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Lighthouse: South Africa’s beacons of fire

Lighthouse: South Africa’s beacons of fire

Sometimes as they sleep their blankets are pulled off. Other times there is the sense of a strange presence or a chilly draught that blows through the room when all the windows are closed. Maintenance staff who work at Bird Island lighthouse, 60km east of Port Elizabeth, firmly believe it’s the ghost of Mrs Hansen.

Wife of the lighthouse keeper, Mrs Hansen is said to have developed melancholy from living in extreme isolation. Then one day in 1908 her body was discovered in a well near the lighthouse, and many believe her spirit still wanders there. Some accounts claim the ghost is clearly the figure of a woman. Others don’t buy the ghost story at all. “I never experienced any ghosts while on Bird Island,” laughs former lighthouse keeper Andries de Jager, now retired.

Andries has loved lighthouses since he was a child and spent 40 years at 13 different lights along the coast. While he admits that Bird Island was certainly one of the loneliest postings, he escaped any hauntings. But ghosts are also said to frequent the lighthouses at Cape St Francis and Cape Recife, where inexplicable noises are sometimes heard in the towers.

Cape Recife Lighthouse

Cape Recife lighthouse is one of those considered haunted.

Bird Island lighthouse is now fully automated, but in the old days, it was so remote that lighthouse keepers used racing pigeons to carry messages when they needed supplies or help. And there are plenty of tales about lighthouse keepers being ‘forgotten’ on the island, without supplies or fuel for the lighthouse. The island was then stocked with rabbits to serve as an emergency food supply, but now only African Penguins and thousands of Cape Gannets populate Bird Island.

Today Andries still lives under the watchful beam of his favourite lighthouse at Cape St Francis. “This is paradise,” he says. “It’s a very special place, so tranquil and beautiful.” And he never ever wants to leave. He knew this when he was first stationed there back in 1958, when ox wagons were used to carry diesel for the lighthouse on a road over the dunes and along the beach – and weekly mail was delivery by horse‑drawn cart.

On July 4th 1878, the lamp of Cape St. Francis lighthouse was lit for the first time.

Still the tallest masonry tower along the South African coastline, Cape St Francis lighthouse was completed in 1878. It was built to warn ships of the two-kilometre-long reef that runs out to sea and marks the second most southern tip of Africa.

Before the light was switched on over a dozen ships met their ends along this rugged, rocky coastline. Ironically, since the erection of the lighthouse, another dozen ships have wrecked there. As recently as the eighties a yacht called Gemini struck rock and sank off Cape St Francis with many lives lost.

“Lighthouses should really be called fire towers,” says keeper of the West Coast Cape Columbine light, Japie Greef, “because that is how they started out in the beginning.”

He’s absolutely right, because the oldest known lighthouse, Pharos in Alexandria, Egypt (built in 250 BC), was literally an open fire built on the top of a tall tower. Pharos was also one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World until it was destroyed by an earthquake in the 13th century.

Our very own Robben Island lighthouse followed the Pharos example as an open fire before it transformed into an iconic white building marking a World Heritage Site. Green Point in Cape Town was our first stone-and-mortar lighthouse, and Cape Agulhas lighthouse marks the most southern tip of Africa. It was a particularly important beacon along our coastline because in the old days compasses malfunctioned here, which is why the Portuguese sailors aptly named it ‘Cape of Needles’ and were especially vigilant when in the area. The stocky red and white lighthouse stands surrounded by fynbos in the Agulhas National Park.

Japie Greef, Lighthouse keeper

Japie Greef is the lighthouse keeper at Cape Columbine lighthouse, set in a nature reserve.

“But we are a dying breed now,” says Japie with a twinge of sadness. “There are just a handful of keepers left. Most of the lighthouses are automatic, and with ships having such advanced navigation systems, lighthouses seem less important.” Yet they are still essential because they are more than light beams in the night sky – they are also navigational beacons by day. And they are important weather stations too.

Technology has come a long way since lighthouses were literal vuurtorings (fire towers). Fires were replaced by oil lamps, candles, gas lamps, and then lights were powered by paraffin and diesel. The invention of rotating reflectors around a fixed light created the illusion of a revolving light, technology that is still in use today. But Andries clearly remembers the days when the light had to be wound up every few hours to keep the prisms rotating. And when the oily tails of fat-tailed sheep were used to fuel the light. The introduction of electricity to power lights made life for lighthouse keepers much easier, but it has also ultimately led to their demise.

“Most people think lighthouses are white,” continues Japie, “but actually every lighthouse is completely different. Either the shape or paint colours or patterns are different, and each light within a 250km stretch also flashes at different frequencies.” That’s how sailors know where they are by day or night, by the look of the lighthouse and the code of the light.

Slangkop lighthouse

Slangkop Lighthouse in Kommetjie emits four flashes every 30 seconds.

Even the fog horns or nautophones have uniquely coded blasts for ships to hear when they can’t see the lighthouse in the fog. Because the first Cape Point lighthouse was mostly covered by fog, a shorter lighthouse was built lower down to shine under the fog layer off the Cape of Storms.

Japie loves his light and says there is nowhere else he’d rather be. “I’m staying right here,” he says, and the pristine condition of Cape Columbine lighthouse is testimony to his commitment and passion for his craft. Andries has passed the baton to his son, who is now keeper of the light at Cape St Francis.

For now, he will continue the tradition learned at the feet of his father. He says he loves lighthouse keeping for the old style of living it represents, and that it’s away from the madding crowd. Being a light keeper does, of course, come with a little loneliness. But there is plenty of old-world nostalgia too, and a lot of good fishing in between.

This article was first published in the December 2010, issue of Country Life. It has been uploaded unaltered for interest and historical reference. 

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