Historic V&A Waterfront Walk [Cape Town]

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!

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.

Marcella & Claire

Travel tips:

  • 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.

Planting the seeds for concentration camps and segregation [The Anglo-Boer war]

“I visited the camp at the Springfontein railway station in the Southern Free State. What I was about to witness here… haunts me until this day. The mother sat on a little trunk, with a sick child across her knee. She had nothing to give it, and the child was sinking fast. Her plea for medicine fell on deaf ears. There was nothing to be done. And we watched the child draw its last breath in reverent silence… A friend standing behind the mother cried and called upon heaven to witness this tragedy. The mother neither moved nor wept for her only child. Dry-eyed but deathly white she sat there motionless, looking not at the child but far… far away into the depths of grief.” – Emily Hobhouse, May 15, 1901, what is now South Africa.

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The Nizwa fort [Oman’s most visited monument]

The Nizwa Fort nested among mountains and oasis with the souk spreading at the foot of its recognisable tower is a must-see.

When Oman converted to Islam peacefully and by faith in the 8th century, the idea to create a true Muslim state was paramount, and prior to today’s sultanate, the Imamate was ruling the country. Religious and political powers were consolidated in the hands of the elected Imam in the capital Nizwa (until the coastal Muscat became the capital in 1793). As such, Nizwa has been the centre of religion and also of politics for many centuries, calling for new standards for fortified buildings in a land divided among many tribes. keep reading

5 insider’s fun facts about Strasbourg that you probably did not know about!

The capital of Europe has become a popular destination. If most visit during its thriving Christmas Market, exploring Strasbourg through the eyes of a local is always a good idea and even more so during the quieter periods. Join us and learn about its moving history, off the beaten path secrets and gems!

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Walking Madrid with a local

If Madrid is the capital of Spain, its most touristy city is Barcelona. For the traveller who has visited the harbour city, Madrid may look a bit severe far from the charming medieval streets and eccentric Gaudi buildings of the capital of Catalonia. Follow us and walk Madrid with a local to find the real soul of Madrid, behind its wide avenues and majestic façades…

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District Six museum, Cape Town: a commemoration ground

“We were told that we didn’t qualify to live there anymore because of the colour of our skin.” – Joe Schaffers, ex-resident of District Six. Removed in 1967 at the age of 28.

“Every day to work I would pass by my house, out of which my wife, kids and me had been forcefully removed. Every day I would stop and look at it, seeing the bulldozers getting closer. Until one day our house was gone, just a vacant plot remained, on which I stood with an empty heart.” – Noor Ebrahim, ex-resident of District Six, Cape Town. Removed in 1970 at the age of 26.

“Many streets from which people were removed and houses demolished are still empty today. The goal was to divide people and break us.” – Ruth Jeftha, ex-resident of District Six.

Today Joe, Noor and Ruth are here, at the District Six museum in Cape Town, South Africa. Housed in a former church and the only original building of the District Six that is still standing, more than a museum, it is a commemoration place where former residents reaffirm their identity by sharing their life stories with visitors, celebrate their heritage, confront the complexity of history, and try to come to terms with their forced removals.

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Guernica unravelled

“No, painting is not made to decorate apartments. It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy” said Picasso.

And it can be such a powerful weapon that it can transcend the specific conflict to reach a universal status as a symbol of fight against barbarism. Such is the destiny of Guernica, Picasso’s most famous painting, an art and history icon showcasing strong artistic and political commitments.

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Soweto, way more than a township: an identity

Lungile leads the way and with a huge smile on his face he greets basically everyone we come across. “Sawubona! Unjani?” Zulu for hello, how are you. “Ngiyaphila“, I’m fine. “Chap chap“. “So you were born and raised in Johannesburg?” I ask him as I push hard on my pedals, biking uphill under the South African sun. “No!” he answers clearly offended to add with pride: “I was born and raised in Soweto!”

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Offbeat Cape Town, beyond the Waterfront and Table Mountain

Parading the V&A Waterfront, going wine-tasting in the vineyards, exploring Cape Point, Boulders Beach, Robben Island and Table Mountain, just a grab of the many must-do’s when visiting Cape Town. But before soaking up South Africa’s moving history on Robben Island, indulging yourself to good food, delicious wine or taking selfies from the top of Table Mountain overlooking the magnificent views of the City Bowl, there is one activity that deserves a little more attention: discovering the real Cape Town with a local.

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Back to our roots: finding a new specie in the cradle of humankind, South Africa

Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker set out that day of 2013 to look for fossils in unexplored parts of the Rising Star Cave about one hour north west of Johannesburg in the Maropeng area. Meticulously exploring the well-known dolomite cave, they found a narrow vertical tunnel. Taking this chute feet first they discovered a chamber 30 metres below ground filled with bones. These could be just any bones, but when they came head first with what looked like a human mandible, they knew they were onto something big… Keep travelling!