I would be the first person to confess that I am not much of an historian; perhaps all those dull lectures at school about people in odd clothes and wigs put me off. But you can’t really escape it because we are all the products of that history. The buildings we inhabit, the roads we drive on, and yes, even the clothes we wear have a history.
So I recently did a historical walking tour of the V&A Waterfront, organised by the Chavonne Battery Museum.
If, like me, you didn’t take a lot of notice of the Waterfront until it reinvented itself as a tourist destination, you might get something of a surprise should you go on this most edifying and entertaining tour.
We’ve all been to the V&A more than once, and there are a myriad attractions other than the shops, such as the pubs and restaurants, coffee shops, the Two Oceans Aquarium, a boat trip or two and the occasional visit to the cinema. I have always rather enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the place, the boats heading in and out of the harbour, the swing bridges, seals, and the occasional luxury liner providing something to look at.
But how much do you really know about the Waterfront and the harbour? You might find, as I did, that there is an awful lot about the place you didn’t know or had never noticed. This is a little tricky, because should you decide to take this tour I don’t wish to steal our guide Willem Steenkamp’s thunder and give away all the hidden secrets and treasures
It is fascinating to know that Cape Town very nearly never got a harbour in the first place and East London was vying for the honour of being the primary revictualling post for ships plying lucrative trade routes to the Orient. The marketing coup of using royalty – Victoria’s son Prince Alfred – to lay the first stones of the breakwater became a tipping point in Cape Town’s favour. It is in fact this little gem of information that explains the naming of the V&A, something still misunderstood by many.
During the 90-minute wander it was revealed that one of Cape Town’s top hotels started life as little more than a warehouse, that the dry dock is still served by a simple caisson construction which works very much like a cork in a bottle, and that in the past the dry dock was flooded and used for, of all things, swimming galas.
Overlooking the harbour is, of course, the Noon Day Gun, an institution in Cape Town – but which is more important, the smoke or the noise? What do you do if you can’t see the gun? And when you get down to it, is it trying to assist with issues of longitude or latitude? All of this and more was revealed during our relaxed walk.
We further discovered that there is a large Victorian tunnel running under the ground within the waterfront, that the harbour master’s office has been moved and raised over time as the port has become larger and its outer limits further from shore, and that the original office still houses an antiquated contraption to measure the tides. Much of this you will have walked past dozens of times without ever noticing; perhaps that is one of the greatest joys of the tour.
We visited the Breakwater Prison, where even today you can see gloriously detailed images scratched in the stones of the walls by those incarcerated, and we saw one of very few treadmills still in existence. The treadmill was a punishment device not unlike those infernal stepping machines at the gym, just a whole lot more evil-looking and without the advantages of lycra-clad women and permanent DStv to take your mind off the pain.
Our guide was a mine of information and told us numerous secrets of the Waterfront which you more than likely have seen or noticed. Plus we were entertained with a running history of how the place developed from a lowly breakwater serving sailing ships and postal vessels to a modern-day tourist attraction.
Under Steenkamp’s educated guidance the history and underlying structure of the place was revealed. It was a fascinating tour and not demanding in the same way as a hike up a mountain.