Did you know?
Early lighthouse lanterns were mostly fuelled by sheep-tail fat and paraffin before ‘going electric’.
As you drive up to the Cape Recife lighthouse on the southern tip of Algoa Bay in Port Elizabeth, you might well find yourself in a swirl of mist. You might also experience that deliciously creepy feeling of being momentarily lost in time, with only the swinging beam of a lighthouse to guide your way.
The zebra-striped Cape Recife lighthouse warns passing ships of the dangers of the equally romantically named Thunderbolt Reef, which has claimed many victims over generations of southern African seafaring.
The deadly spine of rocks is named after the HMS Thunderbolt, a steam-driven man o’ war that ran onto the reef on a fine day in 1847. There was hardly a cloud in the sky, and certainly no fog or mist.
The Thunderbolt was refloated and beached in Algoa Bay. She was, however, beyond repair. Her timbers were sold to a Mr JO Smith for just more than 100 pounds sterling. The locals thought he’d been had, and immediately dubbed the purchase ‘Smith’s Folly’, according to travel writer Lawrence Green in South African Beachcomber.
Smith, it seems, had the last laugh. He sold the timbers on to house builders in Port Elizabeth and made a good profit. So when you do a heritage walk of the Windy City and you pass some of those lovely old Victorian homes, you might well be seeing little bits of the HMS Thunderbolt.
The Cape Recife lighthouse was built in 1851, and over the decades has served its purpose. However, it did not deter some rather determined sea captains from beaching their vessels around Algoa Bay.
A certain Captain Nimmo beached his freighter, the Strathblane, after striking a mysterious pinnacle of rock out at sea. After his men landed safely, Nimmo calmly had his bath, dressed up and disembarked. He took the next Cape cart to Port Elizabeth, where he reported the unfortunate incident.
And just before World War I was declared in 1914, the German steamer Itzahoe appeared out of nowhere 1 night, heading straight for the lighthouse at speed. The shocked light-keepers resorted to yelling and waving their arms at the vessel, which continued straight onto the rocks nearby.
The Cape Recife lighthouse itself carries some tragic memories. Sometime in the mid-1900s, a fight broke out between three squabbling light-keepers up on a hoisted scaffolding, and two fell to their deaths.
These days, the lighthouse is part of the Cape Recife Nature Reserve and welcomes visitors by day ... if they can make it through the mist.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
How to get here
Take Marine Drive and head south along the Port Elizabeth beachfront. You will soon head through the gates of the Cape Recife Nature Reserve, where the lighthouse is the main visual beacon.
Best time to visit
Cape Recife lighthouse looks great any time of the year.
Around the area
The area around the lighthouse is also a birding spot, especially if you’re looking for a sighting of the roseate tern. If you’re looking for exotic wildlife encounters and you’re patient, you might see a Cape clawless otter.
Tours to do
Alan Fogarty of Alan Tours is a good local guide and makes the Cape Recife lighthouse part of his popular Port Elizabeth Heritage Tour.
You can either hire a car from the airport and make a visit to the lighthouse a part of your day trip around urban Port Elizabeth, or sit back and let a city tour guide take you around.
What will it cost
Admission: R17 for adults and R7 for children under 12. You can inquire about pensioner and group rates.
Length of stay
The Cape Recife lighthouse is worth an hour of your time, but you may want to linger longer in the reserve itself – or walk along the beach.
What to pack
Pack light, beach-walking shoes or sandals or, if you’re on a day tour, some heavier, all-terrain footwear.
Where to stay
Port Elizabeth has many hotels and guesthouses – see the listed website. Look for a place in the nearby Summerstrand area.
What to eat
Summerstrand has a number of good seafood restaurants – see the listed Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism website for choices.
From the world-class Iron Man competition in February to the Summer Splash festival in December, Port Elizabeth has a busy events diary. See the listed website for details.