Height of danger

Mountain walking in Cape Town is not for the faint-hearted.

On Table Mountain, walking has become a blood sport. An American fell to his death earlier this month on the vast, wild, flat-topped mountain that overlooks Cape Town. A week later, a Briton rode the ten-minute cable car to the 1,000-metre summit but decided to walk down. He had to be rescued in an intricate all-night operation which put his and other people's lives at risk. Add to that the increasingly frequent, sometimes violent, muggings at knifepoint on the mountain and, well, people here are worried.

Visitors to the city are definitely on the front line - although most Capetonians know where not to go, sometimes a safe route stops being safe, so really everyone is at risk. A friend who walks Table Mountain regularly (there are 350 signposted footpaths) says he now goes only with his walking group. There is safety in numbers if there is an accident, and a group is less likely to be set upon by robbers, though even that is not unknown.

It's winter here, with cold, wet, and nastier nights than usual. The British tourist who got caught on the mountain had anticipated a 40-minute walk down and didn't even have a mobile phone with him. He'd gone too far to turn back by the time he saw the sign warning that he was on a difficult path. Then he fell into a ravine, splintering his wrist, and spent 12 or so hours awaiting rescuers who were alerted by his family. They had taken the cable car down.

The injured man was located when one of the searchers saw his digital camera flash. A climber was then lowered on a 200-metre rope, and the two men were harnessed together and pulled up a scary 175 metres.

The American tourist who died was a 31-year-old, experienced climber who slipped. Unfortunately, the weather suddenly turned foul and it took searchers more than a day to find him. About a dozen people die on Table Mountain every year in rambling and climbing accidents. One reason is that people underestimate its dangers. Why? Because it is a big tourist attraction within a city and not all that high. They forget that mountain weather changes quickly.

Worryingly, the dangers of the mountain have been exacerbated of late because funds for repairing eroded paths and improving signposting have been diverted to pay for policing the area. Officials admit that less than a third of the paths which have deteriorated because of weather or overuse have been upgraded.

To protect walkers and climbers from muggers, the mountain is now patrolled by 52 visitor safety rangers, but there are 100 entry points to the mountain, leading to 800 kilometres of footpath.

Why should you care about Table Mountain? For one thing, it is a Unesco World Heritage Site. For another, it is beautiful.

In the Swiss Alps at another World Heritage Site, the melting Aletsch Glacier, Greenpeace recently found 600 people to strip naked and pose for a photograph to make a point about global warming. In Cape Town, which is very eco-conscious, on a fine day you could easily find a similar number to pose to make a point about soil erosion, or just about roaming free.

Finally, a word to outraged rugby fans. Even though England's World Cup opener against the US on 8 September should be a doddle, it looks like I will not have to eat my hat. Sadly, England's defeat in the final two warm-up matches indicates that retaining the rugby World Cup is an unattainable dream.

Adrianne Blue is a senior lecturer in international journalism at City University and the author of many books on sport.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Bush: Is the president imploding?