Cape Town - History - it’s described as rich, colourful and, in the case of our beautiful city, sometimes bitter-sweet.
While we celebrate a fresh tourism opportunity, we recall that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. In military heritage tourism, we learn from our history, and marvel at how far we have come, and use history to inspire our future.
The new Military Heritage Route, incorporating Chavonne’s Battery, the Castle of the Cape of Good Hope and Simon’s Town Naval Museum, is part of Cape Town’s past, present and future.
Imagine what life was like in Cape Town’s first Visitor Information Centre, the Castle of Good Hope, 300 years ago. It is the oldest surviving colonial building in the country. This building was the centre of military and civilian life, the heart of the city and the first attraction for Cape Town’s first tourists to visit.
Painted yellow to ward off the sun, it faced the sea long before the land in front of it was reclaimed. It was built in part by slaves, soldiers, volunteers and khoi who were being punished, out of granite from Signal Hill and blue slate and shells from Robben Island.
The castle has never been attacked. It has been used as a fort, prison and museum; battles against the British were fought at Muizenberg in 1795 and Blaauwberg in 1806. While in those days the threat of war came from the sea, now we welcome our cruise ships and yachts.
In old Cape Town, the sounds would have been the ringing of the blacksmith’s hammer against the anvil, the bell clanging to summon citizens for announcements or for church, and the steady beat of horses’ hooves. Wood smoke would have filled the air, along with some less-pleasant odours, and the streets bustling with people. It’s around 45km from the castle to the SA Naval Museum in Simon’s Town - just over an hour by car now, but by horse (or even foot) it would have been a fairly epic undertaking. A common misconception about Cape Town from our international visitors is that we have lions in the streets. The last wild lion on the peninsula was killed in 1802, but when the castle was first built, it would have made a great safe haven from those magnificent beasts. It would have been terrifying to stroll in the Cape Flats Sand Fynbos while gathering wood to hear that deep roar.
Look at the V&A Waterfront. Within recent memory this now-iconic attraction was just a working harbour. It had been built on and built over, so much so that Chavonne’s Battery, now a museum, had to be excavated from the foundations of other buildings. It seems fitting that through the development of new places of interest, old ones were uncovered.
You can’t reinvent history, but you can reinvent your approach to appreciating it.
Wars, skirmishes and battles: Cape Town has had a role in all of these, and our military heritage is a curious one - as a former colony, the country has had varying allegiances and enemies, and our people have fought for South Africa and other nations with passion. If you forget for a moment the awful reality of war, that young people give their lives, you can imagine the centuries-old romance of climbing aboard a sailing ship and heading for a foreign country to seek glory on the battlefield. In our city’s case, we were a strategic port in military terms, for then, as we are now, we were the Gateway to Africa as well as a key port for protecting sea routes around the continent.
For soldiers then, they’d get to see the world - it was a form of tourism that came at a great price.
Many of those military types chose to settle here once they’d left the armed forces; like those visitors who come today and purchase property while on holiday, it’s almost impossible to leave Cape Town once you have fallen for the city.
But let’s look at the present: we’re not at war at the moment, and, hopefully, we will never experience conflict on the magnitude of previous times in history, so one could ask, why have a military heritage route? The answer lies in our history. It’s not possible to look back over the past 350 years without acknowledging the military influence in creating the way our city is today. This is true of any big city, including New World ones - military involvement helped to draw up the very geography of these destinations.
You could also ask what the value is in having a Military Heritage Route? Well, the survival of any destination is reinvention. We’re not looking at static attractions, but adding value to them, shining a torch on some valuable experiences in ways that allow visitors to see them through fresh eyes.
We don’t want to just keep our heritage in the past; keeping it relevant means bringing it into the present and positioning it for the future. It’s not there to be repeated off a tour guide’s script, but to be experienced and enjoyed in the same way visitors would enjoy our bigger tourism offerings.
Simon’s Town has enjoyed a reinvention of sorts - in recent years, the already popular harbour town has seen the penguin colony take over at Boulder’s Beach. Those famous little birds have brought tourists in their thousands and this has the added benefit of getting more to explore the neighbourhood, including its rich naval heritage.
The Castle of Good Hope has stood sentinel over hundreds of years of development and change in Cape Town. Now dwarfed by surrounding “castles” of commerce in the CBD, it remains as a reminder of how Cape Town has been reinventing itself as a city for hundreds of years. One cannot see the castle without thinking of the juxtaposition of the old and the new in the city, and that’s what makes this a fascinating place.
Cape Town is a city of contrasts, dozens of cultures represented side by side, sleek glass-sided architecture next to solid Cape Dutch farmsteads. Contemporary and traditional art offering a splash of colour. The sea and the mountain. The farmlands in among the suburbs. Pockets of natural wonder amid the hustle of our urban sprawl.
As we reinvent, we look to the future. What will our visitors in 300 years’ time see when they come to visit? Part of this is our focus on responsible tourism and sustainability. We want to ensure that our heritage is preserved even while development takes place. Reinvention does not tear down what exists, but rather enhances it, and that’s why this Military Heritage Route is playing a vital part in what we do in tourism.
* Enver Duminy is the CEO of Cape Town Tourism.