At World Cup, Table Mountain shows its dangerous side

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The Independent Online

With its famous flat peak towering over Cape Town, Table Mountain is drawing thousands of World Cup fans but has already shown its underestimated deadly side.

Tragedy struck just one day after the World Cup kick-off when an American teenager fell to his death at the World Heritage site, which claimed most of the 15 lives lost on the region's mountains last year.

"Because it's in the city, people think it's like this huge jungle gym. It's not. It's a wilderness area," said physician Cleeve Robertson, director of Cape Town's emergency services.

"It's 1,000 metres (3,300 feet) high and it gets freezing cold on top when the weather gets bad. And the weather can change very quickly, you can go from being quite comfortable to being really uncomfortable in a very short period of time."

Within days of the teenager's death, emergency choppers rescued an elderly British tourist and an Austrian tour guide off the mountain. But others have also gone astray atop or missed the last cable car off the peak.

"There are lots of those minor calls where people are just lost and you have to say 'stay where you are and we'll come and fetch you'," said Robertson.

Six times older than the Himalayas, the mountain can feature a misty "tablecloth" that brings visibility to zero.

The peak is one of the region's top drawcards alongside Nelson Mandela's former prison Robben Island, the dockside shops and restaurants at the V&A Waterfront, and the Cape winelands.

A cable car service, running since 1929, ferries some 800,000 people annually up the sheer front of the slope with breathtaking city and sea views.

World Cup numbers have sky-rocketed with about 30,000 visitors in the first 12 days of the tournament, said Table Mountain Aerial Cableway spokeswoman Collette Van Aswegen.

"Normally for this time of the year, our visitor numbers range between 40 and 50,000 for the month of June. It's quite an increase."

The World Cup influx comes over the traditional low tourist season of June and July - Cape Town's wettest when the average rainfall is more than three inches (8.2 to 9.3 centimetres).

Calls for help are usually from people lost on top of the mountain or visitors who decided to hike down after taking the cable car up but were not kitted out in right shoes or warm clothes.

"They didn't plan to climb a mountain. They're not well prepared, then they slip and fall," said Robertson.

He recommends visitors either return by cable car or hire a guide to hike down and not leave it until late in the day - with winter throwing miserable, cold weather, slippery conditions and darkness by 6:00 pm into the mix.

"It's not an easy walk. You only have a fall a metre or so to get seriously hurt."

The landmark is part of the 25,000 hectare (61,770 acre) Table Mountain National Park which stretches down to Africa's southernmost tip Cape Point and attracts 4.3 million visitors per year.

The entire park was awarded World Heritage status in 2004 as part of the Cape Floristic Region - the smallest and richest of the world's six floral kingdoms with 8,200 plant species.

Roy White, search and rescue co-convenor at the Mountain Club of South Africa, said even experienced hikers had been unlucky on the hugely popular iconic peak.

"It's very easy to underestimate how big it is and it's not a simple mountain at all," he told AFP.

"We end up with 10 to 20 fatalities on it a year," he said.

"Very few people seem to appreciate how dangerous the mountain can be. There's only a few easy ways on the mountain and everything else can quite literally kill you."