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Rosemund Handler

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Are Private Interests Still Colonising Our Mountains?

First published in the Cape Times of 24 July 2013:

I hike every Saturday morning with a small group of dedicated enthusiasts. We’ve hiked together for more than ten years, scores of hikes throughout the Peninsula in all weathers. Our leaders recognise trees and rocks the way you and I greet an old friend. Those who never sing burst into song, those whose feet are troublesome inch up rocky pitches, those whose day jobs are dreary dance across the peaks like tahrs – which we’ve seen a few times since they were supposed to have been eliminated.

Mountains contribute unstintingly to our lives. There is always something new to be learned, and we rarely take them for granted. They make Cape Town the kind of city that most city dwellers only dream about: a place where people, traffic and noise pollution can be left behind in the space of minutes – if you’re prepared to climb those heights and reap those rewards. Often, it’s only on the most tourist-friendly climbs that we run into another soul.

But private interests have been growing. One of the Hoeriekwagga hikes is a spectacularly scenic trail from Noordhoek Beach up to Chapman’s Peak. Instead of continuing down Chapman’s Peak, we usually complete a circle to Noordhoek Beach, where our cars are parked. Along the way, we pass a Private Property sign and an old snake warning sign: Breeding Ground for Puff-adders and Cape Cobras. Seasoned hikers have long ignored these admonitions as their view is that mountains belong to the people, not to a single private entity, and in this area it’s well known that in the past, unauthorised monies changed hands for the privilege. As for snakes, they breed all over the mountains, and while they may not know much about private property, they do know to avoid humans.

Some years back, an electric fence was erected towards the end of this beautiful trail; apparently the magnificent private estates in the green belt at its foot were concerned about criminals entering the area from Masiphumulelu. Over several hikes we observed that the Port Jacksons were gradually being eliminated and a nature reserve planned. Recently, new paths have been built, leading up to the trail from the green belt below, and the electric fence has been extended, climbing much higher up a mountain peak. The old path beyond the fence has been strewn with aliens and is almost impassable. At our request, Sanparks investigated the new extension to the fence and said that the mountain indeed belonged to the estates in the green belt, and in order to use the trail, hikers should request a permit. We called the number given repeatedly, but nobody ever picked up the phone.

Do owners of the estates use the trail in the private nature reserve they have created? According to security staff who stopped us in the bountiful green belt below, hikers are not permitted to use it, as it has been incorporated into the nature reserve. Surely the simpler, less selfish solution to the threat of crime would be for the owners to confine their already tight security to the more immediate surrounds of the green belt, rather than to exclude hikers and zip up the entire mountain with an electric fence?

The beginning of the lovely Vlakkenberg trail has also fallen to private interests. Only an outcry prevented its closure, and it has since been paved, but fenced off in such a way that hikers are hemmed in between electric fences. On one side, vineyards scale the mountain, while on the other aliens are left to flourish.

More and more, it seems our mountains are being sacrificed to boutique vineyards, guesthouses and private estates, some of which are owned by overseas interests who care little for their natural beauty.

At the other end of the scale – in this country there is always a top and a bottom – residents of Sea Point and Green Point have been puzzled by a long scar leading up from the old World War 2 blockhouses to the mast on Signal Hill. Apparently, the armoured communication cable has been uprooted and the copper stolen; only the metal armouring, a trench and a metal pole used to rip out the cable remain. The process took time and labour, and probably happened in broad daylight.

There is none so blind as those who have lost the capacity to see or care about the destruction they wreak. In the case of desperate poverty, this destruction, while deplorable, is understandable. But it is those enormously wealthy private interests whose blindness is the more wanton, because they have abandoned what nature so generously provides in favour of narrow, self-serving interests.


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