Airlink

The crazy construction of the Cape Canopy Tour

After many years of searching Cape Town and surrounds for the ideal Cape Canopy Tour location, and turning down several options which were not spectacular or remote enough, eventually the perfect spot was found in the Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve.

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After a lengthy environmental impact assessment, design and construction was finally allowed to begin. The design process involved hiking through the gorge and climbing and abseiling rock faces looking for suitable route and platform options that would show people as many different facets of this spectacular place as possible.

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Once the team was happy with the design of the canopy tour geologists came out to check the rock formations and test for suitability of the anchors for each slide and platform. Several platforms are located on sheer cliff faces above the river or waterfalls below. These were built by first bolting a secure steel frame to the rock face and then constructing timber joists and decking on top. 

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A specialised hydraulic rig was used to test the strength of the anchors as well as the surrounding rock. A pull out force of 15 tons was applied to each of the test anchors and none of them moved a bit. Despite the strength of the anchors, the team still split the cable slide load between at least two or three anchor positions just to be extra safe. These sort of facts help everyone to sleep well at night.

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The team didn’t use any foundations or concrete in the construction of the slides and platforms. If need be, they could unbolt and remove the entire system of slides and platforms from the valley and there would be little sign it had ever been there.

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The design process took over three months and construction approximately 12 months to complete, so the team got to experience all four seasons. Whilst it’s an amazing experience to do the canopy tour in the snow, there were times when the team just wished that winter would end. They would often be drinking a flask of coffee, working in the snow with fingers that wouldn’t work anymore, talking about the times in summer when they used to climb down and go lie in a mountain stream to cool off! The amazing extremes! 

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The team would leave for a week on the mountain, staying in an old building with sleeping bags so that they could be on site early in the morning and down late at night. They would come home once a week with lots of laundry and still smelling of construction and the fire that they cooked on, and in their words; “miraculously we are still married”.

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With each passing month the construction team became more excited in knowing that sooner or later they would be bringing people to experience this spectacular site. This didn’t however make the work any easier…

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Accessibility to the Cape Canopy Tour site was the hugest challenge. The construction team did rope training so that they could drill and rig the structures, and if anything was dropped they would have to abseil down to retrieve it.

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Getting power to site was another interesting challenge. The team had a generator that they had to hike into the valley, and this is by no means an easy task. Often they had to hang the generator half way down a cliff in order to get power to the tools. In one instance the engineer left the generator at the base of a particularly high cliff, joined up a few extension leads and started climbing the ropes to the top, with a very large industrial drill and all the necessary equipment tied on his harness. He got into position and tied all of his safety lines, ready to begin drilling the hole (which usually takes about 40 min), only to find that he forgot to switch on the plug on the generator!

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High ropes were used to access the cliff sides for rigging and construction of the platforms. No helicopters, cranes or heavy machinery was used to bring in or place any of the materials. Every piece of steel, timber and cable was carried in by hand. The team hiked in generators and drilling equipment to drill and install the cable and platform anchor points, then 3.3km of cable was pulled across the huge gorge, over the mountains and down through the valleys to get the cables in place. The total length of cable slides during the tour is over 2km. This was probably the hardest part of the project.

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After tensioning the cables and ensuring they were safely anchored, the team would then use each slide to transport materials along for the following platforms. This would often mean two people sliding together across the cable carrying materials like wood, steel or the generator between them.

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The team got really fit constructing the zip line, and used to time themselves running out of the valley, mostly because if they ever left a tool in the car it would cause a delay of at least an hour. The team kept motivating one another with challenges: who was the fastest to run up the mountain, who could pull themselves back along a cable the quickest, or lunch for the person who could tension a length of cable the fastest. 

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It was always humorous for the staff when a new person joined the team, because they inevitably had no idea what was in store for them, hanging off mountains, sliding over the valley on a cable, hiking up steep mountain carrying heavy equipment, steel or timber. Mostly, new members would suffer to keep up with the incredibly fit team but if they made it through the first week, their fitness would quickly increase and they would be one of the family. Now these guys are all guiding for Cape Canopy Tour and are incredibly proud of what they built and love to tell guests all the crazy stories about how they achieved this remarkable task.

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This is a unique way of visiting a previously inaccessible nature site without having an impact on the environment, as the tour predominantly takes place through the air and thus leaves far less impact than for example the footpaths of a hiking trail.

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Janine Avery

I am the first to confess that I have been bitten by the travel bug… badly. I am a lover of all things travel from basic tenting with creepy crawlies to lazing in luxury lodges; I will give it all a go. I am passionate about wildlife and conservation and come from a long line of biologists, researchers and botanists.

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