Top South African mountain climber Alard “Big Al” Hufner has been forced to apologise to Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and the UN heritage agency for illegally building a 360m cable climbing route in the Drakensberg-Maloti World Heritage Park.
Apart from having to remove the steel cable route that was bolted into the mountainside, Hufner’s caper could end up costing him more than R160 000 in legal fees and other expenses.
He also has to perform 50 hours community service in the Royal Natal section of the park, not far from where the provincial government is hoping to build a much larger and controversial R570 million, 7km-long cable car route.
Based in Joburg and London, Hufner has climbed some of the steepest rock faces in the world. According to the Exploration Society of Southern Africa web page he works in the movie industry as a stunt rigger and has also been involved in projects such as Fear Factor and The Amazing Race.
In a public apology in the latest edition of SA Mountain magazine, Hufner said he took full responsibility for his “thoughtless, irresponsible… and at times arrogant actions and poor judgement” in building the cable route.
In a written agreement with Ezemvelo, he acknowledged that he would in all probability have ended up with a criminal record had he not agreed to the terms of the out-of-court settlement.
Hufner admitted erecting the steel climbing cable (or via ferrata) on Beacon Buttress in Royal Natal Nature Reserve in November and December 2011, along with a number of unnamed volunteers.
A via ferrata (Italian for “iron road”) is a steel cable route that allows relatively inexperienced climbers access to otherwise dangerous routes without the need for specialised climbing equipment.
The cable route provoked mixed reactions among mountaineers, with some describing Hufner and his friends as irresponsible “cowboys” and “naughty schoolboys”, while others praised them as “superheroes” who tried to open up a new, easier mountain route. His supporters chipped in more than R90 000 to cover his legal fees and associated costs after an online appeal on the Climbing SA website.
Hufner claimed on the website that he consulted an “incorrect” map and his route “accidentally encroached” into the world heritage site. But in his public apology in SA Mountain magazine, Hufner apologised for his “thoughtless” actions to Ezemvelo and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).
He further apologised for allowing the publication of “the Gordian Edge article” in the March-May issue of the SA Mountain Sport magazine in which he “incorrectly and inappropriately” portrayed Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife “in a poor light”.
“In this I risked the good relationship Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has with the Mountain Club of South Africa and the broader mountaineering community.
“I take full responsibility for committing an offence and have attempted to make good my thoughtless and arrogant actions by paying for the removal of the via ferrata cable and the anchoring pins and the rehabilitation of the damaged rock… ”
Hufner said he also wanted to encourage people to take conservation laws seriously.
“The majority of the World Heritage Sites in Danger are found in Africa; a major cause being deterioration in the scenic, natural or cultural values of the site due to human-induced impacts. I encourage the mountaineering community to learn about the importance of world heritage and the outstanding universal values which can be easily spoiled by people acting irresponsibly and taking the law into their own hands.”
Hufner, who is believed to be in London, could not be reached for further comment.
But Stephen Richert, the Ezemvelo officer in charge for Royal Natal, said world heritage sites were special places and the via ferrata cable had been installed with complete disregard for the visual impacts it would cause “by encouraging climbers en masse to gain access to the sensitive, upper reaches of the Beacon Buttress”.