Text and photos: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau
The V&A Waterfront is the most visited attraction of Africa with 24 million visitors in 2017. The most successful development project of the whole continent is also the oldest working harbour of the Southern Hemisphere. Take a walk between trendy shops, restaurants, dry docks and step back into history!
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Competition was fierce by the Cape of Good Hope. With the Ottomans controlling the overland routes to the Far East, European powers were fighting for the control over the sea routes in the 15th century. The British, the French and the Portuguese were looming on the strategic replenishment station of the Dutch VOC (Dutch East India Company) at the Cape. After spending three to four months at sea, it was critical for sailors to pack on proteins and vitamins before continuing their journey to or from the Far East and avoid the deadly scurvy. To protect their assets here, at the Tavern of the Seas, the VOC built coastal fortifications along the Cape Peninsula including the Chavonnes Battery (1714-1725) to protect the Castle of Good Hope (1666-1679) which today is situated more inland. The sea shells shattered along the coast were crushed and cooked to create a limestone-based cement holding together the heavy granite and sandstones brought down from Table Mountain. As the strong Atlantic Ocean smashed into the fortifications, some of the stones were replaced by bricks from the Netherlands initially used as ballast in the ships of the VOC. Today, the 300-year old outer wall of the Chavonnes Battery and three of its 16 canons that protected the battery on a 180-degree angle can be seen by the passer-by.
The fortifications were so deterrent that no one has ever tried to brave them: the British took possession of the Cape twice, once in 1795 after attacking on the Muizenberg side, on the eastern side of the peninsula, and once and for all in 1806 after attacking from the north in Blouberg. More concerned by preventing the French forces of Napoleon from taking the Cape, the British rule was quite respectful of the Dutch institutions and life continued more or less as it was. The British liberalism though influenced the city and as merchants would settle, infrastructures were improved and the city turned from a rural Dutch town into a colonial capital. Bits by bits the Boers felt oppressed and in rebellion against the policies of the British government, the Great Trek started less than 30 years after the British arrived: the Boers fled the Cape Peninsula in order to settle in new lands.
Back at the time of the Chavonnes Battery, there was no proper harbour in Cape Town. Ships would anchor in the bay and goods would be unloaded by rowing boats to where you will find today’s Strand Street. Every year, the unforgiving South-Easter wind blows strongly during the austral summer: in the winter of 1858, it was so bad that more than 30 ships were wrecked at the Cape of Storms! The reaction of the insurance company Lloyd of London was immediate: it stopped covering vessels spending the austral summer in Cape Town. Less than two years later, the breakwater project was approved and carried on: a harbour was to be built. In 1860, on a visit to the Cape Colony as a 16-year old Royal Navy officer, HRH Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria’s second son, tipped the first rocks into the sea to start the construction. A year later, the stones of the Chavonnes Battery were recycled to create the breakwater and build the Alfred basin (1860-1870). It could accommodate about 20 ships at a time that would stay for about two to three weeks at quay to unload, reload and repair.
It did not take long before the Alfred Basin became too small: with the discovery of diamonds and gold in South Africa, many more ships landed in Cape Town and the much larger Victoria Basin was built and opened in 1905.
More than only basins, all the infrastructures of a modern harbour were laid out. Today, the Victoria and Alfred basins are still in working conditions, making the harbour the oldest working one in the Southern Hemisphere even if most of its original features have been converted for your pleasure by the V&A Waterfront.
One of these oldest buildings is the iconic red clock tower next to the legendary swing bridge. Ships used to be monitored from this highly instagrammable tower, in front of which tourists take selfies, before the office of the harbour master got moved to the Victorian-style building now home to the African Trading Port overlooking both basins. Since the seventies, a rather ugly looking tower at the entrance of the harbour has been used instead. While a few fishing boats share the basins with Table Mountain in the background with some luxurious private yachts, others are being serviced in the dry dock. Dating back to 1882, the Duncan dry dock is the oldest operating one in the world seconded by the modern synchro lift that can shuffle up to 7 ships for repair next to the Silo district, landmarked by the Zeitz MOCAA.
The dry dock could function thanks to the neighbouring pump-house (that has been turned into a comedy club today) and powered by the coal power station thanks to which the first electric light of the continent was switched on in 1882. Today this coal power station is home to the bustling V&A food market.
Like the former coal power station and pump-house, another iconic building from the past has been turned into a popular hot-spot. Next door, the watershed is used by locals to sell their handmade crafts while start-ups occupy the first floor.
While most harbour buildings were given a new and more modern function, the time ball retired and is just to be admired. This tower used to be critical for sailors: after months at sea, marine chronometers needed to be reset with as much accuracy as possible to allow captains to calculate their longitude at sea. This is why every day 5 minutes before 1 o’clock, the large red ball used to be lifted up. At 1 o’clock sharp, it would be dropped. The time ball was more accurate than the noon guns on Signal Hill (that still make tourists jump everyday) as the sound of the canon took about four seconds to reach the harbour.
These historical buildings have made it to today thanks to the V&A Waterfront development, turning an industrial harbour into the most expensive real estate of the whole continent and a trendy and touristy must-see. Whether by day or at night, the V&A Waterfront is packed with visitors shopping or enjoying the attractions, bars and restaurants, echoing to its vibrant past.
- Want to have access to this article while walking the harbour? Download it through GPSmyCity and avoid roaming costs while exploring the Waterfront at your pace! Already have the app? Check the mobile version of this article here.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.
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