Cableway to the clouds

2013-06-12 00:00

A FEASIBILITY study is currently under way into the economic viability of a proposed cableway in the Mnweni area of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg World Heritage Park.

The cableway project was announced last year by Michael Mabuyakhulu, KZN’s Economic Development and Tourism (DEDT) MEC, at the 2012 Tourism Indaba in Durban.

“The tourism landscape in KwaZulu-Natal is poised for a dramatic change,” he said then, noting that a draft tourism master plan had identified several tourism products that should be developed, including a cableway.

Mabuyakhulu’s spokesperson, Bheko Madlala, indicated that one of the preferred sites for the cableway was in the Mnweni Valley, next to the Royal Natal National Park section of the World Heritage Site, with the base station near Woodstock Dam. This area is the home of the amaZizi and amaNgwane communities.

The concept, similar to the cableway at Table Mountain in Cape Town, aims to develop a 3 300-metre cableway with an intermediate station, climbing 1 300 metres to the summit, which will be an elevation of 3 300 metres above sea level, offering views of KwaZulu-Natal, Lesotho and the Free State.

Tabling this year’s budget speech for 2013/14, Mabuyakhulu reiterated the proposed cableway project and said it would “serve as a catalyst to attract more international visitors to the Drakensberg region, and provide a magnet to a host of other experiences and attractions in the area”.

He said the project would extend across the tourism value chain and explore opportunities to open a tourism gateway in the border area of KwaZulu-Natal, Lesotho and the Free State.

The feasibility study is being undertaken by Durban-based Graham Muller Associates, which has been associated with a number of KZN tourism projects, including the uShaka Marine World at the Durban Point Waterfront, the King Shaka International Airport, tourism resorts in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, the Avenol Country and Fly-fishing Estate in the Dargle Valley and the Balgowan Equestrian Estate in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.

A Drakensberg Cableway Project Steering Committee (DCPSC) has been formed and its first meeting was held in the Okhahlamba Municipality’s council chamber in Bergville on April 4. At the meeting, it was indicated that the feasibility study and business plan are to be completed within eight months. The meeting was attended by representatives of DEDT, Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta), the Maloti Drakensberg Transfrontier Project, the Okhahlamba Development Agency and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.

The committee meetings are being held on a monthly basis and the meeting on June 6 saw members of the Mnweni Wilderness Working Team, amaZizi Traditional Council, amaZizi Wilderness Group and amaNgwane Traditional Authority also in attendance.

The fact that the Mnweni area is one of the most rugged in the Drakensberg has probably saved it from the development that is a feature of the other entry points into the mountain range. There are no big hotels, no ribbon development made up of guesthouses and shopping outlets. The main access to the area is through amaNgwane Tribal Authority land, which, together with the adjacent amaZizi Tribal Authority, combines to form a wedge into the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site, known as the Mnweni-Busingatha Gap.

Both the amaNgwane and the amaZizi communities regard the wilderness as their major asset and have tapped into the tourism potential of the spectacular scenery, hiking trails and rock-art sites, with the creation of the Amangwane Mnweni Hiking and Cultural Centre, which provides accommodation in rondavels for hikers and climbers. It is one of the few profitable community-run ventures in KwaZulu-Natal. The addition of trained community mountain guides, supervised by community custodians and trained and approved by Amafa, the provincial heritage agency, adds to what the centre already offers, and provides a further boost to local coffers.

The communities have yet to be consulted directly — their attendance at the June 6 meeting was not by invitation. However, they have been aware of the proposed cableway for some time, and at a meeting held in September last year, there was unanimous opposition to the cableway. “The cableway will destroy our community and our wilderness (ihlane),” said one representative.

It’s not the first time a cableway has been mooted for the Mnweni area. In 2000, a study titled “Taking Tourism Investment to New Heights” — a technical document on the Mnweni cableway compiled for the Uthukela District Municipality —was produced by Grant Thornton Kessel Feinstein.

This study noted in its “invitation to investors” that the “cableway’s base is to be located in the Mnweni Valley, one of the few last undeveloped valleys in the northern Drakensberg, and its summit will be between the Drakensberg landmarks of the Amphitheatre and Cathedral Peak”.

In reports last year, the favoured end point for the cableway was in the North Peak area in the amaNgwane Tribal Authority. This has since been discarded and the preferred site is now Mount Amery in the amaZizi Tribal Authority, close to the boundary with the Royal Natal National Park. Likely issues raised by this proposed site will revolve around the “pollution” of views so close to the Amphitheatre, its siting adjacent to a wilderness area, and concerns about vultures and other high-flying bird species colliding with cables.

The feasibility study is understood to be concentrating on the economic feasibility of the project, but it will have to factor in the weather. As well as being an area known for its high winds, it also boasts an average of 100 days under cloud. In other words, the spectacular view from the summit is often cloudscape rather than landscape. Whether this limited viewing time will be enough to attract the high numbers of tourists necessary to make the project viable, let alone the necessary infrastructure to accommodate them, will be the big question the study will have to answer.

The next meeting of the DCPSC is scheduled for July 4 and will take the form of a site visit to Mount Amery.


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