CAPE TOWN, South Africa: Cape Town has reclaimed its mountain from the muggers.
After months of knife-wielding thugs on Table Mountain grabbing purses and headlines, authorities are quietly confident that they are on the way to restoring the battered image of the international tourist icon by taking on the criminals.
The flat-topped mountain rising above Cape Town is to South Africans what the Eiffel Tower is to the French or the Statue of Liberty to New Yorkers, and attacks on the mountain are regarded as an affront to the nation. South African National Parks, the police force and tourism bosses were galvanized into action after a spate of muggings last year — 15 in as many days in August — prompted calls for the army to be summoned.
Authorities stopped short of the army. But they did increase the number of rangers on the mountain to more than 50 — up from a handful a few years ago — backed up by an undisclosed number of police, a dog unit, surveillance cameras and — most significantly — a helicopter for the peak tourist season in February.
Four muggers who robbed a German couple near Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens were arrested earlier this month after a three-hour chase over rocky terrain and dense vegetation. A fifth suspect died of dehydration and heat exhaustion. It was surveillance by the helicopter that allowed park rangers and police to spot paths, hideouts and escape routes in gorges and ravines which would otherwise have remained invisible.
Paddy Gordon, one of the Table Mountain managers, is confident that more arrests will follow thanks to the information gleaned by the helicopter, which has now returned to its normal activity of monitoring wildlife in the Kruger National Park.
“The message we want to send out is that crime on Table Mountain does not pay,” said Gordon.
“There’s something so special about Table Mountain that the people of Cape Town and South Africa feel they own it,” he said. “We need to show that we are doing something to defend it.”
Police spokesman Randall Stoffels says there has been an increase in the number of arrests — six in the space of two weeks — and a big drop in the number of muggings compared to last year, although he won’t release figures. Gordon and his team on the ground concur.
But the mountain is huge. It lies in the middle of the city and so is easily accessible to the criminal underworld. Tourists in carefree vacation mood, sporting expensive cameras and cell phones, are easy prey.
The trails in Skeleton Gorge — a popular walk on the edge of the world famous botanical gardens — were hotspots — although authorities hope that the latest arrests will now improve the situation.
Police are investigating whether the men who robbed the German couple were involved in an attack on a New York doctor in the same area at the end of last month. Douglas Girlings was heading down from the mountain toward the botanical gardens when he was accosted by knife-wielding men.
“They cut off my backpack and took my watch and wedding ring,” Girlings told the Cape Times. “If security was improved then I’d be more willing to visit Table Mountain again but I wouldn’t at the moment, based on what I’m feeling.”
A Belgian tourist was mugged earlier in February in the same area — although police quickly arrested the suspect.
The U.S. State Department advises all visitors to Table Mountain to “be vigilant, hike in groups, and not carry valuables,” a warning echoed by the British Foreign Office.
There have been no reported muggings near the cable car base and peak stations, where the vast majority of tourists congregate for the breathtaking 360-degree views of the city and Atlantic Ocean from the top.
Tony Gordon-James, a 65-year-old Londoner, said he was always mindful of security when vacationing in South Africa, and then mused whether he should remove his gold watch.
But he would not have missed Table Mountain.
“It’s on the tour list. It’s a must,” he said while visiting on a fine early March day.
Some 1.6 million tourists, lured by pristine beaches, stunning scenery and amazing wildlife, visited Cape Town last year and spent about 12 billion rands (US$1.5 billion, €1 billion), making tourism the most important part of the local economy. Authorities hope that this will top 3 million visitors by 2010 and they can’t afford to let fears about crime get in the way.
Generally, crime rates in Cape Town are far lower than South Africa’s economic hub Johannesburg, where there is a worrying trend of organized bands of criminals following visitors back to their hotel and robbing them.
But Cape Town is a victim of its own popularity in terms of publicity, says Gordon.
“If 10 people are mugged in Johannesburg, it makes page 5 of the newspaper, if it’s Cape Town it is on page 3,” he comments. “If it’s Table Mountain it’s headline news.”