Fixing the mountain

2008-07-11 00:00

“Give me 150 blokes and I will fix the mountain.” These were the words, six years ago, of Cape Town environmentalist James Nowicki to authorities at South Africa’s most visited national park, the Table Mountain National Park.

Today, after four years of intensive work, Nowicki and his team have “fixed” more than 300 kilometres of footpaths on the scenic Table Mountain Chain, which stretches from Signal Hill to Cape Point. This means that the more than 4,2 million annual visitors to the park can breathe a little more easily as they hike the slopes and enjoy its beautiful flora and fauna.

Nowicki (42), who grew up in Johannesburg and studied environmental science at the University of Cape Town, fell in love with all the mountains of the Cape the moment he got to Cape Town. “I would disappear into the mountains at every opportunity, from Table Mountain to Cape Point, to the Cedarberg and the Hottentots-Holland,” says the father of two, who also loves surfing, sailing and “anything that doesn’t require fossil fuels”.

He got to know all the paths backwards and noticed that many of them were falling to pieces. “Many of them were the original footpaths which used to be really strong. Some of them had an incredible history, particularly relating to their stonework. Some were phenomenal paths of up to 150 years old, for instance those at Devils Peak and Table Mountain, including the old Pipe Track.”

While he was working in various non-governmental organisation jobs in renewable energy, recycling and pollution control, in his spare time, Nowicki started taking photographs to monitor the rates of erosion of the mountain paths. “I took very vague measurements which were quite unscientific.” Then he wrote a proposal on what could be done to rectify the situation.

He presented the proposal to the authorities at the Table Mountain National Park who were given money for a Public Works Programme. They gave him the go-ahead.

As design project manager, one of his first tasks was to identify which paths would be fixed first. “I worked closely with the ‘green team’, the rangers of the Table Mountain National Park. We decided to tackle some of the worst paths first. For instance, there was a two-metre by two-metre deep donga, where a firebreak used to be, on Vlakkenberg, the central spinal connector route on the mountain.”

A key aspect of the project, besides fixing paths, was the creation of the six-day Table Mountain Hoerikwagga hiking trail, which will eventually become a 90-kilometre trail from Cape Town to Cape Point.

The team has just opened a four-day trail, part of the Hoerikwagga of which the Vlakkenberg path is a major section, with two days’ worth of paths still to be completed.

Nowicki started off with three teams, made up of people from poor communities in the area, each with a separate project manager. At the height of the project, two years ago, he had 13 teams of 12 people working between Signal Hill and Cape Point. “The training programme included an understanding of the fynbos, rockbreaking, how to handle and carry rock, and how to build with it.

“There is quite an art to handling and trimming rock. We also taught the workers through training on the 16 different interventions one can do. For instance one can build a dry wall, where you pack the stone into a dry wall to a specified height. Or one could create a water bar or culvert, which is a rock system to push water off a path. One can set up tow rocks, which are base rocks to stop soil erosion.’’

According to Nowicki, in order to build sustainable paths, it is necessary to understand the unique nature of every single slope and path. “This involves a huge amount of walking and getting to know the soil and the different rock types. The rocks could be hard or soft and the soils are all unique. Slope dynamics are also very important. No path is the same as another. It is the same with nature. When we go out there to fix paths, we have to think how a hiker thinks and walks. We have to work out how water would behave on the different paths. The aim is to keep the hikers on the path, to keep water off the path and to try to stop soil movement down the path.”

In the first three years, Nowicki and his teams fixed 240 kilometres of footpaths. “This is a huge distance because, in some areas, you are working on every single metre of the path. On others you only have to work on it every five or 10 metres,” says Nowicki.

In the third year, they completed another 63 kilometres. According to Nowicki, their work was completed in the nick of time. “We had record rains last year. If we hadn’t done this work, the rain would have ripped that mountain to shreds. We have reduced the water impact significantly, which was one of our aims.”

Nowicki believes their work has probably saved a lot of lives already. “We work closely with Mountain Rescue. About five people are killed on Table Mountain annually, often because of obvious things. The people at Table Mountain direct us to places where things are going wrong. As a result, fewer people are getting lost and hurt. The whole mountain is more user-friendly.”

He has seen self-esteem benefits to the people working on the project in terms of pride in the environment and in the wide range of knowledge they gained. “It’s something about the peace, the fynbos and the diversity. It does something to people. It calms them down, gives them confidence and makes them feel at home in the world,” says Nowicki, who kept a diary during his path-building experiences and has accumulated a huge collection of photographs of the plant life in the area.

Nowicki’s next task will be to build paths for the last day of the Hoerikwagga Trail between the Cape Point gate and Simonstown. Maintenance jobs will also keep him and his teams busy. After that, he will continue working freelance in rebuilding footpaths where necessary. “I am interested in erosion control, land reclamation and, in general, just taking messed-up land and fixing it up again.

“One of my immediate ambitions is to fix up the messed-up paths in the national parks around Cape Town. The Cape Nature department has 23 reserves and some are in a shocking state.”

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