What can a city do when its most photographed tourism icon gets the reputation as a no-go area?
That's the quandary facing Cape Town, South Africa, one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
What makes Cape Town so beautiful, in addition to its sublime food and fascinatingly diverse population, is glorious Table Mountain. The nearly perfectly flat, nearly exactly 1-kilometer-tall geological feature towers over the city and can be seen rising from the horizon from miles away.
One of the most celebrated urban recreational grounds on the planet, Table Mountain attracts nearly every tourist who comes to South Africa's Western Cape province. This month, the tramway that carries sightseers to the lofty plateau celebrated its 31 millionth visitor since opening decades ago. (Surely the most adorable sight at the summit is the mammal species known as the rock hyrax, aka dassies.)
Justly seduced by the spectacular scenery, a significant number of visitors choose to take the aerial tramway in only one direction, opting to pair a ride with a hike either up or down Table Mountain.
I used to live in Cape Town, and I'd often spend my Saturdays climbing alone to the summit via the Platteklip Gorge route before taking the tramway back down. Back then, the greatest hazards of climbing Table Mountain were injuries, dehydration, and exhaustion.
Nowadays, fellow human beings present the biggest danger.
An ongoing crime wave is plaguing Table Mountain. The problem came to light in the international press after January 21, when a pair of muggers ambushed a group of hikers. The group's guide chased the muggers away with pepper spray. Hours later, when officials went back to retrieve a lost phone, they discovered that one of the muggers, apparently blinded by the spray, had fallen off the steep mountain to his death.
This week, a 76-year-old British man returned to South Africa for the first time in more than 5 years, after he was stabbed nine times during a similar attack. His wife was also stabbed while trying to defend him. Both survived, and they returned to Cape Town to promote hiker safety.
“I feel now if I didn’t hike, the attackers would have won," the hiker, Don Cormack, told the South African press. "It is such a beautiful country and they [criminals] are robbing it of all of its dignity. And for what, a camera or watch?”
An unwelcome spotlight is now fixed on the dangers of visiting Table Mountain. Considering the landmark's place among the glories of South Africa, the change is as catastrophic to locals as it would be for Americans to declare the Statue of Liberty too dangerous, or Australians warning visitors to steer clear of the Sydney Opera House.
The dangers are not confined to the slopes of Table Mountain, either—popular trails on the surrounding hills and rock formations, including Lion's Head and Signal Hill closer to homes in the city, are also frequent targets.
Suspects are sometimes caught, but new crops of aggressors materialize to take their place. Times aren't just hard in many U.S. cities; economic disparities are growing worldwide. South Africa has an electrical grid that's failing as a delayed result of Apartheid-induced, racist neglect of infrastructure in nonwhite areas. That's contributing to tough struggles for many South Africans, reflected in rising crime rates.
The park rangers who govern Table Mountain can only do so much. The national park spans 221 square kilometers (85.3 square miles) of vertiginous land that touches the edges of the city on multiple sides.
Many locals are banding together to create awareness and advocate for changes through efforts such as Take Back Our Mountains, a Facebook community group that now numbers more than 11,000 members. Posts on the group's page often report multiple muggings each day, and international tourists are often the victims.
The locations of more incidents are documented on this interactive online map, though the data is anecdotal and not complete. Additionally, online message boards have been sounding warnings for the past few years.
It would be deeply unjust if Cape Town fell off the international tourism circuit because of the city's crime hot spots. If you plan to visit Cape Town—and you really should, because there is no place like it in the world—then take care to plan your explorations of Table Mountain with safety in mind.