Beacons of safety from yesteryear

Pictures by Karl Andre Terblanche

For close to two centuries seafarers around South Africa’s treacherous coast ‎have been familiar with their reassuring beams of light. And these sturdy beacons with their bold colours and powerful lamps are today still found in some of the most remote and spectacular locations along this coast.

All are still working, and some are still manned fulltime. These days tourists can stay in some of them, have some coffee and cakes, or simply browse through memorabilia and old photographs dating back to the mid-1800s.

We are of course talking about South Africa’s system of coastal lighthouses, among the oldest and most extensive such networks on all of the African continent.

Photographer Karl and I had the opportunity to visit a number of these lighthouses to experience first-hand this fascinating trip down memory lane. We started our journey  at the Cape Columbine lighthouse on the awesome West Coast, a few kilometres from the historic fishing village of Paternoster, and visited several more lighthouses before ending off at Cape St Blaize lighthouse perched spectacularly on a cliff above a cave at Mossel Bay.

There are many more lighthouses that can be visited along South Africa’s 2,900km long coast, from Port Nolloth in the west, just south of the diamond mining operations at the mouth of the Orange River (also known as the Gariep River), right around the entire coast up to Jesser Point at Sodwana Bay near the border with Mozambique. All are automated these days and only 17 are still manned.

But remember, not all are built in the style of those familiar masonry structures with their bold stripes and high towers in which lighthouse keepers live and work – some are mere steel towers offering no refuge from the elements, but are nonetheless surrounded by great scenery and much to do.

Our journey proved to be an unparalleled experience, offering us a nostalgic peek into a proud history of a bygone world that paradoxically somehow endures to this modern age. At the same time it offered us a sense of adventure, exposure to the great outdoors, spectacular settings incorporating sea and land, recounting real life and death dramas and a close-up view of the workings of an indispensable service. And of course, it now also offers a unique form of hospitality for travellers.

South Africa has no fewer than 45 lighthouses dotted along its most breathtakingly beautiful and rugged coastline, where you will also find some of the most treacherous seas in the world. One realises with a sense of humility what a great achievement it was to have built these lighthouses in such isolated, inhospitable terrain without the aid of modern technology. They truly testify to man’s ingenuity and perseverance.

In almost every case the sea had mercilessly claimed many lives, cargo and vessels before it was decided to build lighthouses at these locations. With each lighthouse having accumulated spellbinding tales over almost two centuries, some naturally have also gained their own restless ghosts.

Eight of these lighthouses are open to the public with a number of them offering lighthouse tours, self-catering accommodation or conference facilities. Some have curios and coffee shops, and one houses a museum.

Despite their isolated locations, many of these lighthouses can be reached fairly easily, making a tour of South Africa’s lighthouses a unique experience that will take you to unforgettable, out of-the-way places.

We started our tour at Cape Columbine lighthouse, the sixth one down from Port Nolloth on the West Coast, in the Columbine Nature Reserve. This fairly young lighthouse, commissioned only in 1936, is probably the only South African lighthouse built in something of an art deco style. It breaks with tradition, resembling a square, buttressed castle instead of the usual round, tapered shape, aptly being built on what is known locally as Castle Rock.

Columbine was the last manned lighthouse to be built in South Africa and the last lighthouse designed by Harry Claude  Cooper, Lighthouse Engineer for the Cape Colonial Government and subsequently the first Lighthouse Engineer of the then South African Railways. Today Cooper’s name is synonymous with South Africa’s lighthouse history. Under his hand the mere 17 lighthouses he found here upon arrival from England, quickly grew in number. All have withstood the onslaught of weather, ocean and modern technology and continue to guide ships to safety.

Towering 15m high on a prominent, windswept headland and painted white with a red lantern house, Cape Columbine’s 1.5Kw lamp flashes a beam of  light of some 5,040,000 Candelas every 15 seconds that is visible from 32 nautical miles away. It is usually the first lighthouse along the western shores of Africa to be sighted by ships coming from South America and Europe.

Originally lighthouses were painted in different, unique colours and patterns to make them easily identifiable from the sea. For the same reason  the flashing light of each lighthouse has a different character or sequence. These days, with modern high-tech navigational aids, this is no longer necessary, but the tradition is carried on nonetheless.

The history of the area around Cape Columbine is steeped in maritime tragedy. Legend has it that the picturesque village of Paternoster, which means “Our Father”, derived its name from the prayers of shipwrecked Portuguese sailors. The lighthouse was named after the barque Columbine which ran aground here on 31 Mary 1829.  But the many submerged rocks and reefs along this coast first had to claim many more victims before the lighthouse was finally built more than a hundred years later.

For lighthouse buffs this lighthouse offers an interesting array of ‘firsts’, such as its particular lens system and being the first to receive all three navigational safety features, namely a light, a fog signal and a radio beacon. A steep climb up its spiral staircase into the lantern house will reward you with spectacular views of the surrounding nature reserve, Britannia reef and the Atlantic Ocean.

Columbine is one of the few lighthouses that still has a dedicated lighthouse keeper. It is open to the public daily between 10h00 and 15h00. The lighthouse has 3 self-catering cottages, all former lighthouse keepers’ cottages, while nearby Paternoster offers plenty of alternative accommodation in an idyllic setting. Surrounding the lighthouse is the Columbine Nature Reserve within which there are camping sites and interesting hiking trails. Towards the south lies the rather famous Tietiesbaai (translating as ‘Breasts Bay’) where you can enjoy a snoek braai on the rocks while watching the sun dip down behind the horizon.

From Paternoster the road takes us south to Saldanha Bay and Langebaan Lagoon, to two lighthouses guarding the sea entrance to the bay and lagoon, named North Head and South Head lighthouses. Both had humble beginnings in 1969, first as 23m high aluminium lattice towers with lanterns atop, to be converted to concrete towers much more recently. North Head can be reached along a nature trail through the naval base property next to the harbour. South Head can be reached through the West Coast National Park and Postberg Flower Reserve but is out of bounds to the public as it stands behind locked gates on military  property.

The next lighthouse on our tour is located on Dassen Island just off the coast at Yzerfontein. It stands guard over a temperamental sea and a wrecked fishing vessel in the nearby rocks, with a beautiful view of Cape Town and Table Mountain in the distance across the sea. It is probably the most isolated manned lighthouse on the South African coast and can be reached by boat – on calm weather days – or by helicopter. There is plenty of accommodation in Yzerfontein and much to do in the area.

From here we travel down the coast to Milnerton on the north-western outskirts of Cape Town, where an unmanned lighthouse juts out from among urban housing, a river mouth, restaurants and a popular golf course, all located on Woodbridge Island in the Diep River estuary. The estuary and the nearby Rietvlei Wetland is a bird-lover’s paradise, home to the Greater and Lesser Flamingo and Great White pelican among its 201 recorded species.

Across the narrow channel of water from here lies Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent the greater part of his political imprisonment. Robben Island boasts, in a sense, the very first lighthouse in South Africa. The current lighthouse  was built in 1864, but it stands on Minto Hill, the same site where the first Dutch governor at the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck, in 1656 ordered a huge bonfire to be kept burning as a navigational aid for ships.

Despite this many ships foundered on the rocks around the island over the years, among them a 17th century Dutch ship laden with gold coins meant as payment for Dutch East India Company employees in Batavia. Over the years some gold coins have washed up, but the bulk of the treasure has yet to be found.

If you wish to take a close-up look at the island’s lighthouse, you can take the Robben Island ferry that departs four times daily from the Nelson Mandela Gateway in the Clock Tower Precinct of the world-famous V&A Waterfront with its shops, restaurants, pubs and entertainment.

As we follow the road around Table Bay we enter Cape Town and the Cape Peninsula, which, true to its name as the infamous  Cape of Storms, abounds with lighthouses and has a history filled with spectacular maritime disasters. No fewer than six lighthouses are located around the peninsula in vastly differing settings, each with its own unique history.

On the western side of the South Peninsula, the rugged isolation of Slangkoppunt lighthouse at Kommetjie, painted white from top to bottom, stands in stark contrast to the urban setting of the Green Point lighthouse at Mouille Point which is dwarfed by high-rise apartment blocks.

Slangkoppunt lighthouse is part of the Marine Protected Area of Table Mountain National Park. Completed in 1919, the lighthouse is the tallest cast-iron lighthouse in South Africa standing 34m high. The beaches of Kommetjie and Noordhoek offer exhilarating hiking which can be ended off with a climb to the top of the lighthouse for stunning coastal views. Before it was built, many ships came to grief here, with perhaps the best-known being the 1,000-ton steamer, the Kakapo, which was on her maiden voyage from Wales to Australia when she ran aground here in 1900.

Green Point lighthouse, within spitting distance of central Cape Town, was built between 1821 and 1824 as the first operational and solid structure lighthouse in South Africa. The building with its red and white diagonal stripes is a Cape Town landmark. It is also the place where generations of lighthouse keepers received their training.

Today it serves as head office for the Transnet National Ports Authority’s Lighthouse and Navigational Systems unit which operates South Africa’s lighthouses. It is still operational and its loud foghorn, installed in 1926, is still a frequent irritation to some nearby residents. Another old lighthouse at nearby Mouille Point has long been demolished.

Despite its role in safely guiding ships in and out of Table Bay, the Green Point lighthouse has borne  witness to many a tragedy on the waters in front of it. In one of the worst storms ever to hit Table Bay, some 30 ships were blown ashore and wrecked in 1858, with many lives lost. In another severe storm in May 1865, the mail steamer RMS Athens was driven onto the rocks by huge waves, with its entire crew of 29 perishing as a crowd watched from the shore. And in 1966 the SA Seafarer ran aground close to the lighthouse which used its strong light beam to assist three air force helicopters to airlift crew and passengers to safety without loss of life. This was the first such rescue operation in South Africa.

From Mouille Point we follow the M3 and M4 down to Simon’s Town where we locate the Roman Rock lighthouse in the middle of the bay. It is one of the most unique lighthouses in South Africa. Built as a circular cast iron structure on top of a concrete base with two metal landing areas jutting out, it is perched precariously on two rocks in False Bay near the entrance to the naval harbour. At high tide the rocks are fully submerged, with strong Southeasters in summer and gale force Northwesters in winter sending an endless succession of waves crashing into it.

These conditions made the mere construction of this lighthouse between 1861 and 1865 an extraordinary feat, allowing for only 96 working days over the four years. Because of its unique location its lighthouse keepers were the highest  paid in the service, but after 1919 automation replaced them. Simon’s Town offers the traveller plenty of hospitality and interesting things to see, from South Africa’s main naval base to a its naval museum, toy museum, many bars and restaurants, quaint little art galleries, shark-cage diving excursions, the famous penguin colony at Boulders, hikes up the mountain behind the town, and much, much more.

Leaving Simon’s Town we head to the southernmost tip of the peninsula where the Cape Point lighthouse sits spectacularly atop a rocky headland of sheer cliffs surrounded by a restless sea. It is within the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve which is part of the larger Table Mountain National Park. The first lighthouse was built in 1857 in the “wrong place” at the highest point of the headland. After a Portuguese ocean liner, the Lusitania, ran aground directly below the lighthouse in 1911, a new lighthouse was built lower down, almost at the tip of the point, in 1914. Boasting the most powerful beam of all South Africa’s lighthouses, it can be seen from 34 nautical miles away.

The area is so littered with wrecked ships that there is a special shipwreck trail here. It is also a place of myths, such as “sightings” of the ‘Flying Dutchman” ghost ship, or the fallacy that the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet here, when in fact they actually meet all along the Southern Cape coast and not at any particular point.

In the Simon’s Town Museum is a photograph of a quaint handwritten notice that was nailed to the lighthouse door in the early 1900s and which read: “Any Person caught rolling down the cliff will be prosecuted, by order Lighthouse Engineer”. Presumably only if the culprit survived the roll.

From Cape Point we follow the scenic road around the False Bay coast to Kleinmond and the Cape Hangklip lighthouse, located on a beautiful little peninsula covered in fynbos from where it overlooks a number of picturesque bays. This is also prime whale-watching and shark cage-diving territory.

Then it is on to Gansbaai and the Danger Point lighthouse which was commissioned in 1895. Danger Point is also the location of one of the most tragic cases of outstanding chivalry in maritime history. When the HMS Birkenhead struck a rock and sank here in February 1852 while carrying troops to Algoa Bay, there were not enough serviceable lifeboats for all on board.

Allowing women and children to use the lifeboats, the soldiers famously stood to attention on the decks as the ship broke up and went down. Many of them were taken by Great White sharks that inhabit these waters, which led to locals to this day calling them ‘Tommy Sharks’. Of the 643 people on board only 193 survived. After this tragedy the “women and children first” protocol was adopted throughout the maritime world and is dramatically depicted in films about the sinking of the Titanic.

Danger Point lighthouse offers tours of the lighthouse, curios and memorabilia are on sale and there is self-catering accommodation in what used to be lighthouse keepers’ homes.

More than 140 shipwrecks litter the coast between Danger Point and the Breede River mouth some 150km further east. Between Danger Point and Cape Agulhas, on a small peninsula the Quoin Point lighthouse overlooks the graveyard of a number of these wrecks. This lighthouse can only be reached by 4WD vehicle.

Our next stop is Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa which like Cape Point also dubiously claims to be the meeting point of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. But it is home to one of South Africa’s most iconic lighthouses, and was South Africa’s third lighthouse having been commissioned in 1849. Like the Cape Columbine lighthouse it is built in an unusual style based on the Pharos of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The structure was declared unsafe in 1966 and replaced with a steel lattice structure. However, the local community restored their beloved lighthouse themselves and it was put back into service in March 1988 and now also houses a lighthouse museum. The lighthouse is also said to be haunted with the ghost of a man seen painting the stairs leading up to the lighthouse on a number of occasions.

After Cape Agulhas there are two more lighthouses at Cape Infanta and at Ystervarkpunt at the mouth of the Gouritz River, before one arrives at our last stop, the Cape St Blaize lighthouse at Mossel Bay. In service since March 1864, the lighthouse gets its name from the Portuguese seafarer Bartolomeu Dias who in 1488, named the bay the Bahia (Aguada) de Sao Bras, or ‘the watering place of St Blaize’.

The lighthouse has been built on top of a cave which is an important archaeological site where Khoisan people lived from about 200,000 years ago to about 1400. Cape St Blaize is the starting point of an awesome cliff-face hiking trail with breath-taking views. The lighthouse offers tours, curios and self-catering accommodation. There is an abundance of things to do in and around Mossel Bay which boasts many restaurants, hotels, B&Bs, camping sites, boat and fishing trips, two golf courses, diving, superb beaches, museums and a casino.

Most of the lighthouses we visited have stunning coastal and inland hiking trails nearby, while a number are located in or near nature reserves. Other activities on offer in the vicinity of a number of these lighthouses include kite-surfing, kayaking, shark cage diving, rock and boat angling, scuba diving and snorkelling, surfing, game and bird watching, and mountain-biking. Camping sites and a range of good accommodation is available close to all of them.

For more details Transnet National Ports Authority’s Lighthouse and Navigational Systems unit can be contacted at telephone 021 449 2400 or by email at lighthouse.tourism@transnet.net, or visit their website at  www.transnetnationalportsauthority.net.