How the Mountain got its Tablecloth

Celebrate Southern Africa

By Janet Walton

As a child my father had books of African Myths and Legends and I loved to read them or even better have him read them to me. This was one of my favourites.

Van Hunks is a retired pirate and well known for wandering around Table Mountain with his calabash pipe and strong tobacco.  Van Hunks’ usual seat is the prominent clump of rocks standing on the saddle of land that connects Devil’s Peak to Table Mountain.

This was his story.

Van Hunks, took to the mountains to get away from the sharp tongue of his wife. Although he had been a rogue and a fearless villain all his pirating days, the sound of his wife coming down the passage in a rage aroused more fear in him than the worst storm at sea. Unfortunately, she could not stand the smell of his old calabash pipe and the strong tobacco which he loved.  If he dared to light up in the her vicinity, out he went, with no argument.  He only climbed the mountain in summer; the cold spray from the seas had soaked into his bones and in winter he would take his aching joints into the taverns instead.

In good weather, high on the saddle of land on the mountain, he would light up his old 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, his solitude was disturbed by a rather odd-looking figure who was climbing the mountain path towards him.  An old black coat hung to the floor, almost brushing the fynbos as he shuffled upwards, and a scruffy 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 wisps of steam from under his cap. “Sit down a moment and cool off, my friend,” 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 of 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 was 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 cask of rum,” he whispered, his reddish eyes glinting.

Van Hunks roared in his beard, “You’re a rum cove! My soul went by the board years ago!  And as for your rum, 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, the sun lowered behind the mountains, and the moon came up behind the Tygerberg, lighting the waves to a silver shimmer below them; and on they puffed, determined to win, not giving any ground. Gradually, a massive 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 amazement.  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 Riebeeck 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 off his boulder with a terrible groan.  “Brimstone and sulphurare as nothing to this truly devilish poison,” he gasped.  “There, what did I tell you?  No one can stand up to an old pirate 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 the smell of sulphur. Then the white cloud was briefly lit by a red glow which whirled skywards in a blinding flash. Finally, the mist cleared, rolling away 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 black shag tobacco keg.

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!”

Celebrate Southern Africa

Janet Walton

Registered Nurse who lives in Frome, Somerset, UK and is a Director at Mix Tape Radio International.

And do you know ‘How Thunder and Lightening came to live in the Sky’?

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