The Table Mountain National Park volunteer rangers are watching you

“Sir, do you have an activity permit for your dogs? Ma’am, which way are you heading? What route do you plan to take?” The questions, advice and chatter never end as we run into people along the hiking routes on the iconic mountain, in the Table Mountain National Park (TMNP). While most know where they are heading, some are exhausted or lost. Others clearly underestimated the route and are advised to turn back. Others continue on their routes with the knowledge that there is someone to call should they get lost.

For the Volunteer Rangers, an opportunity to help and educate those using the TMNP, directly or indirectly, is never passed. In fact, this is why the program was launched in 2011.

Not to be confused with the SANParks Honorary Rangers who are also volunteers, the Volunteer Rangers are young adults from surrounding communities with a passion for the national park. They are empowered with knowledge and skills in mountain safety and rescue, conservation, guiding and leadership which they then put to use in their free time.

The initiative is the brainchild of Aslam Levy who spent much of his time on the mountain as a youngster. His vast knowledge of the trails and surroundings led him to assist in search and rescue operations. One day he was unable to go out on a rescue mission because of a neck operation. The location was relatively unfamiliar, but he was able to guide the team to the location through radio communication simply by pointing out waypoints on the route.

“That day I realised that if I had to die, the little knowledge of the mountain that I have would have been a waste. I knew I had to do something,” he explains. He immediately recruited and trained five volunteers. They focussed on the very busy Platteklip Gorge up Table Mountain. By simply hiking in this area and educating people along the way, this small team managed to cut rescue operations by more than 50%. “We received thumbs up from the park and from there the project really kicked off.” SANParks officials and a number of volunteers then developed the training program collectively. The volunteers include experts in conservation, rescue, tourism and even the fire department.

It then became an empowerment programme, mainly for young adults from previously disadvantaged areas. “We give them the insight and skills to develop themselves, so they have an opportunity, but it depends solely on them and on how willing they are to learn,” says Levy. “They don’t get payment, but if they have the passion, they will be developed.” Some even get trained to guide children on hikes. Not all of the volunteers are youngsters and everybody learns from one another. The oldest member is the 78 years-old Bruce Mackenzie and he walks the trails three times a week.

The program grew further earlier this year when 22 new volunteers joined the initiative. It is now their turn to go out and explore hiking trails and sites and learn about protected areas. But more importantly, the group will educate mountain users and keep a watchful eye. In fact, whether they get involved in cleaning campaigns or guide people to stay on the trails during full moon on Lion’s Head, every small bit contributes in a big way.

Late that night after a short hike we stand on the edge of the mountain above the Twelve Apostles with a clear view of Signal Hill. The night is dark and it is late, but a single light indicates a hiker making their way down from the very top. “That person still has more than an hour before they are down,” Levy says out loud. He reaches for his radio to alert rangers in the vicinity of this observation. “The knowledge that someone is watching must be reassuring,” Levy says.

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