One can only imagine the amazement and awe of those first inhabitants of the Cape, and the settlers who came after, on rounding Table Bay and laying eyes on Table Mountain.
Subject of myth and legend, this ancient massif has been a symbol of Cape Town ever since. Before 1929, the only way to get up the one kilometer high city guardian was by way of a dangerous climb.
In 1926 a cableway to the top was proposed and in 1929, a relatively short while later for such an innovative project, the then Mayor of Cape Town officially opened and rode in, the first cable-car to the top. Since that day millions have experienced the journey up – barring me.
I’ve summitted Table Mountain countless times, but never by the way of the cable-car. Being something of a control freak and afraid of heights – the thought of being enclosed in a suspended, rotating pod doesn’t bode well for my issues.
Mid – winter and I’m enjoying my early morning hike along Tafelberg road that runs parallel to the lower station of the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway Company (TMACC). Enjoying the solitude that this early hour brings I’m confronted with a whining, crane-bearing truck blocking my path. Heavy machinery and two hefty rolls of cable block my path as a sizeable group of workers discuss the day’s schedule in a huddle.
Andries de Vries, who introduces himself as TMACC’s Technical Manager, tells me that today is the first day of the annual maintenance shutdown.
I’m sure you feel the need to be safe when you ride in the carriages to the top, and we’re making sure that happens?”
“I’ve never ridden in the cable-car,” I openly admit, “I’m not that trusting.”
Andries responds with a raised eyebrow, “There’s not much I can do about your fear of heights, but I’m sure I can alleviate your trust issues if you’ll indulge me?”
He continues, saying that depending on what kind of maintenance needs to be done, the cableway company shuts down every winter for a mimimum of 2 weeks. “This year we’re closed for 5 weeks because of major overhauls and installations. All maintenance schedules are aligned with the most stringent Swiss standards, known as the BAV code for cableways and are recognised worldwide.”
“Swiss engineers come out as schedules require for the mechanical and electrical shutdowns to do tests according to the BAV code. This year they’re here to oversee the “heel” rope replacement, which is one of the ropes that pull the carriages up and down the guide ropes. This has to be done every 4-6 years, adhering to stringent safety standards.
In addition to this both carriages will be overhauled, tested, and fitted with new parts if required.
“Ropes?” I ask apprehensively.
“That’s what we call all the operating cables.”
Andries leads me to where one of the carriages has been lowered from the “ropes” and is perched on a scaffolding frame. Tools, cables, nuts, bolts, winches and clamps are spread out everywhere in an organised fashion. Looking up my stomach tumbles as I witness one of the Swiss Engineers walking a tight –rope along one of the guide cables. Checking this and tinkering with that, the Swiss acrobat seems comfortable with his head in the clouds.
“So besides the Swiss experts, who obviously can’t be here year round, who else is there to make sure all runs smoothly?”
Andries leads me indoors where a group of artisans are inspecting, filing, polishing and cleaning what looks like pieces from the dismantled carriage.
“Teams of local fitters, electricians and their assistants maintain and check daily, weekly and monthly according to schedules set out by the BAV code. This is internally audited on a monthly basis so that we retain our International Standard of Operation certificate. This includes seemingly minor things like checking for rust which is performed with the same due diligence expected as if we were doing a carriage overhaul or a rope change.”
I’m warming to the idea of this hyper-vigilant and rigorous safety protocol that ensures that over 21 million tourists and counting have been safely transported up and down the mountain over the last 82 years.
“But there is still the man management needed in the case of an emergency,” Andries says, almost reading my mind.
“Both of our cabins are manned by fully trained first-aid and rescue personnel, who are cabin master certified.”
Andries allows me to wander around and I take in the scale of the operation. Engineers are inspecting the massive hanging apparatus from which the carriages hangs. Nearby a pair of local technicians apply grease to a section of springs, and above me more personnel are manually jacking up the massive carriages. There is an air of confident professionalism as these highly trained technicians go about their tasks.
“As I’m sure you’re aware, we’ve been voted in as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. We’re all for responsible and eco-friendly tourism, but safety is key. If we are considered to be un-safe, tourists wouldn’t even consider going up the mountain by carriage. Having over 800 000 trusting tourists journeying safely up the mountain annually speaks volumes in itself.”
I look up to the Swiss engineer who is confidently perched like a trapeze artist on the cable, silhouetted by the dramatic backdrop of the mountain.
I realise that it just might be time to confront one of my fears.
Pictures related to this story can be viewed at http://www.garyhirson.com/portfolio/documentary/?album=10&gallery=63