Flying high with Table Mountain Aerial Cableway’s main man
For Mike Williams, operations executive at the Table Mountain Aerial Cable Company (TMACC), work is a pleasure. Not only does he get to spend his days ensconced in the splendour of Table Mountain, one of the New7Wonders of Nature, he also gets to work with people who have become like family.
“The sense of ubuntu, of helping each other through team work, and the old-fashioned family values within our organisation, have humbled me over the years. It gives me a deep sense of gratitude for the work we do and the space we inhabit,” says Williams.
During major upgrades in 1997, staff lived on the mountain for two-week stints, during which the camaraderie and fellowship Williams speaks of was indispensable. The connections forged there – between colleagues and with the mountain itself – have blossomed into lifelong bonds of friendship.
The balancing act required to manage the operations of a world-famous ecotourism attraction while preserving the mountain and its environs is a challenge Williams has taken on and so far looks set to win.
He explains that no waste water is allowed to be left in this fragile habitat. “So, every drop used must be carried up and down in huge 3 000-litre tanks fitted at the base of each cable car. These tanks also function as stabilising ballasts against heavy winds.”
Williams adds that these measures ensure that the mountain’s fragile water system is undisturbed and preserved in its natural state. “The supplies needed to captivate and sustain the eager throngs of visitors every day must also be carried up in the cars. This means visitors enjoying the delectable cuisine served at our mountain-top restaurant must use compostable plates to avoid water being used for washing dishes.”
TMACC is a major player and one of the key signatories of the Cape Town Responsible Tourism initiative, working closely with South African National Parks, which is mandated to preserve the sensitive ecosystem of Table Mountain, and also with Cape Town Tourism and the City of Cape Town.
Due to its stature within the Cape Town tourism setting, TMACC has mentored many smaller companies, helping them achieve compliance with the three key pillars of the Responsible Tourism initiative: corporate social investment, environmental management and sustainable communities.
Williams explains that every one of TMACC’s 250 permanent employees is empowered and upskilled during their time with the organisation. “This is through the Siyafundisa learnership programme for staff, and through extensive bursaries granted for further education. We believe every employee should leave with more than they came in with.”
He adds that the Cableway’s Class in the Clouds programme for school children has seen more than 250 000 learners ride up in the cable cars. “By teaching about the mountain on the mountain, we’re nurturing a passion for the natural sciences that will hopefully last a lifetime.”
TMACC’s ethos of preservation and upliftment has enabled programmes such as the Kuyasa housing project to counterbalance the carbon footprint of its aerial operations. Initiated in 2014, the project employs community members to roll out renewable energy infrastructure, ameliorating the carbon emissions of the city as a whole. Solar geysers, energy-efficient lighting and household insulation have been installed in thousands of homes, saving resident beneficiaries a significant amount in energy expenses every year, Williams notes.
When he initially took over technical operations at TMACC 30 years ago, the infrastructure was reliable, but archaic. Years of sanctions during the apartheid era meant that he and his team were accustomed to making do with the bare minimum of resources. This situation demanded a thrifty ingenuity, with rigorous checks and maintenance done on all parts, since new equipment was difficult to come by.
Democracy in 1994 saw the dawn of new hope for the Mother City’s iconic landmark, and the beginning of a major upgrade to the Cableway. Under Williams’s stewardship, this process integrated new environmental management standards to nurture and protect the mountain’s precious ecosystem.
He explains that the nature of his work has shifted over the years and broadened in scope to encompass several complex challenges. One of these is that the cable system runs on a dual power source, which dynamically switches over to hydraulics in the absence of electricity.
Today, Williams proudly boasts full compliance with International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) 150 in areas of health and safety, and ISO 14001 for environmental management standards. “When I started 30 years ago, it was all about looking after the Cableway. Now it’s all about looking after the health and safety of the mountain, its ecosystems and habitats. The tourists who ride the cable cars are but one in a multitude of species [on the mountain],” he jokes.
Although the Cableway has had to close temporarily during the Covid-19 lockdown, TMACC is – in regular times – responsible for safely elevating hundreds of daily visitors 704m up the mountain, to the summit at a lofty 1 067m above sea level. The Table Mountain Aerial Cableway, beloved by Capetonians and international globetrotters alike, is kept in strict compliance with the international standards of the Swiss Governing Body for Cableways. Annual routine maintenance sees the Cableway close for three weeks in July.
But, while Williams’s duties as custodian of one of Cape Town’s most precious wonders have expanded significantly as tourism numbers have risen (by 100% in two decades), he feels fortunate to be working in a place he loves, among colleagues who are like family, and bringing joy to the hearts of so many.