Recently my colleague Charmaine and I were privileged to be taken on a Historical Walking Tour of the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront by Willem Steenkamp, a historian with a passion for Cape Town and its past, an ex-editor of the Cape Times, and author (of ‘Poor Man’s Bioscope’ and more). The tour is an interesting way to confirm that the V&A is at the heart of Cape Town and its history, with 22 historical landmarks of interest to both local Capetonians and to tourists.
The V&A is the oldest working harbour in South Africa, and was redeveloped in 1988 by Transnet Limited, with first commercial trading commencing in 1990. It started as a jetty built by South Africa’s founder Jan van Riebeeck in 1654. A harbour had to be built when insurer Lloyds of London would not insure the ships coming around the Cape in winter if a safe harbour was not built here, given the winter gales and the damage they could do to the ships. The harbour was named after Queen Victoria and her son HRH Prince Alfred, and he inaugurated the construction of the harbour in1860, with a monument dedicated to him, to mark the occasion. Ten years later he returned for the official opening of the harbour, commemorated with another monument close to the Amphitheatre.
Willem started the tour at the Chavonnes Battery Museum, beautifully dressed up in a uniform of the 18th century, despite the extreme heat of the day, and certain to attract attention where he went in the V&A. He said some children refer to him as Captain Jack Sparrow on his tours. He traced the history of the discovery of Cape Town by boats connecting the spice-rich East and Europe in a 6 – 8 month journey, having to come around the Cape, where they picked up fresh water, plants to counter scurvy, and meat. At times the inhabitants were short of supplies themselves, and had to obtain supplies from passing ships. To safeguard the 25000 VOC (Dutch East India Company) Cape Town employees against the threat of pirates, Cape Town was protected with a battery and heavy artillery, the Chavonnes’ Battery Museum paying tribute to the defence of Cape Town. The Battery disappeared in 1860 when the harbour was built, and was excavated in 1999 when the Board of Executors built its head office on the site, the Battery originally having been at the water’s edge. The Battery was completed in 1726, and was named after the Marquis de Chavonnes.
We stopped at the Clock Tower, which was originally painted white, and Willem said he did not know why it has changed colour. We were reminded of Bertie’s Landing, named after well-known sailor Bertie Reed, with a bust in honour of ‘Biltong Bertie’, as Willem called him. The building is now the Robben Island Museum and Nelson Mandela Gateway ticket office. Prior to the construction of the Swing Bridge, the Penny Ferry connected the two sections of the harbour. We were shown the Alfred Basin; the Robinson Dry Dock (the oldest of its kind still in daily use in South Africa, and oldest of the old style dock in the world. Galas were held in the Robinson Dock in the old days, and it has been a quarry); the Pump House (which pumped water in and out of the Robinson Dock); the Old Power Station (having supplied Cape Town’s power); the Breakwater Prison (built in 1902, and which still has the treadmill to punish the prisoners who were locked up there. It is now a hotel and the UCT Graduate School of Business operates from there; Portswood Ridge (Moorings Lane has five cottages for small businesses, and we rented one of these called Sea Cottage when the V&A first opened this business section of the Waterfront in 1991); Dock House was the home of the Port Captain; the Time Ball Tower, which was critical to navigation around the Cape; the Portswood Tunnel that few have seen before; the Rocket Shed; the Union Castle Building designed by Sir Herbert Baker’s firm; at Quay 5 hides, fish, and wood were unloaded from arriving ships; and Victoria Basin. We were not able to see the SAS Somerset boom defence vessel, probably the last of its kind in the world. Willem was sad that Iziko Museums had closed down the Maritime Museum near the Aquarium. The NSRI uses the same slipway as did previous rescue vehicles in the history of the harbour. Amidst the history of the Cape in the V&A Waterfront is the history of South Africa’s political transformation, and the statues of Nelson Mandela, FW de Klerk, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Albert Lithuli, all Nobel Peace Prize recipients, can be seen at Nobel Square near the V&A Hotel.
We loved Willem’s dry sense of humour and his wealth of knowledge of the history of Cape Town in general, and of the V&A Waterfront in particular. We would recommend this Historical Walking Tour to all Capetonians and visitors to Cape Town.
V&A Waterfront Historical Walking Tours. Tel (021) 408-7600. www.waterfront.co.za Monday – Sunday 11h00, tour takes about an hour. R50 per adult, R20 per child 10 – 18 years old. Minimum of 4 persons, maximum 10. Tours start at Chavonnes Battery Museum.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage