“What to do today?” I pondered upon opening my curtains and taking in a perefect early morning Sunday. My energy levels jumped a gear as rising in front of me and seemingly suspended from the rich blue sky, stood the most colossal sandstone sculptor overlooking and guarding the city.
I would have loved to be able to have chatted to the ancient dwellers of the now Cape Peninsula and listened to their thoughts and feelings regarding the rocky outcrop that rises over 1000 meters above sea level – Table Mountain. “Hoerikwaggo” is what the indigenous Khoekhoen call Table Mountain, meaning “mountains in the sea”. And that is exactly what it must have looked like 100 000 years ago when they and the San hunted and gathered in the vicinity. Surrounded on 3 sides by ocean and now protecting an ever-growing city below its face, Table Mountain has always, and will forever enchant, attract, amaze and enthral both locals and tourists alike.
One can only imagine the utter amazement the first white settlers must have experienced on rounding the corner into Table Bay and viewing the lightly covered, clouded, table-cloth, drifting atop this grand, sandstone canvas. History tells us they were instantly smitten.
From that day forward the infatuation with the city guardian has continued, and for many centuries only a handful of the more modern adventurers and citizens have experienced the view from the top. Back then the only way to ascend was by way of at times, a dangerous climb.
The long fascination with conquering the mountain for all to see came to a head when a railway line was proposed in the late 1800’s. But the start of the Anglo Boer War quickly put paid to that idea. It seemed like wars would be a reoccurring delaying factor in the conquering of Table Mountain, as once again a funicular proposal was shelved as the First World War destroyed everything in its tracks.
In 1926 a cableway to the top was proposed and agreed upon and in 1929, a relatively short while later for such an adventurous project, the then Mayor of Cape Town officially opened and partook in the first ride to the top. Since that day, over 19 million people, including royalty and celebrities, have experienced the journey up and the breath- taking, panoramic views from the top.
As my thoughts drifted back to the present I took in the hints of pink and orange early morning sunlight gliding off the thin cirrus clouds. With the day so fresh and still I quickly decided that this was the day to hike to the top of Cape Towns’ natural work of art. With the recent unpredictable weather patterns that we’ve been experiencing, who knows when I’d have such a dry opportunity to summit the sandstone monolith.
Rising above the still dozing city, I made my way up the path of India Venster just to the right of the lower cable way station. As clambered my way up the pathway, enjoying the fresh air, stillness and colourful flowers that dotted the stone canvas, I heard the “whizzing” of the first cable car as it passed me on its journey to the summit.
Noticing a bulky steel casket attached to the bottom of the car I made a mental note to enquire about this when I reached the top.
A couple of hours, two litres of water and with a ravenous hunger later, I made my way into the revamped restaurant-Table Mountain Cafe- at the top of the mountain.
Remembering the steel casket attached to the cable car I asked the manager on duty what that was all about.
“That,’ replied the head chef, “is the 4000 litre tank that transports all the sewerage down from the top of the mountain.”
“Where does the drinking water come from?” I asked.
“That also has to be transported via cable car from the lower station. But 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.
Deep in thought about the operation of transporting water up and down the mountain, I didn’t realise that the plate in my hand was slightly different to the normal crockery that I was usually used to.
Looking at it closer I realised that I was holding what seemed to be a paper plate, my worst nightmare. I absolutely hate paper plates. The way they bend when they’re loaded and soggy from gravy. How pieces of shredded cardboard end up on ones knife while cutting through the food and into the plate.
I was so looking forward to enjoying my morning faire while viewing the world from above that I became irritated at the thought of having to deal with a food filled board that would soon be limp in my hands.
“Where’s the manager?” I yelled at the counter hand.
The Food and Beverage manager, approached me to enquire about my irritation.
“I’ve just spent two hours hiking up this natural beauty, I’m ravenous, and I want to enjoy the view while eating my breakfast. How can you expect me to eat off a paper plate?” I sneered.
“Well sir it’s not actually paper. In fact they’re made from bagasse and sugar cane pulp, a by-product of the sugar industry. They’re 100% biodegrable and compostable.”
Trying to counter the forceful sucker punch I’d just received, and needing to justify my outburst, I countered. “Well I’m sure it’s going to get soggy and crumble once I’m half way through my fruit salad and yoghurt!”
“Sir, I assure you, you won’t experience anything of the sort,” he smiled back.
Mumbling under my breath I turned to the food counter and held out my plate to be filled with some fruit and noticed a sign hanging behind the counter stating exactly what Andrew had just told me. We have chosen to conserve water and minimise pollution by introducing compostable containers for our food instead of using washable crockery…
Still grumbling from my defeat I found myself a quiet spot in the corner of the balcony overlooking the spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean and the 12 Apostles. While tucking into my healthy breakfast I overheard an Australian accent commenting about his plate that was stacked with a full English breakfast.
Needing some back up, I leaned across and moaned at the “Ozzies,” “So what do you think of these new biodegradable plates. Look pretty dodgy, don’t they?”
Whitson, from Queensland replied in good Australian fashion, “If it’s good for the environment then it’s good enough for me. I don’t have a problem with them mate.”
Totally dejected I sulked into my breakfast seething at not being able to find reinforcements to take on the management with.
The F&B manager noticing my displeasure came over and sat down.
“Sir,” he said politely. “Do you mind if I sit here and take out the time to explain to you our reasoning for the compostable plates?”
“No,” I replied lifting my guard.
“Table Mountain is one of Cape Town’s most visited attractions with approximately 800 000 people visiting the summit per year,” he started.
“We are 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. One of the main resources used by the Cableway is water, and fresh water has to be transported from the bottom and all grey water and sewerage has to be sent down using the cable cars. Through research it was found that the restaurant was the major user of water at the Top station with the kitchen using up to 80% of all water transported to the top.”
Realising that I was being informed about the responsibility taken on by TMACC to lower their carbon footprint, I sheepishly listened and wandered how I was going to apologise for my earlier childish outburst.
“Among other measures to reduce the water usage at the top station, we decided that the new Table Mountain Café serve food using compostable plates and containers as dishwashing was identified as the single largest water consumer within the restaurant setting.”
“Okay, so how much water are you saving then?” I asked hoping that the saving be insignificant enough so that at least I’d save face.
“Since the implementation of the compostable plates we’ve reduced water consumption from 1.3 litres to only 0.5 litres per person.”
Doing the maths in my head I realised that there was a saving of around 640 000 litres per annum.
“But also,” he continued, “as we’re using much less water that would have had to be transported via cable car up the mountain, we’ve reduced the amount of water carrying trips by as much as 215 trips per year. Obviously reducing our electricity usage.”
“So what happens to the plates then?” I asked
“The plates are sent to a processing plant and will biodegrade into water, carbon dioxide and compost within 45 days under controlled conditions. Once the process is complete the compost is sold off for usage.” He replied
Not knowing when I’m truly beaten, and clutching at straws, I altered my tack.
“From which you’ll financially benefit?” I asked hopefully.
“The only financial benefit to us is that we’ve reduced the usage of the environmentally friendly dish washing liquid that we use. We make no money from the sale of the compost.”
“And besides my opinion what do the visitors think of your plates?” I asked, dredging for ammunition.
“Since the introduction of the plates, we’ve only had one complainant, you?”
Noticing my embarrassment he continued. “Being one of the first tourist attractions in South Africa to implement this initiative we’ve had quite a few business’s visiting us to learn about the idea. Companies with big canteens are especially interested.”
“We at TMACC are especially sensitive to environmental issues and due to our initiatives we’ve recently won the Imvelo Award for-Best Single Resource Management Programme, category: WATER.”
Looking down at my compostable plate, that hadn’t turned soggy, and was still exactly the same as when I first picked it up, I noticed that my fruit salad and yoghurt had turned to humble pie.
Table Mountain’s safety procedures :