Jackie examines the history behind Maclear's Beacon
WHAT would the Cape Peninsula be without its iconic mountain chain? A sandy, waterless, windswept waste, unable to support more than a few hundred people at best. Besides attracting visitors and providing delightful vistas, the mountains supply shelter, special micro-climates and enough water to support diverse forms of life, including a unique floral kingdom that delights botanists and gardeners.
Viewed from the north, Table Mountain relies on its massive ramparts and flattened top for impact and makes no great statement about its highest point.
Indeed, it’s impossible for first-time visitors to tell where the summit might be without some guidance or a map.
It is, in fact, a 35- to 45-minute walk from the upper cable station to Maclear’s Beacon (1087m) on the eastern side of the mountain, where the ground is 19m higher than it is at the terminal.
The beacon consists of a man-made rock cairn named in honour of Her Majesty’s Astronomer at the Cape, Thomas Maclear (1794-1879), who was knighted in 1860.
In 1844, Maclear asked his able assistant William Mann to build a “pile” as part of an ambitious project to verify and expand the data collected by the French astronomer Abbe Nicolas de Lacaille during the previous century, with reference to the Cape Arc of the Meridian (an imaginary due north-south line intended to supplement similar measurements in the northern hemisphere).
Interestingly, something had gone amiss with De Lacaille’s latitude measurement and he ended up “proving” that the Earth was pear-shaped, not round like an orange. (Mann was later able to correct this perception, and everyone was happy again!)
Assisted by between 20 and 35 labourers, Mann set to work in December 1844. The completed cone-shaped pile was 5m high and formed one of three major triangulation points built to measure the curvature of the Earth.
The entire mound was painted with lamp-black to make it more visible.
At first the cairn had no name, but it became known as Maclear’s Beacon.
Having served its scientific purpose, the pile was integrated into the geodetic and trigonometrical survey network that made accurate property surveys possible.
Its usefulness gradually declined, however, and it collapsed into a shapeless heap in the 1920s.
It was restored 50 years later to mark the centenary of Maclear’s death in 1979, when a National Monuments Council plaque commending the astronomer was cemented into its side.
The original rocks were reused but the pile may have lost a bit of height in the process.
Fortunately for modern visitors who like to clamber up the cone to be photographed, the lamp-blacking was not renewed.
The views are, of course, stupendous.