Alard Hufner Apologises for Drakensberg Via Ferrata

Top South African mountain climber Alard “Big Al” Hufner has been forced to apologise to Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and the UN heritage agency for illegally building a 360m cable climbing route in the Drakensberg-Maloti World Heritage Park.

Apart from having to remove the steel cable route that was bolted into the mountainside, Hufner’s caper could end up costing him more than R160 000 in legal fees and other expenses.

He also has to perform 50 hours community service in the Royal Natal section of the park, not far from where the provincial government is hoping to build a much larger and controversial R570 million, 7km-long cable car route.

Based in Joburg and London, Hufner has climbed some of the steepest rock faces in the world. According to the Exploration Society of Southern Africa web page he works in the movie industry as a stunt rigger and has also been involved in projects such as Fear Factor and The Amazing Race.

Drakensberg via ferrata

Paco Reynolds (4 year old) climbs the via ferrata in the Drakensberg. Photo by Dave Reynolds

In a public apology in the latest edition of SA Mountain magazine, Hufner said he took full responsibility for his “thoughtless, irresponsible… and at times arrogant actions and poor judgement” in building the cable route.

In a written agreement with Ezemvelo, he acknowledged that he would in all probability have ended up with a criminal record had he not agreed to the terms of the out-of-court settlement.

Hufner admitted erecting the steel climbing cable (or via ferrata) on Beacon Buttress in Royal Natal Nature Reserve in November and December 2011, along with a number of unnamed volunteers.

A via ferrata (Italian for “iron road”) is a steel cable route that allows relatively inexperienced climbers access to otherwise dangerous routes without the need for specialised climbing equipment.

The cable route provoked mixed reactions among mountaineers, with some describing Hufner and his friends as irresponsible “cowboys” and “naughty schoolboys”, while others praised them as “superheroes” who tried to open up a new, easier mountain route. His supporters chipped in more than R90 000 to cover his legal fees and associated costs after an online appeal on the Climbing SA website.

Hufner claimed on the website that he consulted an “incorrect” map and his route “accidentally encroached” into the world heritage site. But in his public apology in SA Mountain magazine, Hufner apologised for his “thoughtless” actions to Ezemvelo and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

He further apologised for allowing the publication of “the Gordian Edge article” in the March-May issue of the SA Mountain Sport magazine in which he “incorrectly and inappropriately” portrayed Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife “in a poor light”.
“In this I risked the good relationship Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has with the Mountain Club of South Africa and the broader mountaineering community.

“I take full responsibility for committing an offence and have attempted to make good my thoughtless and arrogant actions by paying for the removal of the via ferrata cable and the anchoring pins and the rehabilitation of the damaged rock… ”

Drakensberg via ferrata

Climbers on the Via Ferrata in the Drakensberg


Hufner said he also wanted to encourage people to take conservation laws seriously.

“The majority of the World Heritage Sites in Danger are found in Africa; a major cause being deterioration in the scenic, natural or cultural values of the site due to human-induced impacts. I encourage the mountaineering community to learn about the importance of world heritage and the outstanding universal values which can be easily spoiled by people acting irresponsibly and taking the law into their own hands.”

Hufner, who is believed to be in London, could not be reached for further comment.

But Stephen Richert, the Ezemvelo officer in charge for Royal Natal, said world heritage sites were special places and the via ferrata cable had been installed with complete disregard for the visual impacts it would cause “by encouraging climbers en masse to gain access to the sensitive, upper reaches of the Beacon Buttress”.

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35 Responses to Alard Hufner Apologises for Drakensberg Via Ferrata

  1. Micky Feb 11, 2014 at 2:43 pm #

    But Stephen Richert, the Ezemvelo officer in charge for Royal Natal, said world heritage sites were special places and the via ferrata cable had been installed with complete disregard for the visual impacts it would cause “by encouraging climbers en masse to gain access to the sensitive, upper reaches of the Beacon Buttress”.

    Unlike the massive cable car they are building. Sanparks ezemvelo are all the same. Double standards. If they can make money the rules don’t apply if they can’t then obviously it’s not allowed.

  2. Charles Webster Feb 11, 2014 at 3:34 pm #

    Stephen Richert is right, though – and the question of the cable car is beyond his control, and would be handled by the big cheeses at Queen Elizabeth Park. I am completely against the cable car myself, but clearly the via ferrata was a breach of mountain ethics. There’s no getting around it.

    • dave reynolds Apr 9, 2014 at 9:34 pm #

      charles – i know this is a late response, but it’s not clear that the VF was a breach of mountain ethics. for starters mountains don’t have ethics, people do. and at the highest level of ethical discussion, people disagree. my experience is that the environmental impact on that area of the wilderness is caused by the mountain hut, not the VF – (23 trips, 3 on the VF). other huts have been demolished because of this (keith bush hut etc), this one could be also be condemned.

      the problem with the VF was that in order to have a realistic perspective, true data would be needed, not emotional data. to get this data, the MCSA would have to campaign to have the VF there for, say, a one year trial period during which the dangers, the environmental impact, the possible benefits etc could be assessed by human scientists. but, i believe, the MCSA was unable to adopt this mature approach, perhaps offended by alard not going through the correct channels of permission. it’s all history now, we’ll never know whether this R45k structure (which cost us all nothing – alard dipped into his own pocket) would have added value or not.

      what are we going to do about the cable car ?

  3. robert Feb 11, 2014 at 3:38 pm #

    I personally am really really sorry I didn’t get to climb or hike the thing. I almost made a special trip to KZN to experience it.
    It would have been a lot of fun.
    And now because of some Ezemvelo and other KZN zealots we are all going to miss out. Bummer.

  4. Colin Feb 11, 2014 at 8:30 pm #

    It’s interesting how a lot of the journalism has gotten so many facts about the whole situation very wrong. It will be interesting to see the actual apology and if it is in fact in Alard’s own words or twisted by a journalist just to get a good story. If anyone has the latest SA mountain please post a copy of the apology.

  5. Ghaznavid Feb 11, 2014 at 9:58 pm #

    EKZN has nothing to do with the cableway – its DEDT.

    Quote from VE:
    “Firstly, KZN Wildlife are not the ones initiating and driving the cableway proposal. It is the DEDT. Definitely not the same crowd of people. EKZNW does have a role to play to ensure that the potential EIA is done properly – but this is not the same as being in support and driving the project. The comments that they have “double standards” by being against the via ferrata but are for the cableway, is based on misinformation and shows a lack of understanding on what the cableway proposal is all about.

    “Secondly, the via ferrata clearly crossed into the park, and thus certain laws apply. A different set of laws and management principals applies to land alongside the park. Some of the comments I’ve seen show that the people making them think that the cableway is being built squarely within the park – it shows lack of understanding of whose land the Busingatha is. I am not for the cableway, and building something that close to the the MDP-WHS I think is criminal – the point I’m making is that legally this is not the same issue.

    “Thirdly, the via ferrata was built without any announcement, consultation or permission. The cableway proposal has been very badly managed to far, but, it is out in the open, and if it is built, will have to get the proper permission. If proper consultation had been made before the via ferrata was built, it may still exist today, perhaps not in the location where it was though.”


  6. Rob Feb 12, 2014 at 7:08 am #

    “by encouraging climbers en masse to gain access to the sensitive, upper reaches of the Beacon Buttress” – this would have hardly been the case. This would have attracted enthusiasts.
    I think the lesson that can be learned here is that one should seek correct permissions beforehand. Whether Ezimvelo/Alard/the map is at fault is not important. This project required a lot of manpower and resources, possibly even a helicopter to lift the cables up the hill(?). It’s naive to go to all of that effort without seeking legal advice etc.
    Alard has shown true character and integrity throughout this ordeal though. I respect him for that, and for actually caring enough to try and create something cool for people.

  7. Alard Feb 12, 2014 at 7:35 am #

    …… WOW …. I am Famous!!!!! 🙂

  8. Josh Feb 12, 2014 at 7:47 am #

    Infamous perhaps?

  9. Alard Feb 12, 2014 at 7:56 am #

    Even Better 🙂

  10. Mokganjetsi (Willem B) Feb 12, 2014 at 9:05 am #

    WTH park dude? any idea how many noobs scale an equally sensitive area via the chain ladders? the way this whole thing went down leaves a very bad taste in the mouth. the via ferrata was erected without permission, but accidentally so. could retrospective application not be granted? was a real sensitivity study done? this was blown completely out of proportion.

  11. sam Feb 12, 2014 at 11:39 am #

    feel for alard. so many double standards from so many people.

  12. Andrew Feb 12, 2014 at 12:08 pm #

    The via feratta was brilliant, pity it had to come down.

    The real question I have is why have the parks board not publicly criticized the cable car. They came down hard on Alard and by now not coming down hard on the cable car, it can be inferred that they are thus in support of the cable car! Which worries me a lot

  13. Gustav Feb 12, 2014 at 12:41 pm #

    Its about time somebody chops those ugly chain ladders!? Keep the riff-raff out of the mountain, eh?

  14. Chalk Feb 12, 2014 at 4:10 pm #

    Best of intentions, worst possible outcome…. for all involved….

  15. Alard Feb 12, 2014 at 8:19 pm #

    So the land in Orange Free State on which 94% the VF was ( we now know this as the area has been surveyed ), is owned by a king/chief and he has handed over the management of that land to a management company. I had verbal permission form the manger (at the time) of that management company to install the VF……. looking at the Royal Natal web site and on the front page was a map that clearly showed that the planned VF was about 100m clear of Natal and the Royal Natal National Park…………….

  16. robert Feb 13, 2014 at 3:57 pm #

    Unfortunately this article just regurgitates the press release from Ezemvelo, with little additional reporting or research.
    I really doubt whether Alard really said all those things that are ascribed to him in the article.
    I suspect that it was a confession under serious duress in order to avoid worse alternatives.

  17. Rob Feb 13, 2014 at 4:01 pm #

    So Alard, by your above post we can all see that this an unintentional mistake, where you actually had done the permissions groundwork. It’s really sad that you were forced to make those statements. What was MCSA’s involvement in helping to sort this out (if any)?

  18. Mokganjetsi (Willem B) Feb 13, 2014 at 4:37 pm #

    okay, so let me get this straight:
    you had (what you thought was the right) permission
    you worked on boundary lines based on a faulty map that Ezemvelo had on THEIR website
    and then they have the audacity to name, shame & sue you???!!!!!

    dude, you should have kicked them in the nuts. seriously.
    i do believe in treading lightly, dealing politely and be very aware that there are powers to please. but this is not on.

    • Mokganjetsi (Willem B) Feb 13, 2014 at 4:39 pm #

      *Royal Natal & *prosecute

  19. Dean Feb 13, 2014 at 5:31 pm #

    Alard, you had good intentions with the project and when things turned out differently you admitted the mistakes, took it on the chin and took corrective action (at your own cost and lots of time). Respect!

  20. Alard Feb 13, 2014 at 10:28 pm #

    Willem B and Robert you got it right!!!! It is a VERY intricate story ( and as always there are 2 sides to a story) but in the mean time here is a bit more info

    After all the big huff and charges laid against me, we had the area surveyed and realised that 23m of the route was in the Royal Natal National park.
    Then I had a verbal agreement with a certain legal person in Bergviile court to take the whole route down and the charges would be dropped.
    So we spent 36 man days removing the route. Not just chopping the pegs but drilling around the peg and using a big hammer and pole to get them out so that no steel was left in the mountain.
    Then we went back to court…. then Ezemvelo did not agree with this and upped the legal fight by bringing in an environmental advocate.
    They then used the clause in the world heritage site act to nail me: intentionally or unintentionally do damage to a world heritage site…… ( even though the entire route had been removed )

    Not sure how much I can say without getting into more trouble….. but after many trips to Bergville court the options were: …….. another R500 000 lawyers fees or accept settlement………

    • Person Personson Feb 14, 2014 at 10:15 am #

      Hey Alard – as much as I like hearing your side of the story, I think you might get yourself into a legal spot of bother if you keep posting here.

      At least you know for next time that you should always get things in writing. A shame you have to learn this lesson in such a costly way though 🙁

      • Rob Feb 14, 2014 at 3:25 pm #

        Why? Facts are facts surely.

  21. Gustav Feb 14, 2014 at 10:01 am #

    Slightly off topic, but this is what is keeping Alard out of mischief and off the rocks at the moment –

  22. Bernard Feb 14, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

    It is sad that the VF had to be taken down. The guys at Ezemvelo KZN wildlife could have handled this a lot differently. They could have gained from having a VF, even a small section of it, on their property. You need some level of climbing experience of using a harness and carabiners, to climb a VF, so I don’t think it would have attracted “climbers en masse” to this area. For the many hikers who enjoy the Drakensberg and the SA climbing community, this could have been a great way to experience climbing (not just hiking) in the Drakensberg in a safe and breathtaking way. Sadly it is all lost now…

  23. mountain guy Feb 16, 2014 at 9:16 pm #

    There is a missing link in this thread. Sadly, and the most
    disappointing, there was a very brief moment where this could all have
    been resolved internally within the CLIMBING fraternity BEFORE getting
    EKZN and their henchmen involved.
    Not only was the boundary area incorrectly demarcated on EKZN’s own
    website, but there are serious doubts as to whether or not the Via
    Ferrata infringed on the agreed “fixed anchor guidelines”.

    Were EKZN acting solely on their research?

    Considering that there were climbers advising EKZN, it is disgusting
    that this was pushed the way and direction that it was!

  24. Rob Feb 17, 2014 at 11:07 am #

    I agree with mountain guy here. From the original thread the vibe from some of the climbing community suggests that climbers/hikers had alerted EKZN about this and exacerbated the issue.

    My earlier question still begs for an answer; What was MCSA’s stance and involvement in helping a top climber during this process? From their official response via their webpage, it seems they distanced themselves from this issue, where in all reality, Alard HAD done his homework, he HAD consulted the map provided on the webpage and he had a verbal agreement to go ahead. Bear in mind the fact that they have used Alard as a brand ambassador (yes we can call MCSA a brand), Alard has always proudly flown our flag as a premier SA climber with a serious tick list of achievements as well as putting in so much good into SA climbing. He is a dedicated, passionate climber and we should have stood behind one of our own. What happened?

    What I find equally disturbing is the fact that Alard took the rap all on himself. Not one ‘accomplice’ came forward, yet there must have been lots of people involved in this. Surely a party of climbers, backed by the MCSA, could have seen this issue out with a different outcome? (and forgive me if this was sorted out by involved parties behind closed doors).

  25. Alard Feb 17, 2014 at 10:56 pm #

    ……. there is sooooo much that happened…. a bit more info…

    YES we should have done more research before erecting the route.

    Yes the VF caused a lot of trouble for many people. Yes It jeopardise years of hard earned trust between MCSA and Royal Natal.

    Yes it caused a lot of friction between MCSA sections.

    There has been so much discussion about this and there are always 2 sides to a story!!!

    The MCSA … the MCSA is its members …. JHB MCSA supported the Via Ferrata!! Natal MCSA was totally opposed to it ( even though 2 of its members helped install it, half the bolted routes in the berg were put up by Natal Members and the Chainladders that are 700m from where the VF was, were installed by the Natal Provincial Government in 1931, basically the 1st VF in South Africa). Officially MCSA Cencom could not approve the VF as a section of it was in the World Heritage site. ( totally understandable).

    The biggest misfortune that happened in this entire saga was that a certain prominent Natal climber ( totally against the VF) thought that the watershed rule applied to that part of the berg ( as it applies to most of the berg, forming borders and provincial boundaries).If that had been the case then most of the VF route would have been in Natal and therefore in Royal Natal and therefore in the World Heritage site. So when he was asked by Royal Natal/Ezemvelo he stated that the route was in Royal Natal. Royal Natal/ Ezemvelo without doing any more research ( they did not know their exact borders) issued a massive press release stating that legal action would be taken against those responsible for erecting the VF on Beacon buttress within the World heritage site.

    BUT…… the watershed rule does NOT apply to that specific area! The border is formed by a straight line from a peg at the top of beacon buttress gulley to the top of the sentinel ( we now know this thanks to the survey performed after the route had been installed). SO the info initially given to Royal Natal by said climber was incorrect and they jumped at it without doing further investigations…. and shortly there after legal action against me was in place. We tried relentlessly to contact Royal Natal to set up a meeting to discuss the situation… we were totally ignored….

  26. Alard Feb 17, 2014 at 11:09 pm #

    I must add that towards the end the MCSA Natal did approach Ezemvelo to try and get the charges dropped against me. I really appreciated that!!.

  27. Rob Feb 19, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

    Alard, it’s actually shocking what happened to you man. Thanks for being brave enough to come on here and let the World know your side of the story. People can draw their own conclusions about how you have been treated by the climbing ‘community’ here. This VF was/would have been an asset to tourism and would have been for many a way into climbing for the first time. I seriously would not blame you if you never bothered developing a route again or trying to pioneer something new for the greater good of this lot.

  28. Justin Lawson Feb 20, 2014 at 2:44 pm #

    Below is a link where they report that they want to extend the Cable Way a further 5km’s to Afriski (and to a failed golf complex nearby)!

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