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Summer 2013

Heritage Lights: Cape Town, South Africa

An estimated three thousand ships have met their doom off the unforgiving South African Coast—that’s one destroyed craft and crew for every kilometer of coastline. Beginning in the early fifteenth century, around the time when Vasco de Gama and Columbus were sailing toward the New World, the seas of South Africa began swallowing European sailors whole. Generations of fearful crewmen nicknamed the area the Cape of Storms.

“The sea currents in South Africa are really weird,” says Charné Van Jaarsveld, 22-year-old South African resident. The Agulhas Current brings water from the Indian Ocean, and the Benguela Current brings water from the Atlantic Ocean. Where they meet, visitors can see the blue and green waters create a stunning line. “It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen,” says Van Jaarsveld. But the currents proved dangerous for the early East India Trading Company; they were stranded, and South Africa was established soon after.

While shipwrecks fueled South Africa’s creation, settlers didn’t want them to continue. In 1656, Jan van Riebeeck ordered a signal fire to be lit on Robben Island, a simple navigational aid that warned sailors approaching the Cape Colony settlement. Coal fires replaced these early wood fires, and in the nineteenth century, South Africa’s oldest lighthouse was built at Cape Town.

Her Changing Lights

In August 1824, Green Point Lighthouse appeared on Mouille Point. Designed and built by German architect Herman Schutte, the building conforms to a square, blocky style. The tower, standing 52 feet in the air, is covered in iconic red and white candy stripes.

In its early years, the signal light emanated from a simple oil lantern—not particularly reliable on misty Cape evenings. “The lights were rather primitive,” says Joe Viljoen, lighthouse enthusiast. They were just “single wicks in an Argand lamp that burnt sperm oil.” This early light could be seen only six miles out to sea. In 1929, the primitive oil was replaced by electricity, and now it can be seen approximately 25 miles out to sea.

Despite improvements to the lights, thick winter fog often obscures its protective gleam, and Green Point acquired a foghorn in 1926—a foghorn that can be heard for miles, earning the nickname “Moaning Millie.” Residents and insomniacs have complained about the foghorn since its installation, and some even compiled a letter of complaint addressed to the mayor of Cape Town. As recently as the 1970s, the keeper has received death threats. However, some find the sound soothing. “Some misty nights, when there are ships coming into the harbor, there is a sort of Do-Re-Mi of multiple foghorns going on. One can hear Millie calling the ships and the ships answering her,” writes resident Greenie Fletch. But whatever residents feel about the foghorn, its sound is a distinctive part of Cape Town sound.

Her Saving Lights

Because lighthouse keepers take great efforts to warn ships, Green Point lighthouse presides over only a few watery graves. In 1865, the RMS Athensis was driven broadside into the rocks just west of Mouille Point. Green Point residents looked on as foul weather made rescue impossible. Visitors to the lighthouse can still see the ship’s engine block peeking above the water. More recently, in July of 1966, the South African Seafarer also fell prey to stormy waters. While the ship sank, Green Point’s rotating lens was stopped, and the beam provided light for the rescue teams. Because of Green Point’s efforts, all crewmembers survived.

Her Friendly Lights

Nostalgia seeps out of Green Point. Visitors can walk up the original wooden ladder leading to the catwalk or read through the nineteenth-century register. The walls are decorated, as Viljoen comments, with “the numerous lighthouse paintings done by a previous keeper, Richard Wyness.” Richard’s son, Robert, is now the keeper, the last in a succession of more than 25 keepers; most lighthouse keepers who served throughout Africa were taught their trade beneath Green Point’s light. G. A. Dalton, former chief electrical engineer of Lighthouse Services, says, “Succeeding generations of light keepers have carried the torch of tradition associated with light keeping services so successfully that they can rightfully be very proud.” Visitors can sense this pride as they walk through the original wooden door or look at the plaque proclaiming Green Point the original head office of Lighthouse Services—the unit charged with providing, operating, and maintaining navigational aids along South Africa’s coastline.

The lighthouse’s aura of nostalgia is infectious. Viljoen’s interest in lighthouses began when he arrived early for a business meeting in Port Edward: “I saw a sign to a small coffee shop at a lighthouse. I ordered coffee and noticed that if I paid a small fee I could climb to the top.” The next day he visited the “the much shorter” Port Shepstone lighthouse, and his “interest escalated.” Viljoen made it his “mission” to visit every lighthouse in South Africa. He has currently visited 44 of the 45 working lighthouses, and he maintains a valuable blog with recent photos and information on nearly every lighthouse. “There is a lighthouse or lighthouse picture in every room of my home,” he says.

Few people belong to this lighthouse community, however. Simon Baillie-Cooper, director of the Lighthouse Company, is concerned that the general public isn’t as aware of lighthouses as it should be “I can only hope that we can find more followers of these fine sentries of yesteryear,” he says. And yesteryear is disappearing all too fast—new navigational advances, such as GPS, alert captains to the presence of rocks long before the flashing light reaches their eyes. However, Baillie-Cooper firmly believes that these buildings will always hold “a strange fascination for those who wish to explore them.” He hopes that visitors will feel the same, becoming fellow souls entranced by that beam of light propelling its way across a dangerous coastline and a lonely history.

By Bryn Clegg

[Sidebar] Other Lights

Green Point Lighthouse is the oldest lighthouse in South Africa—but other lights have fascinating histories as well.

Robben Island Lighthouse

By the time this lighthouse was built in 1865, Robben Island was home to the “living dead”—the sick, the mad, the criminal, and the politically inconvenient. The island bears the infamy of having imprisoned Nelson Mandela for 18 years.

Cape Agulhas Lighthouse

During the fifteenth century, Portuguese compasses would behave erratically near Cape Agulhas, leading Bartholomew Dias to name the area the “Cape of Needles” and the Agulhas bank the “Graveyard of Ships.”

Danger Point

The lighthouse warning of this rocky point was 43 years too late for the HMS Birkenhead (1852), an infamous maritime disaster. Only 193 of the 643 passengers survived, and the crew members’ actions created the British “women and children first” protocol.