The history of an iconic landmark, the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway
At the end of the decade of prosperity and dissipation, also known as the “Roaring Twenties”, passengers in Cape Town took their first cable-car trip to the top of Table Mountain.
In the years since its official opening, to much fanfare, on 4 October 1929, the cableway has undergone three major upgrades and regular maintenance. Today, it is a familiar feature of Cape Town’s famous flat-topped mountain, but not many people know how and why the project first got off the ground.
The cableway’s history dates back to the 1870s, when there were proposals to build a railway along the mountain’s slopes to make it easier for members of the public to reach the summit, says Wahida Parker, managing director of the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway Company.
Parker explains that although the initial plan was to build a funicular railway, the development phase of the project was halted by the advent of World War I. “There was little movement until 1926, when Norwegian engineer Trygve Stromsoe proposed the construction of a cableway.”
The building of the lower and upper stations, along with a tea room at the top, was nothing short of a phenomenal engineering feat, taking two years to complete at a then staggering cost of £60 000. A rudimentary track for a “soapbox” to transport workers, equipment and building materials was constructed, as well as temporary housing for the workers.
The result was a wooden cable car with a tin roof that took nearly 10 minutes to carry 19 people and a conductor the 704m to the summit. During this time, interestingly enough, the company also had a small budget for silk stockings, as ladies tended to snag their hosiery on the fynbos! Since then, the cableway has transported more than 29-million visitors, making the trip in half that time, complete with a 360-degree rotational view of the mountain and spectacular vistas over the city of Cape Town.
“In October 1997, modern cable cars with rotating bases and increased passenger capacity were installed, making them a world-class experience similar to only a handful of other cableways in the world,” says Parker.
A host of icons, celebrities and royals are among the millions of people who have used the cableway. Talk show host Oprah Winfrey, musician Sting, actress Famke Janssen, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe, and singer Kelly Rowland are some of the famous names who have taken a ride to the top of the mountain.
“One of the lesser-known fun facts about the cableway is that mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person to summit Everest, took a cable car up Table Mountain soon after his historic expedition,” says Parker. “Hillary is quoted as saying: ‘There is probably no more spectacular place in the world than Cape Town and Table Mountain at the tip of Africa.’”
The first set of cable cars, the very set that ferried King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, as well as princesses Elizabeth and Margaret to the top of Table Mountain, are on display at the Transport Museum in Johannesburg and at the Lower Station, with one of the cars having been transformed into the popular ice-cream kiosk.
Apart from the extraordinary mechanics, the cableway company’s sustainability initiatives are also among the best in the world. The Cableway has a Platinum Heritage Environmental Rating, which is the highest level of responsible tourism status. Table Mountain was also inaugurated as one of the New7Wonders of Nature in December 2012, and is the most accessible of the New7Wonders – it is the only one to be found in a city. “Being the most accessible is a strong point as one can browse around in town while gazing at a New7Wonder of Nature,” says Parker.
The company also received the Best Resources Management accolade at the 2019 African Responsible Tourism Awards, along with a number of other achievements and rewards.
“A lot has changed since that first trip in 1929, but the Cableway remains one of Cape Town’s biggest tourist attractions, transporting approximately a million people annually and counting,” Parker concludes.