silence followed, broken only by the steady puffing of the calabash pipes and an occasional gurgle as a pull was taken from Van Hunks’s flask to wet a dry gullet.

Soon, down went the sun behind the mountains, and the moon came up behind the Tygerberg, lighting the waves to a silver shimmer below them; but on they puffed, neither one giving way to the other. And gradually, a choking white cloud grew around them.  By morning the entire top of Table Mountain was hidden beneath billowing folds.  The cloud poured down the rock faces like a white waterfall and the burghers below closed their doors and windows and sat indoors in wonderments.  The wind tossed the huge cloud about and roared with glee.  Never has a south-easter such as this descended on the city of Cape Town since Van Riebeek first planted his hedge of almond trees in Kirstenbosch!

The two smoked on, and the cloud grew. The face of Van Hunks had grown red and sweaty but his companion was in a far worse state:  his sinister countenance had first turned white, then green and at last he rolled of his boulder seat with a terrible groan.  “Brimstone and sulphur are as nothing to this truly devilish poison,” he gasped.  “There what did I tell you?  No one can stand up to an old roaring rover like Van Hunks!”

The wool cap of the stranger fell off and Van Hunks found himself staring at two sharp horns that adorned the stranger’s head. “Horns!” he gasped. “Old Scratch, as I’m a sinner! The very devil himself!”

“And I don’t like to play a losing game!” said the devil. There was a blaze of lighting and a smell of sulphur, and the white cloud was momentarily illuminated by a red glow – then it whirled skywards in blinding fragments. Finally, the mist cleared, rolling to reveal neither the stranger, nor Van Hunks – only a bare patch of scorched earth where they sat, the charred remains of two calabash pipes, and an empty keg of black shag tobacco…

From that day, the area became known as Devil’s Peak. When the south-easter blows, those who are old and wise will look up at the tumbling white cloud and say, “The devil and Van Hunks are at it again!”

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