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History of Table Mountain Aerial Cableway

Since the first person laid eyes on Table Mountain, it has exerted its powerful and charismatic pull, enchanting and drawing any and all who fall under its spell.

Table Mountain’s magnetism has a way of drawing people in, compelling them to reach the summit. But getting to the top was not always the effortless trip it is today.

Before the Cableway was established, the only way up Cape Town’s iconic mountain was by foot – a climb undertaken only by adventurous souls.

One of these intrepid climbers was the famous Capetonian, Lady Anne Barnard. In 1790, upon hearing that no woman had made the climb, she mounted a small expedition, which included three “gentlemen”, several slaves and her personal maid. The group summitted via Platteklip Gorge and held a lavish picnic before descending.

By the late 1870s, several of Cape Town’s more prominent (and possibly less fit) citizens had suggested the introduction of a railway to the top. Plans to build a rack railway were proposed, but implementation was halted by the outbreak of the First Anglo-Boer War in 1880.

By 1912, driven by a desire to make access to the mountain top easier for citizens and visitors, the Cape Town City Council commissioned an engineer, HM Peter, to investigate the various options for a public transport system to the top.

Peter suggested that a funicular railway running from Oranjezicht through Platteklip Gorge would be the most viable solution. In a referendum on the matter, the vast majority of Cape Town’s residents voted in favour of the funicular – despite the staggering cost of £100 000 (an immense amount of money in those days).

However, the proposed plans were halted by war yet again – this time the First World War, which lasted from 1914 to 1918. As a British colony at the time, South Africa was embroiled in the conflict.

In 1926 a Norwegian engineer Trygve Stromsoe proposed the building of a cableway to the council.

The scheme caught the interest of a group of influential businessmen after Stromsoe approached Sir Alfred Hennessy and showed him a functioning scale model of his idea. Hennessy and fellow investors Sir David Graaff and Sir Ernest Oppenheimer formed the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway Company (TMACC) to finance construction, with Stromsoe taking the fourth seat on the board of directors.

A week after viewing the model, the company chose a site for the lower cable station and swiftly appointed a firm of local architects, Walgate & Elsworth, to design the upper and lower stations and a tearoom at the summit. The building of the Cableway was contracted to Germany’s Adolf Bleichert.

Construction got under way speedily. The work was dangerous and difficult, and builders relied on a temporary ropeway and an open box (“the soapbox”) to cart building materials and workers to the top of the mountain. Although this was a perilous method, no serious accidents occurred during construction. To this day, the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway has a proud history of being totally accident-free.

Lower Station under construction (1926 - 1928) Lower Station under construction (1926 - 1928)
Top Station under construction (1926 - 1928) Top Station under construction (1926 - 1928)

The Cableway, one of Cape Town’s first tourist attractions, was completed in two years at a cost of £60 000. On 4 October 1929, the Mayor of Cape Town, Reverend AJS Lewis, presided over the official opening ceremony, which was attended by more than 200 guests.

OFFICIAL OPENING CEREMONY OF CABLEWAY ON 4 OCTOBER 1929:
Left to right: Sir Alfred Hennessy (chairman), Mr J B Taylor, Lady Graaff, the Rev A J Lewis (Mayor of Cape
Town), Lady Hennessy, Sir Lionel Phillips, Mrs J W Jagger, Mrs Burmester and Admiral Burmester OFFICIAL OPENING CEREMONY OF CABLEWAY ON 4 OCTOBER 1929: Left to right: Sir Alfred Hennessy (chairman), Mr J B Taylor, Lady Graaff, the Rev A J Lewis (Mayor of Cape Town), Lady Hennessy, Sir Lionel Phillips, Mrs J W Jagger, Mrs Burmester and Admiral Burmester
The first Cable Car - Early beginnings and false starts (1929) The first Cable Car - Early beginnings and false starts (1929)

The earliest Cableway, while safe and efficient, was primitive by today’s standards. Nevertheless, it offered a safe way to ascend the mountain in under 10 minutes. The car, made of steel and wood, could carry 19 passengers and a conductor. Since the 1929 launch of the Cableway, more than 20-million people have taken the trip to the top in progressively improved cable cars.

General Smuts and King George VI in 1947. General Smuts and King George VI in 1947.
The then Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret visiting Table Mountain in 1947. The then Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret visiting Table Mountain in 1947.

The Cableway quickly became a landmark in Cape Town, conveying some of Cape Town’s most illustrious visitors, including King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II. During their official visit in 1947, the king, queen and their daughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, were met at the top of the mountain by 77-year-old Prime Minister Jan Smuts, an avid hiker, who had walked to the top. Smuts shared the cable car with the royal family for the return trip, arriving in time for a joint sitting of both houses of parliament.

Many other famous names have taken the ride, including Oprah Winfrey, Sting, Steffi Graf, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Margaret Thatcher, Prince Andrew, Michael Schumacher, Brooke Shields, Michael Buble, Tina Turner, Jackie Chan, Dolores O’Riordan, Skunk Anansie and Paul Oakenfold.

In 1958, the cable car was upgraded. The new cable car had a passenger capacity of 23 passengers, with one attendant operating the car. Fully loaded, it weighed approximately 3 tons.The new upgraded cable car had an auxiliary diesel powered engine in the upper station, designed to take over in the event of a power failure.

The third Cable Car - Another upgrade (1974) The third Cable Car - Another upgrade (1974)
The second Cable Car - An upgrage (1958) The second Cable Car - An upgrage (1958)

The second upgrade, in 1974, saw the introduction of lighter cable cars, each capable of carrying 28 people.Safety precautions were further improved with the introduction of the new cable cars in 1974. Weekly inspections carried out by skilled technicians involved hazardous duties on the roof of the moving cable car as it traveled up and down the line.

In 1993, Dennis Hennessy, the son of one of the founders of TMACC, sold the company. The new directors immediately set about planning an infrastructure upgrade. Apart from remodelling the restaurants and upgrading machinery, new cable cars were purchased.

Unlike their predecessors, the new cable cars, or Rotairs, have revolving floors that allow passengers a 360-degree view of the city and mountain as they glide up and down Table Mountain.

Work on the upgrade began in January 1997. For several months Table Mountain’s distinctive features were altered by the presence of cranes and the comings and goings of large helicopters carrying equipment and construction materials. The revamped Cableway was officially opened on 4 October 1997, the anniversary of the original launch almost 70 years previously.

The fourth Cable Car - High tech, world class, and views all round (1997) The fourth Cable Car - High tech, world class, and views all round (1997)

For more than 80 years, the company has been committed to providing visitors with a memorable experience and to delivering outstanding service, while being passionate about preserving the natural environment of the World Heritage Site in which it operates.

Today the company is led by a board of directors and a qualified and committed management team under Chief Executive Officer Sabine Lehmann. The company has been acknowledged and received numerous achievement awards, most notably International Organization for Standardization (ISO) accreditation for its environmental management system. The ISO is the world’s largest developer and publisher of international standards, which are implemented by more than 1-million organisations in 175 countries. The company achieved its ISO 14001 status in 2003 and again in 2009 – the only South African attraction operator to have received this accreditation.

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