Statement in response to Royal Natal’s Alert circulated to Tour Operators and posted on Vertical Endeavour website on 3 May 2016 advising of closure of access to the Drakensberg Amphitheater with effect from 20th May 2016.
UPDATE (09.05.2016): witsieshoek.co.za/blog/proposed-closure-amphitheater-withdrawn
Incident and consequential action by Royal Natal
This intended closure of the Drakensberg Amphitheater to hikers, which is the subject of the Alert, follows a recent incident where three overnight hikers who had accessed the Amphitheater via the Witsieshoek chain ladder were attacked whilst in their tents, by people, apparently from Lesotho.
The stated justification for closing access to the Amphitheater to hikers, following this incident, is that Royal Natal has no budget to provide security services on the mountain. This rationale raises the question of whether it is feasible to have a budget large enough to patrol the entire Drakensberg range in order to ensure the safety of every hiker or climber or whether other solutions should be sought.
The decision to close the Amphitheater to all hikers because of mugging incidents, on mainly overnight campers, overlooks the negative impact that this will have on tourism to the region, job security and local economic activity.
We agree that the safety of guests is of paramount importance and any incident of mugging, especially where people sustain serious injury, is regrettable. However every time there is a mugging incident on Table Mountain, which happens regularly, SANParks do not close Table Mountain National Park to tourists, hikers, climbers, etc. so “why in the Drakensberg?”
Point 2 of Royal Natal’s Alert refers to an intention that “there will be a stakeholder meeting scheduled in June where stakeholders will be invited to discuss the way forward.” The question is “why only in June” if the situation is so dire that closure of access to the Amphitheater is necessitated at all? And if closure is only scheduled to take place from May 20th why not delay the implementation of such a radical decision for a few days longer until after discussions have taken place at the proposed June stakeholders meeting?
There are no doubt measures that will emerge from this meeting that will improve the safety situation including encouraging guests to consider taking one or even two guides with them, which would in turn contribute to creating critically needed employment in the area.
It is, in our opinion, unfathomable that a decision with such far reaching implications for tourism in South Africa, and in the Drakensberg in particular, has been taken without any prior consultation with affected stakeholders.
We believe that closing access to the Amphitheater stands to erode the efforts that have been made to build tourism in the region by various stakeholders and, in our case, to resuscitate the community-owned Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge, for the benefit of both the local community as well as for the hiking and climbing community.
Our concern is actualised in an email received by Witsieshoek from a client on 3 May 2016 which states: “this is obviously going to have huge implications for our hikes.” The negative economic consequences of the Alert are already being felt by both us and our client and will only escalate unless this intended action is re-evaluated.
The local employment and economic activity that has been created through growing tourism in this area is a critical necessity for our country. Such a radical decision to close access to the Amphitheater is not one that should be taken without serious evaluation of, and consultation on, the negative economic impact this will have on tourism to the area.
Emergency Assistance and Evacuation
Point 5 of the Alert regrettably communicates a misleading message. It states: “Because hikers are not paying their entrance fees to KZN Wildlife in that area (as all funds go to Witsieshoek), in theory, no one hiking in the Amphitheatre area (or doing the GT for that matter!!) is covered for mountain rescue.” (our bold)
We wish to correct the above statement and advise all clients that TFPD, the operating company of Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge, has in place insurance to cover any visitor to any TFPD managed property for “Emergency Assistance including Evacuation and Medical Expenses”. This insurance is placed through our brokers, SATIB Insurance Brokers, who are a leading insurance brokerage to the tourism industry. The insurance cover is provided by Lloyds of London. In addition to the SATIB 24 Crisis Call Emergency Assistance insurance that we have in place for our guests, we also have Public Liability cover to the value of R30,0 million. This cover is subject to the insurer’s usual terms and conditions, details of which are available at Witsieshoek. This cover applies to all guests staying at or undertaking “paid for” activities, from any TFPD property, including Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge.
We have requested that Royal Natal immediately amends its Alert accordingly.
We agree with the sentiment expressed in point 6 of the Alert: “No one can replace the experience that wilderness offers, and no one should have the right to take it away from you.”
It is regrettable that anyone’s life or safety is threatened when enjoying the wilderness offered by the Drakensberg. In the end though it surely remains the hikers choice on the level of risk they are willing to take, in exactly the same way as it is on any other mountain in the world.
The idea of having a stakeholders’ meeting to find a means of dealing with the situation is far more practical than closing access to the Amphitheater given the negative impact that this will have on the area’s tourism economy.
We trust that sense will prevail and we have strongly recommended to Royal Natal that the decision to close access to the Amphitheater be suspended until such time as a meeting has been held between all stakeholders and alternative methods are found to improve the safety and security of all visitors to the Drakensberg.
For and on behalf of: Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge
Prepared by: Glynn O’Leary Chief Executive and Director
Date: 5 May 2016