Exploring the fascinating network of tunnels under the city.
Exploring the fascinating network of tunnels under the city.
Getting ready to squeeze down into the abandoned tin mine in Vredehoek.
Getting ready to squeeze down into the abandoned tin mine in Vredehoek.

“You are here for a reason” – wow, a spiritual philosopher among us.

We were about to slither into an abandoned tin mine in Vredehoek well tucked away on the lower reaches of Devil’s Peak. The one access into the 150m long adit had collapsed and looked exceedingly tight. A little digging with a hand trowel opened up the sliver to a reasonable-sized sinuous gap.

“Just lie down and go through the hole feet first, I will be right behind you. You will come into a shaft that you can stand upright in. Think positive thoughts. Once you are in you can come out immediately if you want to.”

One of the experienced cavers was encouraging a new caver to let go of fears and to head through the portal which had already been successfully negotiated by 16 others including three people who were using walking sticks (one was a trekking pole) and two cocker spaniels.

The Vredehoek tin mine operation was short-lived, 1910-1912, employed a staff of 100 people at one stage and was listed on the Cape Town Stock Exchange – Sammy Marks was reputed to have been a shareholder.

Professor Peter Spargo claims that much more than prospecting was going on behind the scenes.

Tin-bearing cassiterite was retrieved from a shaft over 50m deep which today resembles an indoor pool. At present most of the mine is flooded and we all merrily waded ankle- and knee-deep in cool mountain-smelling water. Anyone hoping not to get their feet wet had to think again and had to abandon any attempt to traverse along the dark, vertical side walls.

The mine is a potential heritage site as a good example of a short-term industrial concern that operated at the turn of the last century in Cape Town.

Another fascinating and historically significant underground venue in Cape Town is the network of tunnels that redirects water from Table Mountain streams and underground springs in the CBD down into the ocean.

Over 3.5 million litres a day of fresh water flows underneath the city and ends up largely unutilised.

This dark secret has been brought to light by Reclaim Camissa, a multi-faceted project spearheaded by Caron von Zeil which focuses on providing a stewardship for the waters that flow from Table Mountain into the sea.

Camissa means “the place of sweet water” and was the name the Khoi used to refer to Cape Town in days gone by.

The city was also a major port of call for ships in the 17th century. Urban development in the CBD, with canalisation of water alongside the establishment of Adderley Street, was to change the face of the city and hide her most precious resource for decades.

The City Council has made minimal use of this untapped wealth of water. Only recently has some of the channelled water been used in the gardens around the stadium in Green Point.

Woolworths head office in the CBD has built a water plant on site which makes use of reverse osmosis to purify water that is retrieved from the underground network 20m below the building.

The company uses about 75 000 litres of the underground water a day for flushing toilets and running a car wash, a fountain and the air-conditioning system.

A trip into the Mother City’s underground calls for gumboots, a headlamp and a guide to safely navigate through the dark, wet tunnels. Mild panic set in when my borrowed headlamp did not work and we had to appropriate someone else’s backup headlamp.

Our guide was almost bowled over and left standing in the dust once the heavy manhole cover had been removed and a ladder put in place for the descent. The guide was dealing with a group of keen cavers eager to explore the depths below.

Descending down into the darkness to get into the 1.5m concrete storm water pipe was the easy part. Waiting for our large party to all make it safely down from Vredehoek above the ground to below seemed to take forever.

The manhole was finally closed behind us as we set off downwards to the castle. We were ankle-deep in water and could either sloosh through the stream for 2km or straddle the stream, walking cowboy style. The concrete pipe was soon superseded by a slightly bigger pipe built of neatly laid bricks, allowing one to walk fully upright again.

Every now and again the velvety silence would be broken by someone taking an involuntary trip into the water as they tripped in the odd hole or slipped. We passed numerous manhole covers, some which let in strips of light, giving the tunnels a theatrical feel, and occasionally car noises drifted down into the slightly musty-smelling tunnel.

The children in our party found a crab and gleefully picked it up, happy to take a break from the intense endless walk, which was turning into a tunnel vision drama.

We also spotted a few spiders and coachroaches but nothing else that moved. During rainy winter months, tunnel tours are generally put on hold. At one stage as we heard a weird noise hurtling down towards us, our ears pricked up. It turned out to be a small wave of water pushing down the storm water pipe – our guide thought it was someone backwashing their swimming pool.

Who goes down the tunnels to confront and explore new spaces? It seems all types of adventurers, team-building groups and even stag parties set out into these less familiar spaces beneath the city.

l Call the Cape Peninsula Spelaeological Society at 084 575 0221, or see www.cpss.caving.org.za - Cape Times