Durban couple tell of grim evening stuck on Table Mountain

2008-01-27 00:00

A Durban couple who spent nearly five hours shivering on the top of Table Mountain after a power outage halted the cable cars on Monday night, described the entire incident as "pathetic".

Speaking from Cape Town, Steven Brett and Elmarié Swart said they were appalled to find there was no emergency evacuation procedure in place. Instead, frightened and cold tourists were forced to buy blankets and food from the restaurant at the top of the mountain.

The couple said that, given the prices in Cape Town (coffee is around R19 and a beer R22), they shuddered to think what a blanket must have cost parents who were struggling to cope with tired, cold and terrified children.

"They made a killing. There was no apology and no free food or hot drinks. It was like school kids running the show. That’s how it felt," Brett said.

He said irritating announcements made at five-minute intervals simply stated that there was a technical fault and gave no further information. "They were stringing us along," he said, adding that it was only towards the end of their ordeal that they were told what was really happening.

While they waited, a visiting Japanese choir sang Amazing Grace.

According to reports the next day, 500 people were trapped on the mountain for three-and-a-half hours after an Eskom power cut. Sapa quoted Collette van Aswegan, the spokeswoman for the cableway, as saying that the outage jerked key equipment on the two cars out of alignment, paralysing them just outside the docking stations at the top and bottom of the mountain.

She said stranded tourists were reassured by three doctors who happened to be there, and declared that no one was injured. She said the fault was rectified at around 11.30 pm and tourists began coming down.

Brett and Swart tell a completely different story. They said they joined long queues to buy tickets at around 7 pm and enjoyed their trip up the mountain as "the weather was beautiful and there was no wind". Once there, they explored the mountain, and went back to the docking station as they knew the last cable car down was at around 9 pm.

En route, they discovered there was a power failure and "began to sprint" towards the cable car, only to be told there was "a technical fault". They decided to have something to eat at the restaurant before returning to the line at around 9.30 pm.

Brett said they did not realise until later, that people were actually trapped in the cable cars.

As stories circulated about a German tourist who had fallen to his death in a hang gliding accident and another who had fallen from the edge, panic mounted. The wind picked up and it became freezing.

Many people, however, remained in the long line, hoping they would get down. At first, the line appeared to be moving, but Brett said they soon realised it was only because some people had given up and moved away. Most were too afraid to give up their places.

"They should have forced everyone to go inside and keep warm. Lots of people remained in the line from 9.30 until well after one o’clock. We had no idea that it would carry on for five hours. There were 200 to 300 people behind us. They must have only got off the mountain at around 2.30."

Severely traumatised people, including two who passed out, were evacuated from the cable car, followed by mothers and children. The rest of the stranded tourists began to trickle down afterwards.

Brett said an American tourist was swearing while European tourists were more philosophical, confident that they would eventually make it down.

One tourist told them he was stranded on the mountain in 2000. "You would have thought that they would have emergency procedures since then. It’s just logical," he said.

Van Assegai, however, said it was the first time in 78 years that this has happened.

Brett said the cable car company "must be running at a major profit" yet it appears they cannot even afford a generator to make sure that power cuts do not strand their passengers. He was told that the only generator on Table Mountain powers the lights.

He said his fiancée was extremely traumatised. "She wanted to return to Durban the next day. I would go back up the mountain, probably because I am a sucker for punishment. It was a learning experience and will be a good story to tell, even though it didn’t seem that way at the time. My fiancée says she won’t go back."

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