23 June 2014 by Stuart Buchanan

Cape Town's underground tunnel tour

We know that Cape Town’s trendy bands and artists consider themselves ‘underground’, but if you want to experience the real thing, head to the Castle of Good Hope and embark on a tunnel tour that’ll take you beneath the surface and into the belly of the Mother City.

The tunnels are an important feature in understanding the full story the Mother City's history.

Good Hope Adventures organises expeditions into Cape Town's long-abandoned canal system, which channels fresh, running water (creatively named the Fresh River) from Table Mountain underneath the City Bowl, and out into the sea.

It was built by the Dutch settlers back in the 17th century, although indigenous people had lived in the area for much longer, having named the river Camissa (place of sweet waters). At one time in the city's history, these series of open canals gave rise to the nickname Little Amsterdam.

Single file! The group descends into the tunnels

As Cape Town expanded, the waterways were used for waste water, and became increasingly unpleasant. Eventually they were built over and forgotten about. Explorer, tour guide and history buff Matt Weisse discovered them for himself in the 1980s and now ensures that adventurous visitors to the Cape can see the city from a whole new perspective through regular tours. Check out the video below:

Cape Town's underground tunnel tour

Take a glimpse at the underground tunnels that run beneath Cape Town's city centre

There is nothing unpleasant about the tunnel experience – these are not sewers. Stormwater run-off from Cape Town's roads mixes with the mountain stream, and so while it's not necessarily drinkable, it's clean and odourless. It flows at about five litres per second through the tunnel, and on the tour you will walk both with the flow and against it. 

Prepare to get your feet wet if you don't have gumboots

Gumboots are essential! You could try to step wide on either side of the stream to avoid getting wet, but it's not worth your while. Splish-sploshing through the ankle-high water with your fellow explorers is way more fun. Bring a torch so you can see the changing architecture of the tunnel as you make your way through, and all the various pipes, vents and brickwork that reveal the engineering spirit of the city's founders. At one point, all torches are switched off so that you're left with nothing but complete darkness, and the sound of running water ... punctuated by the occasional overhead rumble of a train going by.

Taking a break to switch off torches and listen to the unusual subterranean sounds

The underground part of the tour is actually the second half of the full experience with Good Hope Adventures. The first hour is spent exploring the Castle, learning about why it was built, what each room was used for, and how this building, the oldest colonial structure in the country, has changed over time. Your guides have keys to areas not open to the public – the holding cells are an absolute treat, with intricately inscribed messages from prisoners left behind in the wooden doors. You'll also get to watch a real cannon being fired – remember to cover your ears!

Some of the inscriptions on the doors of the holding cells located in the Castle of Good Hope. Prisoners had a lot of time on their hands

After hearing about the colonial history of the Cape, the entrance to the tunnels is opened – a humble drain cover outside the castle walls – and your subterranean journey begins. Understanding the context of how and why these tunnels were built really helps, and Matt and his fellow tour guide, Dave Wolfaardt, do a great job of bringing that history alive, making everyone on the tour feel like genuine adventurers.

The tunnel exit, which used to open on to the beach, now leads on to Strand Street

Altogether, you are above ground for an hour, and below ground for an hour. Of course, the Castle is open throughout the day and you can wander around at your own pace, but doing this tour really gives you the best of both worlds, and the added insight of passionate guides (Dave's impersonation of Van Hunks, the character from the myth that gave Devil's Peak its name, is highly entertaining, and Matt's Jan van Riebeck costume adds a quirky flair to proceedings).

Tour groups are no bigger than 15 to 20 people, ensuring a personal touch to the experience

Don't go on this tour if you:

  • Are prone to claustrophobia
  • Are terrified of the dark
  • Don't like getting your feet wet
  • Faint at the sight of a few cockroaches
  • Are scared of adventure

Do go on this tour if you:

  • Are interested in the history of the Cape
  • Are looking for something different, fun and quirky to do
  • Approach new experiences with a spirit of adventure

Cape Town has a fascinating history. There are many places to go to learn all about it – but that, quite literally, is just the surface. The forgotten tunnels are an important feature in understanding the full story the Mother City's history.

To book, call Matt on +27 (0)82 482 4006 or email mattweisse@mweb.co.za.

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