Cableway a high-wire act
A feasibility study is being conducted into the economic viability of a proposed cable car in the Mnweni area of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg World Heritage Park.
But opposition to the cableway - billed as a potential rival to the one on Cape Town's Table Mountain - is growing, with hikers and climbers saying the weather and the safety of tourists have not been taken into account.
In 2000, a pre-feasibility study found that the development, aimed at boosting tourism in the area, was not economically viable.
Yet, at last year's Tourism Indaba in Durban, economic development and tourism MEC Michael Mabuyakhulu announced the resurrection of the proposal.
"The project aims at investigating the development of a 3300m cableway with an intermediate station, climbing 1300m to the summit, which will be at an elevation of 3300m above sea level, offering expansive views of KwaZulu-Natal, Lesotho and the Free State," he said.
Vertical Endeavour, which runs a community-driven website featuring the Maloti-Drakensberg mountains, yesterday said there would be significant periods of time during which it would not be viable to operate the cable car . This would limit revenue .
"In the summer months, mist and cloud typically envelop the escarpment by mid-morning and stay for the rest of the day.
"The view from the escarpment itself is non-existent on those 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 often in excess of 100km/h - well beyond the operating threshold of cableways," Vertical Endeavour representative Chris Sommer said.
"The extreme weather 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."
Sommer said the top of the escarpment was a bleak environment.
"It is a far cry from the lush valleys and the fast- flowing rivers of the lower Berg. It is extremely cold, damp and windswept with a vegetation type that resembles semi-desert in large areas of the region.
"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."
The local community has rejected the plan and is concerned that the area will be "spoiled" by the development.
"The process of formally declaring the upper reaches of the Mnweni a conservation area has already begun. This is a major milestone 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," Sommer added.
Last year, the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa also objected to the proposal.