The Table Mountain Cableway says a fond farewell to retiring chairman of the board Louis de Waal, who has served the company for 40 years, during which time he has hosted nearly 20-million visitors, including royalty and Nobel prizewinners, managed a major upgrade to the world-class facility and seen Table Mountain named a New7Wonder of Nature.
Now aged 76, De Waal recalls his first day on the job nearly 40 years ago: “The minutes show I was appointed by the board on 21 December 1973, but I attended my first board meeting in January 1974. The minutes also show one of the first suggestions I made was to raise the price of tickets – the concessions ticket for 40 or more people was R1 return. I suggested an increase to R1.25!”
The 1974 board was chaired by Denis Hennessy, whose father, Sir Alfred Hennessy, had been the first chairman back in 1929, and De Waal’s board fee was R600 a year, which crept up to R610.
“I think Hennessy wanted an engineer on the board, and I was the only one he knew!” says De Waal, who studied civil engineering at UCT and worked for Hawkins Hawkins and Osborn (now HHO Africa), where he later became chairman. Over time, De Waal and fellow board members, the late Ron Reid and the late John Harrison, bought out Hennessy’s shares.
De Waal clearly recalls the first time he saw the mountain: “My father had built a caravan and took his three sons on a road trip across South Africa. When I saw Table Mountain, it made quite an impression. I also remember my first trip up the cable car in 1947, because it was all too much for my mother, who sat on the floor!”
After completing his matric at Dundee High School in northern KwaZulu-Natal, the mountain drew him back to Cape Town to study civil engineering at the University of Cape Town. As a student he climbed the mountain from all sides and in 1959 entered the Tip to Top race from the Cape Point Lighthouse to Maclear’s Beacon – the highest point on Table Mountain. “We gave ourselves just three days to prepare, with one person in the team having to complete the route – me!”
De Waal ran down the hill from the start at the Cape Point Lighthouse, leapt into a friend’s MG and was driven to Tafelberg Road just past Platteklip Gorge. “We had lowered 500m of wire from the top and I was harnessed to the wire with the rest of the team on top of the mountain acting as oxen, pulling me up.”
At one point friction on the wire took over and he was left hanging, rotating and viewing Cape Town. “They had abandoned pulling. It was a stupid thing to do but I managed to use the safety rope to reach the top and be placed third. The winner dived into the sea at Cape Point, travelled by boat to Muizenberg, hopped onto a motorbike and rode to the reservoir on top of the Mountain via Constantia Nek, then ran the last few 100 metres to win and beat our team by an hour.”
Having fallen under the spell of Table Mountain, De Waal could not resist the opportunity to join the board in 1973, and when he became chairperson in 1993 he set about negotiating a massive upgrade to the Cableway – the carriages carried around 27 people, but as visitor numbers grew there were longer and longer queues with an up to six-hour wait.
“So we had to upgrade and in the early 1990s, the city wanted us to commit to an upgrade. It was just before the 1994 elections and a time of great uncertainty. We had the plans and board members Harrison, Reid and myself had to fit the bill. It was a R103-million loan and we each stood surety for a third – house included, although I never told my wife!” quips De Waal. “So many things could have gone wrong – make an error, and we would all be bankrupt.”
The board members visited France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland to investigate what cableway would best suit Table Mountain and the city’s infamous winds.
“I was in favour of a 40-passenger car but John convinced me to go for the full monty, a car with a much bigger capacity,” says De Waal. “John was the right man at the right time. He was a street fighter and also wasn’t scared of spending money. Thank heavens he convinced me.”
Total visitor numbers from opening day in 1929 until 1973 stood at 3-million. “In the 1970s you only had queues at Christmas, so for the first 20 years or so this was quite an easy job for me. The impact of the upgrade was immediate, with visitor numbers more than doubling from 300 000 a year to over 700 000. That’s when I turned grey!”
Visitor numbers reached record numbers in the past financial year, thanks to the Vote for Table Mountain campaign, which in 2011 resulted in the icon being named a New7Wonder of Nature.
The Cableway company played a leading role in the campaign. “We realised what a fantastic opportunity this was going to be to market Table Mountain. The campaign cost us some money, but my goodness, it is paying back; the mountain, cableway, the city and the country all benefit.”
During his time on the board De Waal hosted 20-million visitors, including a fair smattering of the rich and famous. An avid sports fan – having played rugby for UCT, False Bay (where he is club president), Western Province and the West of Scotland RFC – one of his favourite photographs is of members of the All Blacks rugby team running into Archbishop Desmond Tutu outside the Cableway carriage door. “The Archbishop pointed at this giant forward and asked, ‘What do you eat?’ ‘Springboks,’ replied the giant.”
De Waal was not around at the time of King George VI’s visit in 1947, but did get to host Prince Andrew. “He was a fantastic guy and was very interested in the mechanical workings of the Cableway.”
So where to now for the father of three, who celebrates his 50th wedding anniversary early in 2014. There will be more time to spend with his six grandchildren, but one place you won’t find him is slouched on the couch. He will spend more time at the family house in Kleinmond, visit the beautiful Harold Porter Botanical Garden in nearby Betty’s Bay, pedalling through the Kogelberg Biosphere and keeping an eye out for the wild horses.
Not forgetting his other passion, cycling – De Waal has completed every Cape Argus Pick n Pay Cycle Tour, has been a bike advocate for 40 years and co-founded BEN (Bicycling Empowerment Network) in 2002 – he will continue his work with the NGO, which has recycled about 20 000 bicycles, mostly supplied to children who need affordable transport to school.
De Waal leaves the board, reassured that the Cableway is in very capable hands: “TMACC is a very nice company with which to be involved. It is hellish well run, not because of me, but by an exceptional team of people.”
Given how busy the Cableway has become and with parking at a premium, current MD Sabine Lehmann says the best retirement gift they could offer De Waal is a key to one of the Cableway garages for life.