Inspired by Table Mountain’s possible status as one of the world’s new seven natural wonders, Gary Hirson decides to scramble up it for a spot of breakfast. He discovers the icon is also setting standards for eco-friendly tourism.
Source: Horizons Magazine, July 2009
Written by: Gary Hirson
The gigantic stone sculpture of Table Mountain is always breathtaking. So it’s not surprising that the Cape Town icon was this year elected one of 261 natural sites from 222 countries to have made it through to the second round of the global votes race to name the New Seven Wonders of Nature.
At the time of writing, Table Mountain was in sixth place in Group C (Mountains, Volcanoes) in a field of 37. There are seven categories including Islands, Seascapes, Landscapes and Ice Formations. A shortlist of 21 nominees will be chosen by a panel of experts on 21 July 2009. Voting for the New Seven Wonders of Nature – via New7wonders.com – continues in 2010 and 2011. The winners will be announced in 2011.
One day last month, noticing the hints of pink and orange early-morning sunlight glinting off the cirrus clouds, I decided it was perfect weather for a hike to the top. Rising above the still-sleeping city, I set off up the India Venster trail just to the right of the lower cable station. I heard the whizz of the day’s first cable car as it passed me on its upward journey and noticed a bulky steel casket attached to its base, and made a mental note to enquire as to its purpose.
A couple of hours, two litres of water and a ravenous hunger later, I entered the recently revamped Table Mountain Café at the top of the mountain. I immediately asked about the casket, I’d seen. It’s a 4000-litre tank used to transport all the mountain-top complex’s sewage to the lower ground, head chef Harry Schmidt informed me. ‘The drinking water also has to be transported via cable car from the lower station.’ Not in the same casket, thankfully: ’For the fresh water there is a special tank that sits below the floor inside the cable car.’
Quite an operation, I thought to myself as I picked up a plate at the food counter. The plate was slightly different from the crockery I was accustomed to. On closer inspection, it seemed to be made of paper – a pet hate of mine. I’d been so looking forward to enjoying my morning fare while viewing the world from on high, and I was irritated at the thought of having to deal with a bowl full of fruit salad that would soon become limp in my hands. It wasn’t the standard I thought befitting a nominee for one of the natural wonders of the world. So I complained.
Andrew Thomas, food and beverage manager, handled the situation diplomatically. The plates are not made of paper, he assured me, they’re made of bagasse and sugar-cane pulp, a by-product of the sugar industry. They’re 100 percent biodegradable and compostable, and won’t get soggy or crumble halfway through a fruit salad and yoghurt. It was then I noticed the sign behind the counter. ‘We have chosen to conserve water and minimise pollution by introducing compostable containers for our food instead of using washable crockery.’
Still grumbling, I found a quit spot in the corner of the terrace offering a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean and the 12 Apostles. Close to me were some Australian tourists. Searching for some backup, I leant across to say: ’So, what do you think these new biodegradable plates? Look pretty dodgy, don’t they?’ ‘If it’s a good for the environment then it’s good enough for me. I don’t have a problem with them, mate,’ was one’s reply.
Andrew explained that Table Mountain is one of the Cape Town’s most visited attractions, with approximately 800 000 visitors to the summit per year. ’We’re very aware of the potential negative impact that such high-traffic tourism can have, and we’re committed to environmentally sound and sustainable business practices.’
Water is one oft the main resources used by the cableway, he said, and fresh water has to be transported from the lower ground. All grey water and sewage has to be sent down using the cable car. Research found that the restaurant was the major user of the water at the top station, with the kitchen using up to 80 percent of all water transported to the top. So Table Mountain Aerial Cableway decided to lower its carbon footprint. Among measures to reduce the water usage, they decided that the new cafe should serve food using compostable plates and containers, as dishwashing was identified as the single largest water consumer.
Since the implementation of the compostable plates, the company has reduced water consumption from 1.3 litres to only 0.5 litres per person per day. That’s saving of around 640 000 litres per year. Not only that, but because less water is being used, fewer cable-car trips are needed. The company has reduced the number of water-carrying trips by as many as 215 per year, which reduces electricity usage.
And what happens to the plates? I asked. They’re sent to a processing plant were they are biodegraded into water, carbon dioxide and compost within 45 days, under controlled conditions. Once the process is completed, the compost is sold off to be used, said Andrew. The ground-breaking initiative won the Imvelo Award for Best Single Resource Management Programme in the water category. Representatives of quite a few businesses – especially those with large canteens – have visited Table Mountain to see how they could use the approach in their own workplaces.
‘Since the introduction of the plates,’ added Andrew, ‘we’ve only had one complainant – you.’ Looking at my compostable plate that was quite firm, I noticed my fruit salad seemed to have turned into humble pie.
Many visitors underestimate the dangers of climbing Table Mountain, resulting in several people becoming stranded on the mountain each year. The Indian Venster route alone has taken a number of lives this year, with ramblers unprepared for the complexity of this path. Table Mountain National Park recommends walkers use the easier Platteklip Gorge route, which also leads to the upper cable station. Those wishing to hike one of the other routes can make use of SANpark’s trained guides – for the Hoerikwaggo Trail, Lion’s Head, the Pipe Track along the base of 12 Apostles, Skeleton Gorge to Maclear’s Beacon (the Smuts Track), upper cable station to Maclear’s Beacon, as well as Platteklip Gorge.
More thinks to do
Take a walk on Blaauwberg Beach. About half an hour from the CBD, the beach is on the opposite side of the Table Bay from the mountain and it’s from here that the iconic photographs of the mountain are taken with the sea in the foreground.
Need to Know
Fire is a serious risk on the Table Mountain. In March this year residents had to evacuate their homes when flames ravaged the lower slopes. Visitors should not light braai fires or discard cigarette butts anywhere on the mountain, and should remove all their own rubbish, as litter – especially broken glass – may pose a fire hazard.
British Airways flies to Cape Town. ba.com
Source: Horizons Magazine, July 2009
Written by: Gary Hirson