Berg cable car: do we need one?

2012-05-15 00:00

A CABLE car that takes tourists to the top of one of the world’s most dramatic and unspoilt mountain regions might sound like a gem of an idea and one that could grace glossy travel brochures the world over, but do we really need it?

That is the question on the lips of local environmental specialists in response to an announcement on the Drakensberg cable car proposal at the Indaba 2012.

On Sunday, Michael Mabuyakhulu, KZN Economic Development and Tourism MEC, said a feasibility study was on the cards and that a “master plan” had identified the cable car as a must-have for the KwaZulu-Natal region to boost tourism and provide job creation.

One of the preferred sites for the cable car was in the Mnweni Valley near the Royal Natal National Park section of the World Heritage Site.

The proposed summit station would be in Lesotho at a height three times that of Table Mountain. The cable length would be three kilometres.

Crispin Hemson, the Durban-based chairperson of the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa), said that while eco-tourism had huge potential for South Africa it had to be thought through “at a deeper level and very carefully”.

The proposed cable car plan, he said, was grandiose and would certainly attract a great deal of interest and controversy if it went ahead.

“But the real question is whether such a facility would damage the very asset that the cable car is intended to celebrate. It is both unique and very sensitive, and should be approached with considerable caution and respect. The next question is the practicality and feasibility of such a proposal.”

He believed comparing Drakensberg with Table Mountain as a cable car destination conveyed the wrong impression.

“Table Mountain … is in the centre of the city. These are not wild and remote destinations like the Drakensberg mountain range. You don’t have to travel for hours to get there, which in revenue terms is important.”

The weather in the Drakens­berg range, said Hemson, was also “hugely unpredictable” and potentially dangerous.

“We now have much better understanding of the occurrence of tornadoes in the Drakensberg region; we also know that the area has a very high rate of lightning. If you look at a lightning map of the world, you will see the problem, compared say to Cape Town. A combination of extreme winds and electrical disruption may make the project just too vulnerable.”

He said there were many environmental and archeological tourism opportunities in KZN that were being overlooked.

“As just one example, we are not sufficiently responding to the tourist potential of birding, which can attract large numbers of high-spending tourists who are prepared to choose KZN, despite the long-haul flight. It’s a discerning market that wants something different — I don’t believe a cable car will do it for us,” he said.

There are others who believe that a cable car that would take visitors to dizzy heights has merit.

Professor Rob Slotow, of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Life Sciences, said he believed that making the high-mountain experience available for more people outweighed the cost of losing a “sense of space” in a small area.

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