The idea of a cable car in the Drakensberg is not new. It has however recently received fresh impetus and media attention. Various locations for the project have been considered, in particular the Mnweni area situated in the Northern Drakensberg. As a group of concerned people who are very familiar with the Mnweni, and who cumulatively have been exploring the Drakensberg for many decades, we are concerned that this project will become a white elephant should it go ahead. We believe the idea is particularly unsuited to the Mnweni and that it is neither sustainable nor desirable in the Berg as a whole.

The following is a list of considerations supporting our concern:

1) The cable car proposal was already evaluated a few years ago by the Federation of Drakensberg User Groups, and in a detailed report released by them it was shown to be not economically viable 1.

2) Further to the report mentioned above, we wish to emphasise that the low number of days that the cable car can be expected to operate, or be supported by tourists, will result in major economic loss. In the summer months, mist and cloud typically envelopes the escarpment by mid morning and stays for the rest of the day. The view from the escarpment itself is non-existent on these days. In winter, the strongest winds anywhere in southern Africa, which are part of the circumpolar westerlies, blow over the escarpment. Once the night time surface temperature inversion is removed by the morning sun, the fierce wind mixes down to the surface to produce gusts which are often in excess of 100 km/hr - well beyond the operating threshold of cable ways. Hikers experience this wind routinely and data gathered by climate scientists from this remote region confirms this. Another vital clue to the existence of these winds are the proposed wind farms in the highlands of Lesotho.

3) The safety of the cable car operation and its clientele should be taken into consideration. The extreme weather already mentioned above can close in very quickly and could leave many passengers stranded at high altitudes. Furthermore, lightning strikes occur on the escarpment almost daily in summer, and multiple strikes occur on more than 100 days per year. We also draw attention to the cross-border smuggling in the region. Many tons of narcotics are trafficked from Lesotho into South Africa over the Drakensberg, something which hikers regularly see first-hand. We question the wisdom in drawing high numbers of tourists into such an area, especially where shoot-outs occur between rival bands of smugglers, and where raids and ambushes are undertaken by the authorities at times. Such an influx of people with relative wealth to the area could also lead to the development of theft problems. We cite the long-standing theft problems in the neighbouring Amphitheatre area, and the muggings taking place on Table Mountain, as examples of what can happen.

4) The local community do not want the project - “The cableway will destroy our community and our wilderness (ihlane),” said Mkwazeni Hlongwane, in a recent media statement 2, where he also stated that various cultural and community activities such as medicinal plant harvesting would be adversely affected. “There has been no consultation with the community; we are not happy about the process,” he said. “One thousand people survive here because of what the mountains give us. The cable-way will employ 100, but what about the other 900?”

5) The process of formally declaring the upper reaches of the Mnweni a conservation area has already begun. This is a major mile-stone in the history of the Drakensberg, and the aim is a form of integration with the current uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park – World Heritage Site. This status will require that any present and future planning and development follow the correct environmental and social impact assessments, and may even halt proposals altogether.

6) The escarpment top is a bleak area. It is a far cry from the lush valleys and the fast flowing rivers of the lower Berg. It is extremely cold, damp and wind-swept with a vegetation type that resembles semi-desert in large areas of the region concerned. While this may be appealing to a few, we question if there is sufficient interest to see this kind of landscape to make a project of this scale viable and justified.


It is understood that there may be arguments in favour of the cable car in that it will boost revenue from tourism and create jobs. However, smart, not risky investment is needed in KwaZulu-Natal. There already is a long track record of poorly scoped, failed tourist development, and we believe the proposed cable car could add another white elephant to the list. We would rather see KwaZulu-Natal take it’s example from the Waterfront in Cape Town, and not the cable car on Table Mountain. A far better investment would be to start consolidating the Durban Port zone which is a mess of fragmented development between the Point and the Embankment.

We call for wise investment and sensible initiatives for the long-term benefit and sustainability of both the Drakensberg and the province.

This statement was prepared by Chris Sommer, on behalf of the community of Drakensberg user groups represented at Vertical Endeavour, a community-driven website featuring the Maloti-Drakensberg Mountains 3.

 


1. The report may downloaded here: www.vertical-endeavour.com/public/PreFeasability_Study_Mnweni_Cable_Car.pdf

2. Media article citing concerns by the local community: www.witness.co.za/index.php?showcontent&global[_id]=88966

3. Visit Vertical Endeavour at: www.vertical-endeavour.com

 

This article may be freely distributed with due reference. It may be downloaded in Word format here: http://www.vertical-endeavour.com/public/White-Elephants-shouldnt-roam-the-Berg.docx

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Philip's Avatar
Philip replied to: #58444 10 Sep 2013 07:11
'Tour buses' - Tour buses are already catered for on Sani Pass. They park in Underberg, or at a local hotel. Tourists are then transferred into 'individually motorized gondolas', and back into their tour buses after the trip. Each 'gondola' has its own driver / guide, providing employment and supporting the local tourist industry!

'People with limited finances' - They have two options - they can walk up Sani Pass from the SA border control (3hrs up 2hrs down) - this is completely safe as they cannot get lost, and if they have a 'problem' can easily be rescued. Second option - use the local 4x4 taxis!

'Time sensitive tourists' - (whatever that means) - Several 'gondola' operators will run a half day trip - a complete travesty in my opinion, but there you are!

'Wheelchair access' - Plans are well developed for a rebuilt 'Sani Top Chalet' - now called 'Sani Mountain Lodge'. I am quite sure that wheelchair access will have been considered. I will check with the managers when I am next up there...

'School groups' - School groups are often accessing the High Berg and Lesotho via Sani Pass. As a guide I have been involved in many trips...

An additional point is that the existing Underberg / SA tourist industry is making positive contributions to the Lesotho communities at Sani Top and further afield. This adds an important 'cross-cultural' element to Sani Pass trips. This will not be the case above the Mnweni area, as there are no permanent Basotho communities anywhere nearby.

Visitors to the Sani Pass area can access some of the most stunning day hikes - for example Hodgson's Peaks, and of course Thabana Ntlenyana. Even simply walking out along the 'Twelve Apostles' is as rewarding as anywhere else. (Yes, I know we all have our favorite secret places that we will argue are more spectacular - but tourists don't know them do they?! ;) Sani Stone Lodge (see my posting 'Alternative Accommodation at Sani Top') can offer the unique opportunity of riding horses along the top of the Drakensberg Escarpment, and inland to isolated Basotho villages. Riding horses along the top of the Drakensberg is an experience not to be missed (if you get on with horses!). Organizing that experience anywhere else along the top of the KZN Drakensberg is logistically so complex that it is almost not worth it.

I completely agree that Sani Pass is an argument against the cable car and is exactly the point I am making in this post!
ghaznavid's Avatar
ghaznavid replied to: #58440 09 Sep 2013 19:39
That was one of the points in my reply, I must get to writing that sometime soon...

These include:
- Tour buses


It it just me, or is that a major contradiction :lol:

As for the others:
- why can't a school group go up Sani Pass? Doesn't make much sense
- the reason a disabled person can't go up Sani Pass is that the bathrooms up there aren't wheelchair accessible. I know this due to having tried to make a plan to get my mother's best friend up there. She loves the Berg and has been in a wheelchair since she was 3. That is a fairly cheap and easy problem to fix vs a cable car
- Time sensitive tourists won't drive to Mnweni to start with. Also Cobham is closer to Durban - to the top of Sani Pass is 249km per Google Maps - compared to Mnweni - 266km per Google Maps.
- People with limited finances? R228 for a ticket vs roughly the same for the Sani taxi isn't it?
- Elderly people? What stops them from using Sani Pass?
intrepid's Avatar
intrepid replied to: #58438 09 Sep 2013 19:18

The cable car will be a unique development that attracts people to the area and will provide the easiest and only way for many people to access the escarpment. Currently there are only two ways to access the escarpment top – by foot or by 4x4 up Sani Pass. Neither of these options are available to most tourists. We believe the cable car will fill the gap and provide this access to the most scenic parts of the Drakensberg to a whole new market of people. These include:
- School groups
- Tour buses
- Disabled people
- Time sensitive tourists
- People with limited finances
- Elderly people

Page 40 of the recent feasibility study

I never really agreed with the statement that Sani Pass was not available to "most tourists". I tend to agree with you Philip. In my view Sani Pass is an argument against the cable car, not an argument for it. Or are we missing something here?
ghaznavid's Avatar
ghaznavid replied to: #58418 07 Sep 2013 19:15
I completely agree...
Philip's Avatar
Philip replied to: #58417 07 Sep 2013 18:44
It is my opinion that there is already a 'cable-way' in the Drakensberg, it is called Sani Pass. The main difference is that the gondolas are individually motorized! Why do we need another 'cable-way'? Anyone wanting to access the High Berg without expending any energy, and in relative comfort can do so. The infrastructure to receive tourists at the top is already in place. All the views and vistas are there, with the added attraction of driving on to Black Mountain Pass and into Lesotho. If the weather is inclement, the motorized gondolas stop running, with no expensive equipment lying dormant. The tourist industry servicing Sani Pass has evolved to meet a demand - much more healthy than setting up infrastructure and then attempting to create a demand!