Living under the beam
It’s a job for loners, for salty seamen with good land legs who relish wild weather and remote places. Since the world turned modern with automation and GPS, just a handful of lighthouse keepers of old remain who can tell enchanting stories of their lives lived close to the sea, of shipwrecks and ghosts that also love lighthouses.
“Just look at this lighthouse, how beautiful it is,” muses senior lightkeeper at Cape Columbine on the West Coast, Japie Greeff. Standing tall as a tower, with his hands on his hips, Japie gazes in awe at ‘his’ lighthouse with the wonder of seeing it for the very first time. “To me it looks like an old English castle lookout tower. I can imagine someone standing at the top shooting arrows.”
Japie has been the keeper of the light at Cape Columbine since 2005, spending his nights under its beam of 5.4 million candle power. In clear weather, the light is visible from 60km away. “I am one of four ‘older timer’ keepers from the seventies,” he says, still admiring the fresh white paint on the lighthouse tower, “the other lightkeepers are all new guys.” These ‘new’ keepers total only about a dozen who man lights along our 3 000km coastline – South Africa being one of just a handful of countries that still boasts lighthouse keepers. Japie corrects himself and says: “We are now called navigational officers, but I prefer being called a lighthouse keeper.” Though soon this evocative profession may no longer exist as the world speeds up and technology replaces human presence.
For 35 years Japie has lived at lighthouses. From Diaz Point in Ludertiz, Namibia, to remote Dassen Island, Cape Recife, Cape Point, Pelican Point in Walvis Bay, Greenpoint Natal, St Lucia and Cape Columbine, all these lights have been his home. “Choosing a favourite lighthouse is like choosing a favourite child,” he says, “but I really love Dassen Island and St Lucia because they were so remote. That’s also why the bonds between lighthouse keepers are so tight, because we support each other even if we don’t like each other. There’s nobody else around so you depend on each other.”
Japie grew up with the Diaz Point lighthouse in Luderitz flashing in his bedroom. “It used to hypnotise me to sleep,” he jokes. So after resigning from a job at the local crayfish factory, his dad arranged and interview for him at Diaz Point. “I was a little scared to meet he lighthouse keeper,” admits Japie mischievously, “because he was a no-nonsense kind of guy and had two lovely daughters – and I was eyeing one of them.”
It was when Japie walked into the engine room at Diaz Point that he knew his future. “When I saw the gleaming engines, immaculate and clean, I knew I wanted this job. Then when I opened the heavy oak door to the tower, climbed the spiral staircase and saw the light for the first time, I was absolutely sure. It was the biggest light I had ever seen with a 1 500 watt 220volt bulb. I was so mesmerised I touched the lens because it was so beautiful. The lightkeeper reprimanded me sternly and said: ‘You never touch the lens unless you are cleaning it.’ He immediately took out a clean hankerchief and polished away my fingerprint. That was my first lesson.”
On Sunday, 2 July 1979 Japie reported for work at Diaz Point – a day early. That’s how keen he was. In those days keepers worked daily eight-hour shifts that changed weekly. Shifts were 10am-6pm; 6pm-2am; and 2am-10am. Lightkeepers kept watch on the weather and the sea 24/7 and did hourly logs of sea swell, cloud cover and visibility. They logged every passing ship and constantly watched for fog so as to switch on the fog horn immediately. It was long hours of looking through binoculars, by day and by night. The radio receiver was also a communication priority and Morse code was in vogue.
Shifts stopped in the 90s when lights were automated. There’s now a ‘day/night switch’ which activates the lighthouse in low light. With advancing technology also came electric foghorns or nautophones activated by air moisture. “In the old days the foghorn stood at the Columbine lighthouse,” says Japie. “It was so powerful it would blast you out of your bed,” he adds. “I’m not joking. The sound would shatter windows in the lighthouse tower if they weren’t opened. You had to hold your coffee mug or it would hop across the table. Now the nautophone is down near the sea and is tame in comparison.”
In the old days lightkeepers’ work included painting the outside of the towers, strapped into harnesses, but now they only do inside maintenance – painting, polishing brass, cleaning engines and shining the lens to name a few jobs. “Weather reports are now also automated and work on SMS,” says Japie, “and the new Automatic Identification System (AIS) logs passing ships. So we mostly spit and polish the lighthouse to keep it shining. There’s always plenty to do and I am never bored.”
Of his job Japie says: “I tell people I am a life-long pensioner because I enjoy what I do so much. I love the environment and the work, there’s no stress, no rat race. There’s time for yourself too, because we work 7.30am to 3.30pm now. So I build model ships and spend time with my wife Lourina, as our three children are adults who live in other cities.”
In the past, lighthouse keepers handled all the emergencies at sea and Japie has been part of quite a few events. “When I was stationed at St Lucia in the nineties a prawn vessel ran aground. The keel was being bumped against the ocean floor by huge waves, and I expected the ship to capsize and roll. I told everyone to abandon ship but Durban radio control said the captain must stay aboard. He did, the ship capsized, and he drowned. It was very sad and unnecessary. The last shipwreck I witnessed was the Italian cargo ship Jolly Rubino, which ran aground off St Lucia in 2002. It was an exciting rescue and salvage operation and I was in the office relaying messages. After salvage was completed, the ship was demolished. That’s when I met Captain Nick Sloane, who recently helped salvage the Costa Concordia cruise liner.
And ghosts? “There are plenty,” says Japie. “In Cape Recife lighthouse there are two ghosts that people have seen, and I have personally seen metal dustbin lids fly around like Frisbees. The first time I nearly died of fright. I had to use a 4lb hammer to beat the lid back into shape. Then I had a word with the ghosts and asked them please to leave me alone to do my job, and they never bothered me again.”
There is also a ghost in the Columbine tower and Japie believes it is an old lighthouse keeper who worked there. “I knew him well and often felt him standing beside me and wanting to tell me something. I spoke to him a day before he died and he wanted to tell me something on the phone, but said it could wait a day or two. So I think he was still trying to tell me whatever it was. I have spoken to him too, so he doesn’t bother me at all but he is definitely still here.”
When he retires in three years time, Japie would love to live in Paternoster as close to the ocean as possible. Next choice is Vredenburg. Japie says if he didn’t become a lighthouse keeper, he would probably be in jail. “As a youngster I was a rebel and behaved badly. Lighthouses made me something. They changed me and taught me responsibility. That is why Columbine lighthouse is as pristine as Diaz Point – because the lighthouse keeper there, Oom Philip Fourie, was a perfectionist, and now I am one too.”
To visit Cape Columbine lighthouse and many others along the coast. Tel: 021 449 2400; email email@example.com
Also see: lighthouses-of-sa.blogspot.com – for information on SA lighthouses