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TThe lives of light-keepers in South African lighthouses were often an exercise in solitude; a challenge when supplies ran out; and a thrilling adventure when there were hapless souls to be saved and ships to be diverted from the treacherous South African coastline, which stretches for nearly 3 000km.
For more than 400 years, from the 15th Century to sometime in the 19th Century, sailing around the South African coastline was a deadly business. In fact, there are an estimated 2 000-plus shipwrecks along the 3 000km stretch of South African shores – just about 1 ruined vessel for every coastal kilometre.
In the 1800s, the first wave of South African lighthouses went up mainly as a response to major shipwrecks – or a series of them.
For instance, Slangkop Point Lighthouse on the Cape Peninsula was built after a large steamer called the Kakapo ploughed straight up onto the white sands of Noordhoek. Danger Point Lighthouse on the southern Cape coast was erected 40-odd years after the famous Birkenhead wreck.
The existence of the Cape Agulhas Lighthouse is the direct result of local farmers’ pleas to the authorities after they had seen one shipwreck victim too many on their beaches.
In 1902, legendary lighthouse engineer Harry Claude Lee Cooper was dispatched from England to sort out South Africa’s coastal navigation services. He found only 17 lighthouses in working order. Today, there are 45 lighthouses in South Africa.
Cooper worked tirelessly at his task. Not only did he have to design bespoke lighthouses that would withstand the roughest weather, he was also a one-man ‘human resources division’ for the newly appointed light-keepers and their families.
Light-keepers needed to be men of solitary nature and sober habits, slightly insomniac, with a tolerance for loud foghorn blasts and the ability to repair and paint an enormous structure in a short time and possibly in dodgy weather conditions.
And what of the wives and children of the light-keepers? Where would they shop, socialise, be educated, and how would they maintain their sanity, often with nothing but heavy seas, gale-force winds and a very bright beam for company?
The light-keepers were mostly retired men of the sea and so understood the critical importance of keeping the light burning. Every lighthouse had its own code: a light shining on and off for a set number of seconds so that passing ships knew where they were in the darkness.
And just as each lighthouse had its own distinctive features, so every light-keeper had his individual quirks. Some were fishermen, some were painters and others were super-handymen. Most proved to be great under extreme pressure.
One light-keeper kept a semi-crazed Jersey bull called Bovril, which had to be shot after making a serious attempt on his owner’s life.
Nowadays, with South Africa’s lighthouses mostly on automatic, the few remaining light-keepers in service have to be good maintenance men and very good tourism operators.
Just like ‘trainspotting’, ‘lighthousing’ has become a serious traveller-occupation. Lighthouse lovers from all over the world will happily travel up and down the South African coastline, admiring the old giants that still stand sentinel between the sea and the land.
TTravel tips & planning info
Who to contact
Transnet Lighthouse Tourism
Tel: +27 (0)21 449 2400
How to get here
Check out the list of lighthouses you can visit and arrange a tour on the Stay at Lighthouses website listed below.
What will it cost?
Visitors are welcome at many of South Africa's lighthouses, which, when open to the public, have a small entrance fee.
Where to stay
There are four lighthouses in South Africa where you can stay: the Great Fish Point Lighthouse in the Eastern Cape, Danger Point in Gansbaai, Cape St Blaize in Mossel Bay and Cape Columbine on the West Coast.
Accommodation at the lighthouses is mostly in cottages and all reasonably priced.