South Africa - Ian D. Colvin

How Table Mountain Got Its Cloud

Cape Town is a city that lies at the very tail-end of Africa. It is the most beautiful city of all the earth, placed, as it were, in a cup in the crags at the edge of the world, and in its bay the warm waters of the Indian Ocean mingle with the icy currents of the unknown Antarctic seas. Over it towers the great Table Mountain , with the Lion's Head on one side and the Devil's Peak on the other, and this mountain is not strange only for its shape (for it rises perpendicular and foursquare like a table), but because it is often masked and shrouded by a wonderful white cloud, which covers its flat top like a cloth, and pours down its precipices in great folds and wreaths of mist. Sometimes the cloud is still and white and fleecy, and sometimes one would think it a cataract of foam as it rolls over and descends in mighty convolutions. Scientific people pretend that they know the reason of this miracle, that it is the congealing of the moist cold wind from the sea suddenly brought in contact with the warm land, just as water turns into steam when spilt upon a hot stove. But if we would not be fubbed off with this foolish explanation, and would inquire further into the mystery, we must go to the Malay quarter of Cape Town, and there fall a-gossiping with one of the old Hajis or Moulvis who know so much that we do not understand. They have been to Mecca, and they know all about Mahomed's coffin which hangs in the air, and the voyages of Sinbad the sailor. And if we are lucky and tactful, one of them may tell us, as he sits, clad picturesquely in a long plum-coloured robe and red fez with a turban about it, how Table Mountain comes to have its tablecloth.

Long long ago, he will say, when his ancestors were the slaves of the Dutchmen, an old burgher, by the name of van Hunks, lived in a lonely house upon the eastern slopes of the Devil's Peak. It was not called the Devil's Peak then, and though there was even at that time an occasional cloud upon Table Mountain, it never took such gigantic proportions as it sometimes does nowadays.

Well, this Mynheer van Hunks was a lonely man, big in stature and bulky in build, of a taciturn way of living, and with a face so darkly purple or fierily red that people used to be quite afraid at the sight of it, and the boldest children would not venture near his house. It was said of him that he had in his youth been huntsman to Governor van der Stel, and had once killed a lion by placing his firelock against its forehead and pulling the trigger, for those were the days when the hippopotamus still wallowed in the shallow pools of the Cape flats, and lions used to roar round the houses of Cape Town at nights. But even in those days he used to frequent the Town Tavern and the Fisherman's Tap at the Salt River, far more than was good for him. He was known to all the rollicking sailors that came in the great East Indiamen; and honest burghers used to prophesy that he would come by an evil end.

One fine day van Hunks disappeared, and for many years he was not seen in his old haunts; but when all his old cronies had given him up for dead he came back in a ship that every one suspected was a pirate, though the Governor was afraid to say anything. He was dressed in a magnificent coat cut out of Benares brocade, the buttons being great rubies, a flowered Calamanca waistcoat, and breeches of Chinese silk, and he had with him an iron-bound seaman's chest so heavy that two strong slaves had much ado to lift it. People said that he had made a vast fortune with the pirates, and that this chest was full of gold mohurs and pagodas and pieces of eight, Indian idols with gems for eyes and precious Portuguese crucifixes.

He had been, so the gossips would tell, with the wicked Plantain when he was King of Madagascar; he had been England's bo'sun and had served under Avery; and he was on St. Mary's Isle when Kidd and Colvert drank bomboe together and swore eternal friendship. He was at the sacking of the Mogul's treasure-ship, and had cut off the arms of Moorish princesses for the gold bangles that were round them.

But few dared even to speak to van Hunks, far less bring him to justice, for his belt was stuck full of silver pistols, and he carried a great cutlass by his side. He kept his own counsels, and made his home in the lonely house on the slopes of the Devil's Peak. It was his own, for he had paid its price out of the great chest in good doubloons. He had a few slaves to till his garden and look after his cattle; but he himself did nothing except sit on his stoep with a keg of Hollands or rackapee or some other potent spirit by his side, a bocal in his hand and a large calabash pipe in his mouth.

Thus he would sit for days together, drinking steadily and looking at his pumpkins as they grew from green to yellow. He was always smoking; indeed, he smoked more than any other ten Dutchmen put together, that is to say, more than a hundred of any other nation. Sometimes, when he seemed to be thinking of unpleasant things, he would puff so hard that he was enveloped in a cloud of smoke. When a ship came into the harbour, it was noticed that he was very much on the watch, as if he had not an altogether easy conscience, and there were seldom any ships in the Bay when he strolled along to Cape Town to buy the puncheon of arrack or rum or Dutch gin that was his favourite tipple.

Occasionally the old fellow might be seen making his way through the flowering sugar-bush and glistering silver trees that grew on the lower slopes of the Peak, and threading his way up until he got above the undergrowth to a favourite seat, whence with his spy-glass he could see the town and the wide ocean and the brave ships as they sailed in and out of the anchorage. There he would sit and smoke for hours together.

Now as van Hunks was sitting there one day with his pipe in his mouth and his great bag of tobacco between his knees and a mutchkin of spirits at his elbow, he saw a stranger coming down the rocks towards him. Van Hunks noticed that he limped slightly in his walk, and, as he drew nearer, that he was tall and gaunt, that he was clad in a suit of black velvet, and that he carried a large empty pipe in his hand.

"Good-day, Mynheer van Hunks," said the stranger.

"Good-day," replied the old pirate, gruffly.

"I come here like yourself for an occasional smoke," the intruder continued, not in the least put out by the coldness of the welcome, "and unfortunately to-day I have run out of tobacco, so I take the liberty of asking you to fill my pipe."

Van Hunks took up the bag and pushed it towards the stranger, who sat down without further invitation and rammed nearly half a pound of the leaf into the bowl.

"I have heard you are a great smoker, Mynheer," he said, pleasantly. "No wonder, for this is good tobacco. My own tastes something too strongly of sulphur."

"Ja, ja," said van Hunks, a little mollified by the compliments, "it is good tobacco, and I smoke more, Mynheer, than any man alive."

"Now, now," replied the stranger, "that is a big boast; where I come from we smoke day and night. Come, Mynheer, I wager I'll smoke more than you at a sitting."

"What are the stakes?" said the old pirate, a spark of interest glowing in his eye.

"Your soul against the kingdoms of the world," retorted his dark companion, gaily.

"Sis!" said van Hunks, "soul have I none; and as for the kingdoms of the world, I have seen enough of them, and of the battles that are waged for them. For my part, I am content with my house and my pumpkins, my slaves and my arrack, my pipe and my tobacco; but I'll smoke against you for the love of the thing."

Then van Hunks took the bag by its two bottom corners, and shook its contents on to a large flat stone. People say that there were eight pounds, no less, of strong tobacco, damp with rum, as sailors like it. He divided the heap into two equal parts.

"Now," said van Hunks, "choose one heap and I'll take the other."

"That's fair and generous," quoth the stranger, as he laid his hands on his share; "I've taken a liking to you, Mynheer van Hunks."

"Most people love me at sight," said the sailor, grimly. "I'm popular myself," returned the other.

"And who may you be?" asked van Hunks.

"You'll know in good time," said the stranger. "Better ask no questions. I'm loved best by those who have not yet learnt who I am."

"Just the way with us," said the Dutchman, "before they saw the Jolly Roger. Then they did not love us quite so much. No, Mynheer, they did not. It was walk the plank with every man jack of them. Brave days, Mynheer. Why, we captured the Viceroy of the Indies, me and La Buze. He'd enough treasure in his ship to fill our fo'csle with Portuguese gold and diamonds. And I was with Plantain in the Isle of Madagascar when he fought King Dick for the Princess Nelly Brown; and when we captured his noblemen we made them dance on hot coals till they dropped down and fried.

"We had each of us a palace and a harem on Saint Mary's Isle. And I was with Roberts when he caught the chaplain of Cape Coast Castle, and offered him his life if he'd say prayers and draw corks. No good came to Roberts. Too religious he was. You can see his bones hanging in chains where Challoner Ogle swung him up on the shores of the Gulf of Guinea. And I was there when Kidd and Culliford drank bomboe together and swore to be good friends. And I was there when Avery caught the Great Mogul's daughter and all the other Moorish ladies."

Then van Hunks lowered his voice and whispered to the stranger till he shuddered and put his fingers to his ears.

At this sign that the conversation was too much for his companion, the bad man laughed loud and long, and began to sing, in a voice very deep and terrible, a pirate's chantey, of which this is a feeble translation:—

Then hoist the Jolly Roger, boys, and make Saint Mary's Isle,

Where Moll and Sue are waiting in their cabins of the palm;

Pull heavy on the halyards, boys, we'll spend our golden pile

Where all the blessed island smells of ambergris and balm.

We'll broach a keg of arrack and bomboe we will drink,

And we'll barbecue a hog, my boys, and sit around the fire;

With puncheons of madeira, we will float until we sink.

Yes, we'll drink, drink, drink, we'll drink until we tire!

Then haul on the braces, boys, and make Saint Mary's Isle,

Where Moll and Sue are waiting in their cabins of the palm;

Pull heavy on the halyards, boys, we'll spend our golden pile,

Where the breezes smell of musk and the ladies smell of balm.

Van Hun outsmokes the devil


Then there followed a silence, broken only by the puffing of the two smokers.

A long-tailed sugar-bird hovered over the great black velvet buds of the protea: the fishing-boats ran in from the lea of Robben Island; an Indiaman was furling his sails. But the smokers did not speak.

Puff, puff, puff, puff, and sometimes a sup at the little keg of spirits.

The sun began to sink behind the mountain, the shadow of the Lion's Head fell across the bay; the Hottentot slaves were leading home the cattle.

Never a word spoke the two smokers.

The moon arose from behind the Tigerberg, and climbed higher and higher; the waves shone like silver far below, and the white houses of Cape Town gleamed among their dark-green gardens like pearls in the depths of the sea.

Never a word from the smokers. The sky turned crystalline, then rose-red, and the mountains flamed with signals of the dawn; but there the smokers still were sitting.

Puff, puff, puff. A cloud of smoke was now about them; it swirled and eddied as it rose. It leaped the gulf from the Peak to the Mountain and clung to its rocky sides. It covered the top like a cloth. Then it rose ever higher like the smoke of the bottle the fisherman opened in the Arabian Nights, until it became a great pyramid over the mountain. It swung this way and that: long shreds of it fell away and swept down the precipices to the town below. Such a south-easter had never been seen, not since van Riebeck first set foot on "the watering-place of Saldanha."

And still the two smoked, and still the cloud grew.

The fiery and purple face of van Hunks never changed, but his nose glowed with a blue unearthly flame as he pulled at his pipe, which he only took out of his mouth when he took a sup from the keg. The stranger smoked hard, his eyes gleaming in his head with a baleful light.

The wind tossed the huge cloud in savage glee till it rocked and split and fell in fragments on the town. The burghers coughed and choked and drank brandy within closed doors, and said never had there been such a south-easter.

Day after day they smoked, and the piles on the stone grew smaller and smaller as the cloud grew larger. But van Hunks' face only took a darker purple while the stranger's grew first pale and then green. There was a damp clammy sweat upon his brow.

"Ugh!" he groaned at last, "the fumes of hell are nothing to this."

"Baccy a bit strong?" said the Dutchman, with a chuckle.

"Oh!" groaned the stranger, "you've done what the Archangel Michael could not do. Oh, oh, oh, I am prostrate, I am vanquished, I am overcome."

His pipe fell from his hand. He lay at full length on the ground, uttering the most dreadful groans.

"Hurrah!" cried the old pirate, tossing his hat in the air. "Bear heavy on the halyards, boys!" he sang in his glee. "Hurrah, I've won I"

Then he seized the keg and put it to the stranger's lips.

As he did so, he knocked off the hat that hitherto had been drawn down over his rival's brow.

The sight that met his eyes caused his knees to tremble. His hair stood on end.

"Horns!" he cried. "'Tis the Devil himself. Old Nick, as I'm a sinful man!"

Here the herd-boy who witnessed this strange scene from the kindly shelter of a sugar-bush says that flames leaped from the stranger's eyes and mouth and feet, so that the lad fainted away in his fright.

"'Tis I!" said the Devil. "Come, van Hunks!'

There was a tremendous crash of thunder, as if the mountain had been split in two. A blaze of lightning came at the same moment, making the cloud look like a pyramid of fire.

There followed a dreadful smell of sulphur.

Then the mist swept down upon the place. There was a cry, and when it rolled away there was no stranger and no van Hunks; but only a spot scorched bare of herbage where they had sat, with an empty keg, two empty pipes, a spy-glass, and two little heaps of tobacco, not more than an ounce in each.

And if you want any proof of my story, to this day the place is called the Devil's Peak.

And when there is an ordinary south-easter, an old citizen will remark that the Devil is smoking to-day.

But when it is a black south-easter, blowing great guns and tumbling cloud, then, he will say, it is the Devil and van Hunks.

NOTE.—The extraordinary cloud on Table Mountain has roused the curiosity and admiration of all travellers. The veracious Kolbe, speaking of the "Devil's Hill or Wind Hill," says: "The reasons for these appellations of this Hill are variously given. But the generally assign'd, and indeed the most probable one for both of 'em, is the terrible south-east winds caused by a white cloud, which frequently hovers over this and the Table Hill. From this cloud the south-east wind issues as from the mouth of a sack, with inexpressible fury, shattering the houses, endangering the ships in the harbour, and doing at times immense damage to the corn on the ground and the fruit on the trees." Kolbe adds that "several credible persons" assured him that in the night time for near a month together there was seen on the top of the hill "something like a large carbuncle stone; a resplendent something, resembling in the imaginations of many a serpent with a crown upon its head, and by many taken for one to their infinite terror and astonishment." The old Malays still dispute whether this "resplendent something" was the glow of van Hunks's nose or the light of the Devil's eyes: others incline to think it came from the pipe-bowls of the smokers. Again Samuel Daniell says in his very rare book: "These strong gales of wind are first indicated by a small fleecy cloud stretching along the summit of the mountain which gradually falling over the edge, in the course of a few hours envelops half the mountain, rising also to a considerable height above it, whilst every other part of the hemisphere is perfectly cloudless. This irregular appearance is well known to seamen by the name of the Devil's Table Cloth." Some travellers say that on the cloud's first coming it is only the size of a walnut; but this statement is contradicted by others. Many of the old travellers, however, agree in imputing to the cloud a diabolical origin, though they have been so unfortunate as to be unaware that its true cause was known only to the old Malay soothsayers, who are the storehouses of so much that is strange and curious in the history of Cape Town. As for the pirates, the Cape archives are full of references to them. The Isle St. Mary, where they usually careened, lay before Antongil Bay, 17 S. lat., on the east coast of Madagascar. The harbour was full of the wrecks of their prizes, and the shore usually knee-deep in spices taken out of their holds. Plantain, "the King of Ranter's Bay," was one of the chief of these scoundrels. "For his further state and recreation," says Downing, "he took a great many wives and servants whom he kept in great subjection, and after the English manner called them Moll, Kate, Sue, or Pegg. These women were dressed in the richest silks, and some of them had diamond necklaces."