2 October 2005
R162 development put on hold after objections by environmentalists
PLANS to build a cableway and hotels on top of the Drakensberg have stalled because environmental groups have protested against the development.
Progress on the R162-million development came to a halt this week as authorities battled with environmentalists. If passed, the proposed development by a Free State-based company, Idwala Projects would feature:
- Hotels and restaurants on top of the Drakensberg, near the Sentinel on the Free State side;
- A 2.7km-long cableway and 40 cottages in the north near the Sentinel, one of the two mountain peaks flanking the Amphitheatre rockface. ï An education centre with a research institute;
- An indoor sports stadium;
- A shooting range; and
- Film studios and cinemas.
The developers claim the project will generate R31-million in the first year of operation – including 144 000 ticket sales for the cable way.
Bergwatch, a project of the Wildlife and Environment Society of SA, has led a petition campaign contesting the development`s financial viability and raising concerns about the possible harm on the environment.
The Bergwatch chairman, Keith Cooper, said the ecology of the area was particularly sensitive as it was home to many flora and rare species of birds.
"We believe there are constraints in terms of the operation of the area... it is subject to high winds, mist, heavy rainfall and thunder and lightning," said Cooper.
But while the objections mount, the Development Bank of South Africa (DBSA) has bankrolled a R300 000 independent market research study to test the feasibility of the project.
The bank's investment officer, Irene Baumbach, said the preliminary findings had shown overwhelming support for the project – with 84% of international tourists interviewed and 95% of local visitors responding favourably.
"On the strength of what was submitted to us [by the developers], we felt we would want to base our decision on an independent assessment of the project, and that is what we have done," said Baumbach.
But environmentalists point to many natural impediments to developing the area as a tourist attraction.
The former Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa conservation director, Cathy Kay, said it was "obscene" that the developers could turn a wilderness into a city. "It's a cancer that is creeping in," said Kay.
"What legacy are we leaving for future generations?"
The concerns over the development were also reflected in a draft study by Pietermaritzburg consultants, Udidi.
Udidi conducted the study on behalf of the Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontler Project, a collaborative initiative between South Africa and Lesotho on the preservation of bio-diversity in the area.
The study argued that the proposed development would have a negative impact on the character of the wilderness zones of the park.
"The projected visitor numbers also appear to be on the optimistic side," concluded the study.
The Idwala chief operating officer, J P van Dyk, was, however, adamant that the project could reverse the degradation of the area by enforcing controlled access.
"Our whole vision is that we want to do this in the same way as they have done at Table Mountain. The idea is to get people up there [the mountain] but to do it in a controlled way."
Kevin Zunckel, of the Maloti- Drakensberg Transfrontier Park, said the priority of the project should be to find sustainable development for the area.
"What we are for is a thorough assessment of the financial viability, social acceptability and ecological sustainabil ity of their concept," he said.
Sunday Times - 2 October 2005Brett Horner