Southern lights – stoic beacons for navigators

The Lights Fantastic

Their long lazy light beams stroke the night skies over the world’s oceans and warn small craft of trepidous areas. Lighthouses stand as beacons for navigation and lend an air of nostalgia to the South African coastline too. Each one is fingerprint unique; each one has stories to tell. Shipwrecks, ghosts, and compass needles gone crazy are just a few.

Story and photos: Keri Harvey

Cape Columbine Dome, near Paternoster

Cape Columbine Dome, near Paternoster

Cape Recife, Port Elizabeth
Lat 34°01 43,97S; Long 25°42 03,90E
Flash: 1/30 seconds. Range: 29 nautical miles.

Cape Receife, Port Elizabeth

Cape Receife, Port Elizabeth

On the southern point of Algoa Bay, Cape Recife lighthouse has been warning ships of Thunderbolt Reef since 1851 – but still they strike rock right under the light. Most recently in 1985, the Greek bulk carrier Kapodistrias hit the reef in perfectly calm weather and ran aground there. The huge engine block can still be seen at low tide.

Cape Recife lighthouse has the illusion of being built in sand, but the 24-metre tall black-and-white banded tower has its feet firmly gripping rock. It’s said this tower is haunted and strange sounds and footsteps have been heard on occasion, yet nobody is there. Long ago two lightkeepers of old fell to their deaths while working outside on the top of the tower. Nobody knows just what happened that day, or if it’s their ghosts that still sometimes visit the tower.

Cape Columbine, Paternoster
Lat 32°48 39S; Long 17°51 23E
Flash: 1/15 seconds. Range: 32 nautical miles.

Cape Columbine Lighthouse, Paternoster

Cape Columbine Lighthouse, Paternoster

Standing regally at 80 metres above sea level atop Castle Rock, Cape Columbine lighthouse near Paternoster was the last manned lighthouse to be built on the South African coastline – all others built after it were automated. Columbine’s square, white, tapered tower was also said to be the first lighthouse on the South African coast seen by ships arriving from Europe – and when they saw its unique tower or light beam punctuating the night sky every 15 seconds, they knew exactly where they were.

The lighthouse tower is not that tall but its elevation means the light travels extremely far over the Atlantic Ocean on the West Coast. Many ships came to grief along this exact stretch of coastline before the lighthouse was lit in 1936. It was named Cape Columbine after a ship that sank there in 1929, but, strangely, a second ship also named Columbine sank here too – after the lighthouse was built. Lightkeeper at Cape Columbine, Japie Greeff, says of all the lights he’s manned this is his favourite – and the view up and down the coastline is breathtaking, when there’s no fog.

Cape Agulhas, Cape South Coast
Lat 34°49 08S; Long 20°00 33E
Flash: 1/5 seconds. Range: 30 nautical miles.

Stocky Cape Agulhas lighthouse has a skirt of frilly fynbos as it stands in the Agulhas National Park. Since 1849, the light has stoically watched over the southernmost tip of Africa, and the lighthouse building is now a national monument too. It’s pretty banded red-and-white tower is a particularly important beacon along the coastline as it’s said more ships have sunk along this stretch of the coast than any other in South Africa. Some days, when weather conditions are right, you’ll see a line of white foam on the ocean in front of the lighthouse. That is where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet, or so the story goes.

Portuguese navigators of old named this southern tip Cabo L’Agulhas or Cape of Needles because their compasses inexplicably malfunctioned here. Instead of indicating magnetic north, around Cape Agulhas compass needles showed true north, with no magnetic deviation. Not only did it mess with the minds of navigators, but also caused many a shipwreck. The original limestone tower as been replaced with a masonry one and at the base of the tower is a unique lighthouse museum with artefacts and info for enthusiasts. Robbie Arends is the proud keeper of Africa’s southernmost lighthouse.

Stompneus Punt, St Helena Bay
Lat 32° 42.2S; Long 17° 59.0E
Flash: 1/3 seconds. Range: 10 nautical miles.

Stompneuspunt At St Helena Bay

Stompneuspunt At St Helena Bay

A little piece of Greece watched over by intrepid Portuguese navigator Bartholomew Diaz on the West Coast of South Africa – the little ‘lighthouse’ at Shelly Point near St Helena Bay represents a league of nations. The small square tower topped with a turquoise Greek dome flashes to guide fishing boats into the harbour after dark.

Standing in beds of purple mussel shells, Stompneus Punt lighthouse – called Shelly Point by locals – may be tiny but it is very modern. The light is solar powered but has back up for Cape winters; it’s also a LED light which is both reliable and efficient, so Stompneus Punt lighthouse is light on resources too. Much loved by locals and visitors, this diminutive lighthouse is a popular picnic spot on the West Coast.

Doringbaai, West Coast
Lat 32°48 59.2S; Long 18°13 56.9E
Flash: 2/10seconds. Range 24 nautical miles.

Doringbaai On The West Coast

Doringbaai On The West Coast

When Doringbaai lighthouse on the West Coast started out life in 1963, it was an aluminium lattice tower and fully automatic. Then in 1991, the worst wind storm in living memory struck the area and levelled the lighthouse. Now, on the same spot, stands a tall and elegant round tower with just its sharp end painted black – and so far it’s weathered all the violent storms the Atlantic has conjured.

Many people think of lighthouses as always being white towers, but many are not. Being navigational beacons by day and night, every lighthouse needs to be completely different in appearance. The shape of the building, paint colours or patterns all need to be unique, and all lights within a 250km stretch of coastline must flash at different frequencies. Even the fog horns or nautophones have uniquely coded blasts for ships to hear, when they can’t see the lighthouse in heavy fog.

Seal Point at Cape St Francis, Eastern Cape
Lat 34°12 44.79S; Long 24°50 11.92E
Flash: 1/5 seconds. Range: 28 nautical miles.

Seal Point At Cape St Francis

Seal Point At Cape St Francis

Retired lighthouse keeper Andries de Jager managed Seal Point lighthouse at Cape St Francis for many years, and then promptly retired there to be close to the light. He was first stationed at St Francis in 1958, when the light had to be wound up every few hours to keep the prisms rotating.

The tallest masonry tower along the South African coastline, this lighthouse was completed in 1878; built to warn ships of the two kilometre-long reef that runs out to sea off Seal Point. Before the light went on, over a dozen ships sank on this rugged coastline. Ironically, still another dozen ships sank after the lighthouse was built. Andries was also on duty in 1977, the day two mega tankers, Ven Pet and Ven Oil, collided off St Francis. “I could see the black smoke rising above the horizon as the tankers were burning,” he says, and he relayed messages to Port Elizabeth from where rescue operations were launched.

Lighthouse facts

Tallest lighthouse – Slangkop Punt at Kommetjie at 33m
Shortest lighthouse – Cape Seal at Plettenberg Bay at 6m
Oldest lighthouse – Greenpoint, built in 1824
Newest lighthouse – Groenriviermond, West Coast, built in 1988
Brightest lighthouse – Cape Point at 10 million Candelas (candlepower) and visible for 59km
World’s oldest known lighthouse – Pharos in Alexandria, Egypt (250BC)
World’s tallest lighthouse – Yokohama, Japan (106m)

The South African Lighthouse Experience

Currently 9 lighthouses are open to the public enjoyment, some only by appointment. These include Cape Columbine at Paternoster on the West Coast; Green Point in Cape Town; Slangkop at Kommetjie; Danger Point near Gansbaai; Cape St Blaize at Mossel Bay; Cape Agulhas; Great Fish Point near Port Alfred; Hood Point near East London; and Cape Recife near Port Elizabeth.

Self-catering accommodation is also available at 4 of these lighthouses: Cape Columbine, Danger Point, Cape St Blaize and Great Fish Point. Tel: 021 449 2400; email lighthouse.tourism@transnet.net

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