Bumpy ride awaits proposed 7km-long Drakensberg cable car
The KZN provincial government has thrown its political weight behind a 'game-changing' plan to boost tourism in KwaZulu-Natal by creating a 7km-long cable car route to the top of the Drakensberg mountain range at a cost of around R500 million.
If the plan goes ahead, the cable car would transport visitors to the top of the escarpment near the Royal Natal National Park and back down at a cost of around R200 for adults, with a journey time of about 22 minutes each way.
Releasing an 80-page feasibility study into the project in Durban yesterday, Economic Development and Tourism MEC Mike Mabuyakhulu said he was convinced that the project would dramatically improve tourism revenue in KZN and attract at least 300 000 cable car visitors a year (around 820 people a day).
Nevertheless, the report is likely to spark rigorous debate, with several observers questioning whether the scheme makes financial sense for investors.
The proposed base station would be located in the rural Mnweni area, a short distance off the main N3 highway, near KZN's border with Lesotho and Free State province.
It was not clear yet who would pay for the massive construction costs of between R420m and R500m or the annual operating costs of around R20m, but Mabuyakhulu appealed to private investors to 'join hands with the government in making this project a success'.
Previous plans to build a cable car and casino in the same area have been vigorously opposed by wilderness and mountain conservation groups, and the latest government-driven project is likely to be met with a similar degree of opposition.
Mabuyakhulu said he recognised the need to 'strike a balance between environmental preservation and potential economic fortunes' and committed the provincial government to a full environmental impact assessment.
Nevertheless, said the MEC, the provincial government was not shy about stating its strong support for the project, which he believed would 'awaken the sleeping giant of the Drakensberg region'.
'We chose this area owing to the fact that it is not only one of the world's breathtaking natural wonders, but also because it has the potential of further enhancing the competitiveness of the province with regard to adventure tourism.'
But Steve Cooke, a local mountaineer and retired mechanical engineer who helped to compile a previous pre-feasibility study for a similar project in the Berg more than a decade ago, warned that the cablecar was likely to become a 'white elephant'.
'People look at the massive revenues from the Table Mountain cable car and think this success can be transposed to the Drakensberg - but they seem to be missing the point that the Table Mountain base station is just 18km away from an international airport in an iconic tourist city of almost four million people.
'But in the case of the Berg, the cable station is in a remote rural area at least three hours from Durban and a similar distance from Johannesburg.
'Table Mountain is a flat and pleasant environment at a height of about 1 000m, whereas the top of Berg site is at over 3 000m in a semi-arid high-mountain environment where the temperatures can drop to -15°C in winter in the daytime. In the summer you can set your watch by the start of the regular afternoon thunderstorms.'