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New seven natural inanities

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

Chill, Capetonians. Table Mountain isn't all that special, despite what a preposterous Internet vote may have determined. The New7Wonders hustle neatly demonstrates the shortcomings of public opinion polls.

Rising high above the richly vegetated plains stands a massive flat-topped mountain. It is a mysterious, mist-shrouded monument to nature’s splendour. Its fauna and flora are unique in the world. Myths and legends have been handed down through the centuries, and locals still hold it, and the peaks around it, in awe.

No, it is not Table Mountain.

It is taller than our own little mountain from its base to its top, and its highest point, Maverick Rock, stands almost three times as high above sea level. Its massive flat summit is surrounded on all sides by 400m sheer cliffs. Only one ascent route does not require technical climbing gear. On top, you’ll find a river, a deep pool called “The Pit”, and spectacular rock formations carved from sandstone dated to 1.8 billion years old. (The sandstone of Table Mountain, billed by its boosters as “one of the oldest mountains on earth”, is only 800 million years old.)

A nearby mesa features caves that allow the sun to shine right through the mountain at certain times of year, and another is the source of the highest waterfall in the world.

It is the setting for Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous adventure tale, The Lost World. Its spectacular prow stands high above the jungles of Venezuela, where that country meets Brazil and Guyana. And if Table Mountain is quite impressive, Mount Roraima is certainly a natural wonder of this world.

Besides being older, higher, larger and more spectacular, the only difference between Roraima and Table Mountain is that the former doesn’t have a large, smoggy city filled with ambitious cellphone-wielding people at its foot.

As a consequence, the grandly-named New7Wonders Foundation, run by a Swiss fellow named Bernard Weber, didn’t even have Mount Roraima on its shortlist of sites eligible for voting as one of the new natural wonders of the world.

The previous effort ranked man-made monuments by popularity, and famously managed to forget the only remaining wonder of the ancient world, the Great Pyramid of Giza. It had to be granted “honorary” status among the “New Seven Wonders” after protests by the outraged Egyptians.

The statues of Easter Island, which truly are a wonder, didn’t make the cut. Neither did the Statue of Liberty, which is older, taller, and more famous than the Statue of Christ the Redeemer, which did make the list.

The marketing campaign in Rio de Janeiro was reportedly massive. Local telephone operators spammed millions with exhortations to vote and made SMS vote lines free. In New York, the locals were presumably too busy trying to deal with a financial crisis to bother with grandiose populist fantasies designed to enrich a sharp Internet meme creator.

At the time – back in 2007 – the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), which runs the World Heritage Site register, distanced itself from the New7Wonders Foundation, because its popularity contests were available only to people with Internet access or mobile phones. Experts in surveying public opinion were aghast that multiple votes were allowed, and that some votes cost money while others were free, which made the results wide open to manipulation. To call it “unscientific” states the obvious. It was nothing more than a silly, but very profitable, lark.

And so it is with the new natural wonders, for which voting closed last Friday. With Table Mountain on the provisional winners’ list, Cape Town is naturally jubilant. But how many Capetonians would even know where Jeju Island, Halong Bay or Iguazu Falls are? They’d better look it up. After all, the Cape Times reports that their city sunk R1.7 million into marketing to make sure their beloved mountain joins these hallowed ranks.

Astonishingly, the Amazon qualified for inclusion. The entire basin. All 7 million square kilometres of it. Admittedly, it must contain a fair few natural wonders. But why not the Atacama Desert? Or the Serengeti? Why not the Pacific Ocean? It is even bigger than the Amazon, constitutes the true “lungs of the planet”, and contains splendours like the Great Barrier Reef, which didn’t make it as a natural wonder in its own right. Granted, the Pacific Ocean isn’t much of a tourist destination, and nobody would pay Weber’s outfit millions in licensing fees to market its supposed natural wonder status.

All the winners, and indeed the finalists, are undeniably pretty. Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay, for example, was immortalised in the 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. But what does it have that Thailand’s Phang Nga Bay, from the 1974 James Bond film The Man With The Golden Gun doesn’t have?

Why were the Maldives among the finalists, while equally beautiful islands in the south Pacific, Caribbean or elsewhere did not make the cut?

Why not choose Angel Falls? Or Niagara Falls? Or Victoria Falls? Being respectively higher, more voluminous and wider in a single span, why weren’t they considered to be more wonderful than the splendid Iguazu Falls?

Just being the biggest, longest, highest, deepest or widest shouldn’t make a natural wonder, of course. Such criteria are pretty banal. Everest will always win that contest.

There has to be something truly unique and astonishing to a natural feature to describe it as a “wonder”.

Yet the incessantly voting public, with text message bundles to burn to enrich mobile operators or hours to waste on the Internet, chose hardly any sites that could be described as unique. Most weren’t even particularly unusual.

Beautiful lakes featured, but not Australia’s Pink Lake. Beautiful lakes are commonplace. Pink lakes not so much. The Grand Canyon? Nah, boring. The Dead Sea? The Devil’s Tower? The Giant’s Causeway? The fairy chimneys of Cappadocia? The Okavango? How many of the millions of voters even know where that is or why it truly is unique?

The fact that Table Mountain made it to the list is a great marketing achievement. It’s a lovely publicity stunt. It will make marvellous tourist bait, provided said tourists aren’t wise enough to ask questions.

But in the end, it merely shows why Unesco will have nothing to do with Bernard Weber and his Swiss cash cow. It demonstrates that popular opinion about nature, just as with teen idols in endless television contests, produces perfectly inane results.

And to those still crowing about the big lump of rock that ruins Cape Town’s traffic and spoils a perfectly good Atlantic sea view from Constantia, don’t forget that Weber’s next “new seven wonders” stunt involves cities. Johannesburg is bigger. So are Mexico City, Shanghai, Jakarta and some 50 other perfectly ordinary cities.

Get your cellphones ready. Oh, wait. Let me just buy some Vodacom shares first. At the height of voting, Mxit alone was clocking 140,000 votes a minute, according to CEO Alan Knott-Craig. Unless you’re Bernard Weber himself, that’s where the smart money hangs out. DM


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