Durban – Plans for a controversial 7km cable car route to the top of the Drakensberg have changed with a new proposal to extend it by another 5km to link it to the Afriski ski resort in Lesotho and indirectly to a failed golf estate near Bergville.
This follows a meeting last week between Mike Mabuyakhulu, the KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Economic Development and Tourism, and his counterparts from Lesotho and the Free State, where it was agreed that a new technical committee would be set up to discuss potential cable car partnership opportunities.
Mabuyakhulu told a briefing in Durban that his department had also agreed to assist the Lesotho government to conduct its own feasibility study into extending the cableway by another 5km into the mountain kingdom. This could bring the top of the cable car route much closer to the Afriski development near Butha-Buthe in Lesotho.
Apart from stimulating the development of new hotel accommodation, supermarkets and resorts, the cable car, and its base station near Bergville, could act as a catalyst to “revitalise” the failed Nondela Drakensberg Mountain Estate.
The 1 500ha Nondela golf course and housing development, linked to flamboyant property developer Zunaid Moti, collapsed shortly before its launch, during the 2008 financial crisis.
Mabuyakhulu said it might be possible to redevelop this almost-completed estate either in its original form or by reconfiguring it.
While a draft cable car business plan has been published by consultants Graham Muller Associates, Mabuyakhulu said his department hoped to launch a new “market-testing process” and a “reworked” business plan shortly.
Last year, the MEC estimated that the project could cost about R500-million with further operating costs of R20m a year.
Mabuyakhulu remained up-beat about launching the “game-changing” plan as soon as possible to promote tourism development, but he also acknowledged that “the nature of this project requires us to be patient”.
His references to “reworking” the business plan and “enhancing” investment opportunities have also raised questions around the financial feasibility of the original stand-alone cable car route – especially if the cableway is extended.
It also emerged yesterday that the public consultation process, which was supposed to end last month, had been extended to February 14.
While Mabuyakhulu attributed this to the mourning period following Nelson Mandela’s death, some representatives of the AmaZizi community have expressed strong opposition to the project and voiced preference for an alternative plan to establish a new community-owned nature reserve and wilderness area.
Because the cable car route is on the boundary of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg World Heritage Site, it is understood that the national Department of Environmental Affairs and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife raised concerns about the proximity of the project and the need to consult the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) which oversees the World Heritage Convention.
The MEC said his department had been advised to consult Unesco about the environmental impacts and about the international criteria that should be followed when drawing up the terms of reference for the environmental impact assessment (EIA).
Environmental watchdog groups such as the Wilderness Action Group and African Conservation Trust have also raised concerns about degrading the wilderness value of the globally significant uKhahlamba-Drakensberg park.
A new review of the cable project by Pietermaritzburg-based Newman Accounting and Tax Services has questioned the financial viability of the project, particularly the assumption that up to 300 000 visitors would use the cable car every year.
African Conservation Trust (ACT) pointed out that these numbers were unrealistic, as the current total numbers to the northern berg are about half this.
The Maloti-Drakensberg Mountains Facebook group posted a link to an Avaaz petition against the proposed cableway earlier this month.
Newman also said projected ticket prices of R350 per adult and R200 for children (R1 100 for a family of four) appeared higher than the majority of cableways elsewhere in the world, and it was questionable how many repeat visitors there would be.
However, Mabuyakhulu said that ticket prices would be for the operators and private investors to decide. He suggested that the operators might consider differentiated tariff structures to provide discounted prices for South Africans.
He hoped the EIA process would be launched in March, but this raised questions on whether this process could begin in the absence of firm investors and a final business plan.
The Mercury By Tony Carnie