A cable car to more than rival that on Table Mountain has been mooted as a “game changer” tourism project for KwaZulu-Natal’s uKhahlamba Drakensberg World Heritage Park.
Michael Mabuyakhulu, KZN’s Economic Development and Tourism MEC, announced at the tourism Indaba in Durban at the weekend that a detailed feasibility study on the proposed Drakensberg Cable Car was about to get under way.
“The tourism landscape in KwaZulu-Natal is poised for a dramatic change,” he said, noting that a draft tourism master plan had identified four tourism products that should be developed, including a cable car.
While details and exact costs were still sketchy, Mabuyakhulu'’s spokesman, Bheko Madlala, indicated that one of the preferred sites 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.
It is understood that the summit station would be in Lesotho, at a height almost three times that of Table Mountain, and the cable length would be 3km.
While the plan is set to win support as a boost for tourism, the location of a cable car next to a World Heritage Site is likely to draw criticism from environmental groups opposed to the commercialisation of a wilderness environment. Mabuyakhulu said adverts calling for service providers to undertake the study had been issued. The deadline for submissions is June 11.
“The project aims at investigating the development of a 3 300m cableway with an intermediate station, climbing 1 300m to the summit, which will be an elevation of 3 300m above sea level offering expansive views of KwaZulu Natal, Lesotho and Free State,” he said.
A pre-feasibility study was done in 2000 and indicated that some of the benefits of the project included the creation of 1 200 jobs and increased opportunities for small business in the tourism value chain.
“That study also indicated the project will create a new economic node in the Drakensberg region and will position KwaZulu-Natal on the national and international tourism map as a preferred tourism destination.
“The development of a Drakensberg Cable Car will provide an alternative to the Table Mountain Cableway in the Western Cape. The project will also unlock the tourism potential of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg region and enhance competitiveness of the province with regard to adventure tourism… It is earmarked in an area that is a World Heritage Site and if found feasible, it will enhance the stature of this international asset,” he said.
Mabuyakhulu said the detailed feasibility study would include an environmental impact assessment (EIA) that would look at the environmental, economic and social issues as well as cost of development.
The aim was to ensure the “co-existence of environmental management and economic development”.
But, while the MEC stressed that an EIA would be carried out, some environmentalists were divided on whether the project was in the best interests of the Drakensberg.
Roseanne Clark, chairwoman of the Sani branch of the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, was “dead against the idea”.
From a practical point of view she did not believe the project would be feasible as cable cars worked well in big cities such as Cape Town and Rio, ski resorts and highly developed countries.
“I am involved with a number of organisations; we are all against it… Apart from the practical problems, a cable car system will spoil the Drakensberg,” she said.
Professor Rob Slotow, of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Life Sciences, said the opportunity to make the experience of enjoying the views from the top of Drakensberg more accessible to more people outweighed the cost of losing the “sense of place” of a small area.
“The issue, however, is the careful planning on how to develop it.”
Bryan Ashe, an environmentalist with GeaSphere, said it was imperative that a full EIA was done before any decision was made.