Mouille Point Promenade: A Maritime Meander
Introduction and Fort Wynyard
Cape Town has always had an intimate relationship with the ocean. It’s not for nothing that the city is also known as The Tavern of the Seas, a meeting place of two oceans and famous port of call for ships from around the globe. Capetonians relish the Atlantic that washes their doorstep, flocking to the city’s many beaches in the summer months and taking to the water in all manner of craft year round.
My name is Justin Fox; since 2001, I’ve lived on the Atlantic seaboard very close to this spot. I walk the promenade each day, taking in the sights and sounds, and revelling in the moods of the ocean. This part of Cape Town’s seaboard has a particular attraction for me. It’s the entrance to Table Bay, scene of so much maritime history over the past five centuries. Our tour today will chart some of that rich nautical legacy.
In the early days of the Cape colony, the relationship with the water was primarily strategic. Table Bay was an important anchorage for European vessels sailing to and from the East, and it had to be defended. On the landward side of the road stands Fort Wynyard, formerly a coastal defence battery constructed on one of the city’s last remaining calcrete dunes. The fort was built either alongside or on top of an even earlier Dutch East India battery dating from 1750, called Kyk in de Pot – Dutch for Look in the Pot. The name refers to the fact that the battery overlooked a whaling station which housed huge blubber pots.
Let’s start walking now, along Beach Road towards the sea. The fort was dismantled in 1827 when the British and French signed a peace accord. However, the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 saw the arming and refurbishment of the Cape’s defences, despite British neutrality. A Confederate warship, the CSS Alabama, became a local legend while operating off the South African coast in 1863. It was the Confederacy’s most successful commerce raider, claiming sixty-five Union ships.
Fort Wynyard continued to be used well into the 20th century. It was active during the First and Second World Wars, and today is both the home of the Cape Garrison Artillery and a military museum, which is generally closed to the public.
Look backwards to your left. You’ll notice the barrel of a white artillery piece peeping above a low ridge in Fort Wynyard. This is the muzzle of Africa’s only disappearing gun and one of the last of its kind in the world.
In the early 19th century, the British strengthened the defences of Table Bay with a number of gun emplacements. The 9-inch disappearing gun is the centrepiece of these fortifications. The barrel itself is a fibreglass replica because the immense weight of the 26-ton original was beginning to damage the wooden mount.
Disappearing guns were large-calibre artillery pieces. The carriage enabled the gun to rotate backwards and down into a pit protected by a parapet. This retraction lowered the gun from view while it was being reloaded. With the gun in a retracted position, the battery was much harder to spot from the sea, making it a difficult target for attacking ships. In addition, flat trajectory fire tended to fly over the top of the battery, without damaging it. The retracting system also made reloading easier, as it lowered the breech to a level just above the loading platform, and shells could simply be rolled up to the open breech.
Although it had some advantages, the disappearing carriage was a complicated mechanism and the time taken for the gun to swing up and down and be reloaded slowed the rate of fire. Though effective against ships, the guns turned out to be vulnerable to attack from the air. By 1912, they were declared obsolete in the British Army.
Cape Town Stadium
In 2010, the Cape Town Stadium played host to the FIFA World Cup. Its most notable game was the semi-final between the Netherlands and Uruguay, played before a capacity crowd of 64 000. The Netherlands won and the tournament moved to Johannesburg for the final, but Cape Town Stadium had played its part hosting a successful World Cup and stands as a glowing testament to what the city can achieve.
These days the stadium hosts local and international soccer games as well as popular music concerts by the likes of U2, Eminem and Justin Bieber.
I was in the stadium in 2013 for Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in which Capetonians came together in an emotional show of gratitude, grief and celebration of our nation’s greatest son. It was a night I’ll never forget.
Directions to Mouille Point Lighthouse
Turn into the gates of Cape Town’s hotel school now, on your right. The sign says ‘no trespassers’, but I’ve never been stopped entering here. Once you’re inside, you’ll see the remains of the old Mouille Point Lighthouse over to your right, beside a tall white mast. The circular brick-and-slate base is about four metres high and stands in front of the restaurant.
Mouille Point Lighthouse
This was the second lighthouse in South Africa. Completed in 1842, it operated until 1908 when the Table Bay Harbour’s breakwater light rendered it obsolete.
This is also the site of the old Mouille Point Battery which protected the Granger Bay anchorage in the 18th century. The name ‘mouille’ comes from the French for anchorage or mooring. In the early 18th century, wrecks were common in Table Bay and the Cape governor decided that a breakwater (‘moeilje’ in Dutch) was needed to protect vessels.
Work began in 1743 and all farmers delivering goods to the city were required to load their wagons with stones, drive to Mouille Point and offload. Slaves and convicts were used to build the breakwater, and the treacherous seas made the work perilous. Almost every labourer involved in the project died, and after three years the breakwater was abandoned. In 1781, during the brief French occupation of the Cape, a gun emplacement named Mouille Point Battery was built near the unfinished breakwater.
Erected on the same site, the lighthouse was an elegant structure, about 11 metres tall and comprising a cylindrical brick tower with a gallery and an octagonal lantern imported from Paris. The tower was plastered, painted with red-and-white bands and had a dioptric lamp which used about 730 gallons of sheep-tail oil per year. A four-metre hollow foundation in the bedrock provided for the oil storage.
But Mouille Point Lighthouse was never a success, and it didn’t meet the stringent requirements of the captains of ships entering Table Bay. Many regarded the light as too weak and easily confused with shore lights. Indeed, during its lifetime a number of vessels ran aground on the rocks in front of it, most notably the RMS Athens.
All that remains of the Athens is up ahead. You can leave the hotel school now, and start making your way along Beach Road, keeping the sea on your right.
Less than 100 metres offshore you’ll be able to see the engine block of the Royal Mail Ship Athens sticking out of the water. I’m a keen surfer and on many winter afternoons, you’ll find me bobbing next to the wreck on my board.
The tragic sinking of the RMS Athens took place on the night of 17 May 1865. The 68-metre Union Line barque was commanded by David Smith, who’d taken over the captaincy only two days earlier. The Athens had a crew of 30 and was employed in the mail run between Southampton and Cape Town for six years.
She was wrecked while trying to steam out of Table Bay during the Great Gale of 1865. This infamous storm, the most destructive in the Cape’s history, resulted in 19 ships being wrecked. The Athens had been at anchor in the bay, preparing to leave for Mauritius. Her last anchor cable parted at about 6pm and Captain Smith headed out to sea, trying to ride out the storm in deeper water. As the ship rounded Mouille Point, she was hammered by heavy seas. Her engine was a mere 130 horse power and she was making painstakingly slow progress. It is thought that her boiler fires may have been extinguished by an enormous wave, leaving her to drift towards the shore.
By 8pm she’d been driven broadside onto the rocks. Local residents assembled on the beach below where you are standing with lights, ropes and life-buoys, but the raging seas meant no rescue was possible. Cries of distress kept coming from the ship, the last of which were heard around 9.30 pm.
An eyewitness account, published in the Cape Argus newspaper, describes the scene at 10pm: ‘The ship was lying sixty or eighty yards from the shore, grinding heavily on the rocks with every sea, and evidently fast breaking up, for pillow cases and cabin doors were washing ashore, so as to leave no doubt that the wreck was complete. No dead bodies could, however, be found on the beach, but in the face of the tremendous seas and the boiling surf, it appeared impossible that any single one of the unfortunate people on board could reach the shore alive.’
28 men died in the freezing Atlantic waters that night. The second and third officers escaped with their lives as they were on land during the day and were unable to return to the ship due to the bad weather. The only living creature to survive the wreck was a pig that managed to swim ashore.
A Port City
As you walk along Beach Road, look out to sea. There will doubtless be a number of ships at anchor, mostly cargo and container ships waiting to enter Cape Town harbour and offload their goods. You might also see foreign and local trawlers coming and going, for the waters off the Cape are among the richest fishing grounds in the world.
Ships from across the globe have been calling at Table Bay for more than 500 years. For centuries, this was the perfect halfway stop, and refreshment station, for vessels trading between Europe and Asia. There were times when the Table Bay anchorage was crammed tight with sailing ships from dozens of nations.
The very first vessel to round the Cape was that of Portuguese navigator Bartholomew Dias in 1488. Five hundred years later I took part in a re-enactment voyage from Portugal to South Africa. We set off from Lisbon in a replica caravel and slowly sailed down the Atlantic on a three month voyage. After so long at sea, the sight of Table Mountain rising out of the ocean had a tremendously emotional effect on all our crew. For Bartholomew Dias, rounding the Cape meant unlocking the door to the east and opened up the Indian Ocean to European exploitation. With one voyage, he’d changed the course of history.
Up ahead, turn right onto the promenade and walk beside the sea.
Off the Wall
I live in a flat on this stretch of the promenade and often surf at an excellent spot called Off the Wall. It’s just off the kelp beds below. The waves here only break properly in a decent westerly swell, but the ride is hollow, fast and thrilling. Sometimes surfers land up on the rocks, so this is a tricky spot. As the water seldom gets above 15 degrees centigrade, it’s an icy experience, but well worth the deep freeze, despite the odd bump and scrape.
This is also a popular spot for Heavisides dolphins which play here most mornings. In fact, as I throw open my curtains each day, I marvel at how much sea life passes up and down this stretch of water. The birdlife includes frequent visits by African penguins and Cape gannets; African oystercatchers with their bright red legs and bills scavenge the rocks at low tide. There are often pods of Cape fur seals and bottlenose dolphins, the occasional humpback whale and plenty of lazy southern-right whales in the winter months. Recently, we even had a killer whale, or Orca, come nosing about. More frighteningly, I once encountered a large shark while surfing here. I didn’t hang around long enough to check whether it was a great white.
Unless it’s hazy, you’ll be able to make out the disk-like shape of Robben Island on the horizon. Since the end of the 17th century, it was used for the isolation of undesirables in the Cape Colony and the early Dutch settlers were the first to use the island as a prison. Nelson Mandela was of course its most famous inmate.
From a maritime perspective, Robben Island and nearby Whale Rock have been the nemeses of many ships and their crews. Atlantic surf thunders continuously around its flanks and any vessel wrecked on the offshore reefs is soon beaten to pieces and disappears. In the 1650s, Jan van Riebeeck set a navigation aid atop Fire Hill (now Minto Hill), the highest point on the island. Huge bonfires were lit at night to warn ships off the rocks. You might just be able to make out the current lighthouse, a tower in the centre of the island, built on Minto Hill in 1864.
Green Point Lighthouse
Ahead of you is the red-and-white striped Green Point Lighthouse. The rocky western entrance to Table Bay has always been treacherous for shipping, especially in thick fog. Increased maritime traffic after the Napoleonic Wars meant more ships were being put in danger here. Green Point Lighthouse was established in 1824, the first solid lighthouse structure in South Africa. Its lantern originally comprised two, single-wick Argand lamps fuelled by sperm-whale oil. Unfortunately the weak rays could not be seen further than six nautical miles and in 1922 the lantern was replaced by a third-order dioptic-lens flashing light that can be seen for 25 nautical miles.
The structure is painted with diagonal red bands so that it stands out from the surrounding buildings. Today, Green Point is considered the home of the South African Lighthouse Keeping Service.
This white box, set on top of a pole to your left, is the foghorn of Green Point Lighthouse. It’s affectionately known as Moaning Minnie due to its low-pitched booming. After a few nights of thick fog, sleep-deprived Mouille Point residents like myself are not so affectionately disposed to its infernal moaning. In fact, a former lighthouse keeper even received a death threat from a resident. The man said he would come down and shoot the keeper if he didn’t turn off the horn and let him sleep.
Wreck of the SA Seafarer
Stop here and look out to sea. The SA Seafarer ran aground in a terrible winter storm about 50 metres off this spot on the 1st of July 1966. The event caused a serious environmental scare because the ship’s cargo included drums of tetra-ethyl lead which emits extremely poisonous gas when in contact with water.
The vessel was wrecked with 63 crew members and 12 passengers on board and the seas were enormous. It seemed unlikely anyone would survive if they landed in the water. I’ve seen 25-foot waves breaking here during winter storms and it’s a spine-chilling sight.
Third Officer Richardson had aboard his wife and six-month old daughter, who were coming out to South Africa as immigrants. Little did they know when they left England that the last part of their journey would be by helicopter. Pilots of the 17th Squadron, Maritime Group, were the heroes of the day. With three Alouette helicopters working a rescue-shuttle service, they took off all the passengers and crew without a single loss of life. The rotating beam of Green Point Lighthouse was stopped and directed at the hapless ship to provide illumination for the helicopter crews.
Due to the presence of the tetra-ethyl lead, the Mouille Point beachfront was closed to the public for a few days until divers were able to locate the forty-four gallon drums, and found them intact. Today, the remains of the Seafarer lie on the seabed and resemble a junkyard, with the huge propeller shaft and countless unidentifiable machine parts strewn about.
Now turn left away from the promenade, up the steps. Follow the road that runs beside the lighthouse.
Over to your right you’ll have a good view of the Sea Point beachfront. This suburb got its name in 1776, from one of the commanders serving under Captain Cook. He encamped his men in the area to avoid a smallpox epidemic in Cape Town. Sea Point grew as a residential suburb in the early 1800s and, with the opening of a tramline in 1862, the area became Cape Town’s first ‘commuter suburb’. Today, it’s a characterful, densely-packed urban centre with a large Jewish community, dozens of restaurants and a lively nightlife. It’s a far cry from the more genteel, old-world coastline of False Bay, or the rugged and wild coast of the southern Atlantic seaboard.
When you pass the lighthouse, cross over Beach Road and carry on through the parking lot to Green Point Urban Park.
Green Point Urban Park, West Entrance
You’re now approaching the west entrance of the Green Point Urban Park. Enter through the gates. This lovely park was opened in 2011 as an extension of the World Cup Stadium development and saw the revitalisation of the old commonage that has been central to the life of Cape Town for generations.
In the 18th century, the common was known by the Dutch as De Waterplaats (the Foreshore), extending all the way from Three Anchor Bay to town. It has for long been a site of recreation. In the 19th century, it was a place for rambles and outings by city residents and regular horse-race meetings were held here. The building next to the stadium which currently houses McDonalds was the original grandstand and the slopes of Signal Hill also accommodated spectators.
The common was a venue for some of the earliest rugby and cricket matches at the Cape. In 1862 the first rugby match in South Africa took place on the common between the officers of the army and the gentlemen of the civil service. The match ended in a 0 - 0 draw.
In addition, the Green Point Track was an important venue for cycling and other track and field sports. Before 1900 the golfing fraternity was successful in persuading the authorities to make land available for a golf course. With some alterations in layout, the golf course still occupies a substantial portion of the commonage.
The area also served non-recreational purposes, some of them rather unusual. For years it was used as a pasture for cattle; a portion was even set aside for the internment of thousands of Boer prisoners during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902.
Golf Course Lake
Proceed towards the bridge, with the Golf Course Lake on your left. This body of water harks back to a much larger pond, the Grand Vlei, of the 19th century. A natural depression in the common would fill with water in the winter months and sailing regattas were held on this shallow, seasonal pond. It became so popular that young sailors established the Green Point Amateur Boat and Canoe Club in 1887.
In 1889 the municipality deepened and extended the pond by raising the banks and directing storm water into it. The Grand Vlei became a sizeable lake nearly two kilometres in circumference and two metres deep. The highlight of each year was Regatta Day, held in early September. Members wore club uniforms of white duck trousers, blue jackets and yachting caps bearing the club badge. I grew up sailing dinghies on Sandvlei near Muizenberg, and rather regret that there isn’t still a yacht club on the commonage today.
The Grand Vlei was short lived. Each summer it would dry out and become stagnant; no doubt a breeding ground for mosquitoes. After a decade, the pond was drained and filled in to prevent the stagnant water from becoming a health hazard to the military and, later, the Boer prisoner-of-war camp established here at the turn of the century.
Take a right turn here, at the sign which says ‘What is biodiversity?’ Follow the path through this charming Biodiversity Garden, with its pond filled with coots and geese. The Cape has the richest floral kingdom on earth, and the garden offers a glimpse of the Cape’s many vegetation types, from renosterveld and strandveld to lowland fynbos and coastal thicket. Peeking-out among the plants you’ll notice beaded wire creatures and steel cut-outs of animals. These serve to animate the garden and showcase the work of some of Cape Town’s talented young artists. Other sculptures in the form of a rusty metal plough, flames and a tractor depict the various threats the local biodiversity is facing.
If you take a short detour to the left here, you’ll find a display dedicated to the Khoikhoi. These were the original inhabitants of the Cape before the Dutch arrived and the exhibit shows three stages of Khoikhoi hut construction. Look around you and imagine this common 500 years ago with cattle and fat-tailed sheep grazing on the wetland, a tiny settlement of grass huts, a fire going and children playing around the fringes of the lake. Look towards the lighthouse and narrow your eyes: perhaps you can make out a hunter-gatherer party moving among the rock pools collecting mussels and abalone for an evening feast.
Exiting the Garden
Turn left here and exit the park at the gate. Walk along Park Road towards the sea. When you get to Beach Road, you’ll see a maze on the seaward side. Cross the road and proceed left.
Serendipity maze, to your right, is reputedly the third largest in the world. When entering, the challenge is to find the middle, where you’re apparently entitled make a wish … and then try to find your way out again. Due to constant salt spray and the effects of the occasional winter storm, when waves break over the promenade, the seaward side of the maze is unfortunately in a sorry state. Serendipity Maze is run by an elderly gent by the name of Jonathan Durr who loves sharing his stories. If he’s about and you’ve got the time, stop a while and have a chat.
Three Anchor Bay and Ingrid Jonker
In the early hours of the 19th of July 1965, at the age of 31, Ingrid Jonker walked from her Sea Point flat to the beach below you. She took off her shoes and walked into the sea, committing suicide by drowning. Jonker was a liberal Afrikaans poet who challenged the conservative literary establishment of the 1960s. She’s thought of as the Sylvia Plath of South Africa due to the intensity of her writing and her tragic life.
Although Jonker wrote in Afrikaans, her poems have been widely translated. Her sensitive and progressive outlook has made her a literary icon for a new generation of South Africans who’ve re-discovered her relevance.
Her conservative father – a writer, editor and National Party MP – was chairman of a parliamentary committee responsible for censorship laws under apartheid. To his great embarrassment, Ingrid was strongly opposed to these laws and he publicly disowned her. On hearing of his daughter’s suicide, he is reported to have said: ‘They can throw her back in the sea for all I care.’
Ingrid led a tempestuous life and had many affairs, notably with two well-known writers, André Brink and Jack Cope. One of these liaisons resulted in a pregnancy and subsequent abortion. The mental distress of her father’s rejection and the abortion contributed to her entering Valkenberg Psychiatric Hospital in 1961. My uncle, the poet Uys Krige, was a close friend of Ingrid’s, and I’ve heard many stories about their wild, bohemian parties at his bungalow on Clifton Beach. Ingrid was brilliant, beautiful, promiscuous, volatile … and a magnet for men.
Just before her death, she witnessed a scene in which a black baby was shot in his mother’ arms. Nelson Mandela read her famous poem about this incident during his address at the opening of our first democratically elected parliament in 1994.
In the dark days, when all seemed hopeless in our country, when many refused to hear her resonant voice, she took her own life. She was both an Afrikaner and an African. Her name is Ingrid Jonker. She wrote, and I quote:
The child is not dead
The child lifts his fists against his mother
Who shouts Afrika ! shouts the breath
Of freedom and the veld
In the locations of the cordoned heart
The child lifts his fists against his father
in the march of the generations
who shouts Afrika ! shout the breath
of righteousness and blood
in the streets of his embattled pride
The child is not dead not at Langa nor at Nyanga
not at Orlando nor at Sharpeville
nor at the police station at Philippi
where he lies with a bullet through his brain
The child is the dark shadow of the soldiers
on guard with rifles Saracens and batons
the child is present at all assemblies and law-givings
the child peers through the windows of houses and into the hearts of mothers
this child who just wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga is everywhere
the child grown to a man treks through all Africa
the child grown into a giant journeys through the whole world
Without a pass
The Five White Horses
And so we end this nautical promenade with a suitably maritime sculpture: five white horses. Erected in 2011, this curious artwork is inspired by one of sculptor Kevin Brand’s seminal experiences on the promenade when he was 12 years old. It reflects upon the artist’s memory of the wreck of SA Seafarer which we encountered earlier on this walk.
Brand explains that the Seafarer had as part of its cargo crates of White Horse whisky, each bottle bearing a miniature plastic horse tied around its neck. All the bottles were smashed on the rocks but the horses began to drift ashore. Brand remembers how the crashing white horses of the Atlantic washed the tiny white horses ashore and scattered them on the beach where he delighted in finding them in the weeks after the storm.
The result of this childhood experience is a rendering of five horses, each with an aluminium vuvuzela projecting from mouth and tail. Vuvuzelas are trumpets used by soccer fans and underground tubing connects the sculptures so that passers-by can speak or blow into one end of a vuvuzela and their voice can be heard at the other end. This is reminiscent of a captain calling the course and speed into the voice pipe on the ship’s bridge.
The horses are placed on concrete bases and positioned at angles that allude to their being washed up on the shore. If you look closely, you’ll notice the names of significant people in Brand’s life etched in the base of each horse and the saddles bear the artist’s initials and the year 2010.
This robust piece of public art is designed to withstand the elements and Brand intends the horses to be touched and played with. Every day, you’ll see delighted children scrambling over them and shouting into the voice pipes.
Turn now, and look at the ocean. The Atlantic, here at the south-western tip of Africa, is wild and beguiling. I walk this promenade every evening, past the lighthouse, Three Anchor Bay and along this strip of capricious ocean. It’s a great privilege to have the South Atlantic as a neighbour, especially when it loses its temper and waves crash over the promenade washing foam into the streets behind you. I don’t think I could live anywhere else in the world.