Saturday, August 29, 2015

Last of the South African Lighthouse Keepers: Japie Greeff

Cape Columbine Lighthouse

Our next Lighthouse Keeper of interest is Japie Greeff, who has experienced several appointments around the coastline and is currently stationed at Cape Columbine, near Paternoster in the Cape Province.  As the sun sets on the days of manned Lighthouses, Japie, as Senior Lighthouse Keeper, will be one of those last men to follow the rigid routines demanded of them every day, to ensure that the Light is turned on at twilight.

Japie commenced his lighthouse career at Diaz Point Lighthouse, Luderitz, Namibia, in 1979 and as a matter of historical interest, Diaz Point is named after Bartholomew Diaz, the Portuguese Captain who took shelter in the bay and was first to sail around the Cape of Good Hope in 1487-1488. 

Diaz Point Lighthouse

The Diaz Point Light overlooks a cold sea, fed by the northerly running Benguela Current bringing nutrients from the Antarctic.  With the up-swelling of the rich nutrients along this foggy western coast, it delivers the food that feeds some of the world’s largest shoals of fish.  This bounty has attracted a fishing fleet which is based in Luderitz Harbour.

As well as the management of the Light and being technical men, their expertise was in demand and they were called on to perform other local duties.  On one such day, Japie had an interesting experience . . . .

“I was sent to replace batteries for the channel buoys in the harbour in Luderitz, which is the town approximately 27km from Diaz Point.  By the time I had finished the work I had been sent to do, a ‘Transvaaler’ from Johannesburg had launched his speedboat to go and catch crayfish.  At the Lighthouse, I told the guy that the sea is rough on the outside as you pass the outside of the harbour.  He just took one look at me as if to say, ‘You don’t know what you are talking about?’

I shook my head, thinking a speedboat is only meant for rivers and dams and certainly not for the sea. I went across to see the Harbour Master and told him about this guy, because it is a speedboat and is not made for the sea, but only for dams or rivers, but he told me not to worry, that they knew what they were doing because they had been fishing for many years and were experienced.

I then phoned the Lighthouse Keeper at Diaz Point to be on the lookout for the so-called ‘experienced fishermen.’

The wind was blowing at 25 knots and off they went.

By the time I arrived at the Lighthouse, the speedboat was taking water and was adrift!  The Lighthouse Keeper called for assistance from a local fishing vessel to rescue the men, because we did not have Sea Rescue in Luderitz.

Two days after they had been rescued, the ‘Transvaaler’ came to the lighthouse to say ‘Thank you’ for the help they had been given, with a bottle of whiskey. 

The Senior Lightkeeper told him,
“If your life was depending on whiskey, then take this bottle with you and get the hell off my station!  If you do not listen to what my Keeper told you, then go and drown yourself!”

We never saw or heard from the ‘fisherman’ again!”

Still at Diaz Point, and on a less serious note, Japie also shares this amusing anecdote with us.

“In those early days, we installed our own generator plant as we had no electricity supply and had three four-cylinder, and two two-cylinder Ruston motors.  We discovered that some Cape Sparrows, or better known to us all as ‘Mossies’, were actually breeding in the exhaust pipes.  Every year in the month of November, we were besieged with black Mossies flying around the Lighthouse!

One day we had a visit to the Lighthouse by a student from the University of Cape Town. On sighting the ‘black birds,’ he became really excited, telling us that he was studying birds and declared these to be a very rare species!  Convinced that he had hit the jackpot, he made copious notes about these unique birds, to report to his Professor and headed back to Cape Town.

Unbeknown to us at the Lighthouse, arrangements were underfoot and the next thing we knew, the student, his Professor and a film crew were flying up from Cape Town!

The Professor started asking questions, keen to see where the birds were breeding.  I took them around to the generator, started up the engine and after two puffs, out flew the black rare birds!

‘This is where they breed,’ I told the Professor.

An annoyed Professor, film crew and a crestfallen student returned to Cape Town with some explaining to do!

Japie Greeff, right, and assistant

A series by Suzanne-Jo Leff Patterson

August 2015

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Port Nolloth Lighthouse 2

Port Nolloth jetty showing method of loading copper ore

With the development of Port Nolloth as the main port for Namaqualand fishing interests were attracted to it. Two factories were established and trawlers and fishing  boats visited regularly. The navigational aids were upgraded as the port increased in importance.

By the mid 1970s the fishing industry was in recession. Factories suspended operations and boats were withdrawn. The decline in harbour usage led to the withdrawal of the foghorn, probably to the relief of residents. But mariners were still aided by an X band radar responder beacon placed on the platform of the lighthouse tower.

The bottom had fallen out of the copper market just after WWII and the Cape Copper Company withdrew from its mines. It was a blow to a town which depended on these for employment.  Then diamonds came to the rescue, being discovered along the west coast at Alexander Bay and Oranjemund. The copper mines reopened with American backing in 1937.

 Once again Port Nolloth became a thriving little port.

The lighthouse was later automated, the original tower being replaced by an eleven metre high aluminium tower located about fifty metres inland..

Port Nolloth was never a popular station with lighthouse staff even during boom years. Over 700 miles from Cape Town the journey by road was tedious, taking two days with a night stop at Garies or Springbok. Besides the heat and dust the keeper and his family had to face a treacherously narrow winding strip of road between Citrusdal and Klawer. This infamous stretch ran along the eastern bank of the Olifants River. Further disadvantages were a lack of health care in the area as well as schools for keepers' children. Administrative employes echoed the sentiments of a senior officer who once remarked, 'Port Nolloth earns the reputation of being surrounded by indescribable desolation.'

From about 1928 to 1930 the senior lightkeeper was A E (Albert Edward) Hannabus. followed by Orchard and Gardiner, then another spell for A E Hannabus in 1942.* The last lightkeeper, H H van  Pappendorp, left Port Nolloth in 1981 and since then the lighthouse has operated as an unmanned station.

*P J Hannabus writes: He was my grandfather, Albert Edward, and is buried in Port Nolloth cemetery. About 1955/6.

Port Nolloth from the lighthouse in earlier days

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Port Nolloth Lighthouse

Port Nolloth Lighthouse ca 1940s
(thanks to P J Hannabus for the photo)

Port Nolloth (originally Robbe Bay) was named after Commander M S Nolloth, R.N., later Rear Admiral.  He undertook surveys along the west coast of SA, investigating bays suited to serve as harbours for the copper mining industry. The Cape Copper Company constructed a timber jetty at Port Nolloth in the late 1860s; this being replaced by a concrete wharf later. The jetty is protected from the open sea by a long reef but access was limited to small craft which had to negotiate a bar and narrow shallow channel. Sailing vessels and steamers had to anchor in the roadstead outside. Copper ore was unloaded and loaded using lighters. At a later stage the  entrance and channel were deepened to permit small coasters to enter the port. Ore had to be conveyed to and from the mines by ox-wagon, which was very slow and the countryside was an arid desert.

The Cape Copper Company had maintained a small primitive light, an ordinary ship's lantern with a wick burner, mounted on a structure composed of secondhand rails. This was probably introduced in the 1870s.  It was known as the Carl Von Schlick beacon. But this did not provide sufficient protection for Port Nolloth shipping, owing to dense fogs which occurred in the area. Strangely, it wasn't until 1905 that masters presented a petition to the Cape Colonial Government  urging the putting up of a permanent coastal light and fog signal at Port Nolloth.
This came to fruition in 1909.

The lighthouse comprised a fifth order, dioptric revolving lens floating on a mercury bath and driven by a spring-activated clockwork mechanism. The light source was a 35 mm petroleum vapour burner. The tower was a cast iron column supported by four heavy steel wire guys anchored in a solid concrete foundation. A ladder linked ground surface to a balcony or working platform at the top of the tower.

In March 1921 the petroleum vapour apparatus was replaced by AGA acetylene gas equipment.  An electric fog signal was installed at the lighthouse in March 1935.

The original rail lighthouse tower.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Last of the SA Lighthouse Keepers: 'Through the eyes of a young boy'

The Wild Coast of South Africa is known for many famous shipwrecks and this stretch of the coastline is notorious and especially treacherous to shipping.  This section of the coastal route brings ships within close proximity to the Continental Shelf, which curves in towards the land mass, generating gigantic swells, especially when strong winds are opposing the south-running Agulhas coastal current.

Cape Hermes Lighthouse

Cape Hermes Lighthouse is associated with the mystifying disappearance of the SS Waratah in July 1909 with all on-board.  It was just off Cape Hermes at Latitude 31.36 degrees South, Longitude 29.58 degrees East, that the last communication from the SS Waratah, by Morse signal lamp was made with the Master of the Clan Macintyre on 27 July 1909 ………

Cape Hermes Lighthouse, 31 38 06 South, 29 33 23 East, was named after the ship HMS Hermes, which undertook national surveys of the Pondoland coastal waters. Dating back from around 1890 until 1903, the Cape Hermes Lighthouse was little more than a ship’s masthead light, hanging outside the signal station.  In1903 the octagonal stone tower was constructed under the direction of the highly respected Lighthouse Engineer, H.C. Cooper, who also designed Cooper Light in Durban and Cape Byron Light in Australia.

Trevor’s childhood memories as a young boy of seven are a unique perspective of Lighthouse life and he has provided us with anecdotal boyhood memories of their relocation in June 1949, from Cape St. Lucia Lighthouse, Natal, to Cape Hermes near Port St Johns on the Transkei Coast. Trevor Hannabus was born at Cape Columbine Lighthouse and this unique circumstance presented the opportunity to grow up in the interesting and diverse world of lighthouses, particularly as his father, Lighthouse Keeper C.H. (Charlie) Hannabus, was to be stationed at several lights along the coastline.

Drawn into the exclusive coterie of Lighthouse Keepers, it is no surprise that Trevor soon became fascinated with the technical aspects of lighthouse installations and as a young man leaving home from Danger Point Lighthouse, he embarked on and completed a radio Telecommunications course with Telkom.  Shortly after qualifying, he enrolled for a Radio Officer’s course aboard a ship. 

With the family taking leave of the Cape St. Lucia Light, Trevor’s father had to remain at the Light for some days to introduce the new Keeper, C.C.T. Roberts, to the daily functions and requirements of that site, so the family went ahead and travelled by car to their new destination. 

Here is Trevor’s story, through the eyes of that young boy.

“My mother was about 29 years old and it seemed to me she did a good job driving all that way. I must have slept most of the way, as the first recollection I have of the trip, was when we came to cross the Umzimvubu River.  We had stopped on the bank and with a shock I saw the road disappearing into the river! It took a little while before I saw the Pont on the other side of the river and I watched in fascination as the locals walked from the back to the front and grabbed hold of the rope and pulled it along with them as they went to the back. The Pont slid up to the road and we drove on board and by the same process took us to the far shore.

We were on our way again and we passed through the little town and the school I was to soon attend, then the road led us up to a gate and on the other side was a narrow double-track road. I was just about to hop out to open the gate when I heard a moan coming from my mother

“I can’t drive up that little narrow path!” she cried.
“Why not,” I asked.
“What happens if we go off the edge and over the cliff?”
 “Ag Mom, don’t be silly.  You just go slowly and if a wheel goes over the edge, you just put on brakes!” I replied.

The mention of the wheel going over the side almost brought another groan from her, but before she could say anything, I hopped out and opened the gate and looked back expectantly. I waited a while then went back to the driver’s side.

“What’s the matter Mom,” I asked. This seemed to make her rethink the situation.  You see, I was 7 years old and there were two babies on the back seat and she was the only one that could do it. She slowly pulled forward and I closed the gate. I just managed to get back into the car as there wasn’t much room between the car and the edge of the road!

The trip up the side of the mountain seemed to take longer than the trip we had just done, crawling and stopping ever so often and finally we reached the two houses with the beautiful Cape Hermes Lighthouse standing between them.

Cape Hermes Lighthouse

The Lighthouse Assistant came out to meet us, opened our house and I had to help carry the luggage from the car into the house and help my Mother unpack.  Finally I got to look around!  A huge boulder had been embedded at the far end of the yard and I found out later that the boulder had come loose from the hillside and rolled down just after the house had been built!

I found a path leading up to the top of the mountain where the radio masts were erected. I never knew at that time that each lighthouse sent out a Morse signal ZUX or something in that range, identifying the source of the beacon, so that ships could take a bearing on two of these signals and they were able to work out their actual position. The signals came up every half hour for about 5 minutes.

A steep path led down to the rocks below and it seemed as if there was a path all along the edge of the rocks leading to the beach and in the opposite direction, leading away from the town of Port St Johns. This path was one I would take many a time on my trips of exploration.

My Dad arrived a few days later and he laughed when I told him of Mom’s concerns about driving up the narrow track on the side of the hill.  It so turned out, that she eventually was zooming up and down that track like it was a wide, straight road!

Being half way up the mountain, we had a beautiful view over the sea and many a day we could see porpoises going by. At night one could see the lights of ships crossing the horizon.  They moved so slowly and once a year there was a whale that would come into the bay and perform all sorts of tricks in the water. One minute he was standing on his head with his tail in the air and the next he sprayed water into the air. Everything seemed to happen slowly and peacefully.

Another favourite pastime of mine was to walk down that little path at the bottom of the mountain, which took me to a bay where round boulders reached from the surf to the base of the mountain. It was a sight to behold, as these boulders were more or less the same size. It was if a giant kid had lost all his marbles, but the attraction was the periwinkles that were big and easy to get to. I would use my cap and fill it with periwinkles, take them home and boil them for fifteen minutes. When I started cooking, usually there was no one in sight, but soon people seemed to appear from the cracks in the woodwork! I didn’t mind sharing my haul with the family; because I wouldn’t have been able to eat them all by myself anyway!

Sadly, over holiday periods drownings would often occur and where the river flowed into the sea, one finds “rollers,” which becomes an horizontal whirlpool.  Finding oneself caught up in this and swimming to the surface, only drags one under again.  I was very wary of the sea and the currents that could drag one to disaster.

One day I was standing on the rocks below the lighthouse, when a boy a little older than me, came up to me and we started talking.  He looked down at the sea below us and before I could stop him he dived in. Eventually the adrenaline rush wore off and there was no way for him to get out. I shouted for him to float, and I went looking for a possible place where he could clamber up out of the choppy sea.  A short distance away, I saw a place and the waves were quite big. The idea was not to let the wave bash ones’ head on the rocks, but to float with ones’ feet facing the rocks. I conveyed this idea to him and he swam to that area and the wave lifted him up and it was like magic; he was left clinging to the rock face as the wave receded and he was able to scramble up to the top of the rocks. It was this incident that made me realize that people should not go swimming on their own in rivers or the sea. If a current pulls you out, do not fight against it, just float.  The sea will wash you ashore like it does everything else. One must learn to float with the minimum amount of effort, preserving your strength for when one will really need it.

Once when I was laid up in bed, someone gave me a little chicken.
This chicken turned out to be a white leghorn rooster and when he matured, he would chase everything in the back yard. My mother had to take a broom with her to ward him off and the Fox Terrier dog kept well away from him too.  When strangers came into the yard, the rooster would fly up onto their shoulders and frighten the living daylights out of them!  My Dad added a few hens to our ‘family’ and we never had to buy eggs for the period we lived there.

Every Saturday, a market was held near a little bridge in the middle of the small village. People grew their own vegetables and fishermen brought their fish, and for a penny, one could get a handful of sweets. It seemed to me that everyone loved this market; not only for the products, but for the chance they had at talking.  Man, could these people talk!

The three years we had at Cape Hermes was pleasant and from there my Dad was sent to Cooper Light in Durban and following that, to the famous Bird Island Lighthouse! “

Bird Island Lighthouse

With acknowledgement to Trevor Hannabus for his ‘boyhood’ contribution.

 A series by Suzanne-Jo Leff Patterson

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Millenium Tower under construction on the Bluff Durban

The new Millenium Tower going up while the old signal station
 (which had pretended to be a lighthouse and thus confused everyone
 for several years) awaits demolition..

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Souvenir Saturday: Unusual views of the Bluff Lighthouse

In this view the lighthouse appears to be much further from the seaward end of the Bluff

Very few photos are taken from this direction, towards the end of the Bluff and the sea. This is a later photo showing quite a village springing up around the lighthouse.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Cape Columbine Lighthouse

Cape Columbine Lighthouse by Helen Pfeil

The last manned lighthouse to be constructed, this lighthouse was built in 1936.
Cape Columbine is a headland five kilometres from the village of Paternoster in the Western Cape. The sea in the area is dotted with white caps, tell-tale signs of submerged rocks and reefs. Britannia Reef to the north is probably the most dangerous.

As usual in the 19th c, though the need for a lighthouse was recognised, there were other pressing demands on the colonial purse, and ships continued to founder off Cape Columbine, including the Lisboa which struck Soldiers Reef in October 1910, the Heleric which foundered off Great Paternoster Point in 1932 and other vessels. Nevertheless the provision of a light remained in abeyance for thirty years.

Cape Columbine light first illuminated the environs on 1 October, 1936 on a site selected by H Cooper, a huge outcrop of rock locally called Castle Rock. The beacon is not the usual sort of tower but a slightly squared tower with the outer faces of the walls recessed, forming heavy buttresses on the four corners. Cooper not only designed the lighthouse tower he also acquired the optic, the fog signal and the radio beacon. This was the only occasion in the history of South African lighthouses that a navigation aid made up of all three safety features - light, fog signal and radio beacon - was installed as a complete unit.

The optical apparatus, designed by Chance Brothers, was the first lens system in SA which had been designed for use with the 4 k w incandescent electric lamp. All prior installations had been designed for wick or petroleum vapour burners.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Keepers' difficulties at the Bluff Lighthouse 1870s

Drawing by Cathcart Methven showing the Bluff Lighthouse, keepers' quarters and signal station.

From the moment of its commissioning, the Bluff Lighthouse was kept well-supplied with oil, wicks and other necessities for the maintenance of the light. However, the human beings who tended it - a vital part of the operation - had several difficulties to contend with.

For a start, the lighthouse wasn't within easy reach of the town of Durban. Though not far distant as the crow flies, accessibility was limited by the Bluff's wooded and steep terrain. Although a pathway, originally constructed by the Godden brothers,  merely a track, ran up the side of the headland from the shore and had been used to carry building materials during construction of the beacon, it was not an ideal access to civilization. A boat was required to cross the channel to the Point. This was still a long walk from the commercial centre, where lightkeepers needed to purchase personal supplies of food etc.

The keepers' quarters were rudimentary though were later improved on.  Everything took much longer due to colonial bureaucracy.

One of the biggest difficulties was the lack of a fresh water supply on the Bluff. This vital commodity had to be carried in casks from the mainland, by boat across the channel, or across the Bay then transferred to unwieldy ox-carts which would continue on to the seaward end of the Bluff for the casks to be delivered to the signalman and lightkeepers.

Letter from Thomas Gadsden, lightkeeper,
to Alexander Airth, Port Captain.
Thomas Gadsden was forced to write to the port Captain (then Alexander Airth) in August 1878, most respectfully begging that something be done about the water problem. The lightkeepers were running short of water - only a week's supply left. 

Apparently the signalman was in the same predicament. 'Therefore, Sir, it will be absolutely necessary to supply us with water from the other side ...' (i.e. from the town of Durban). Thomas signs 'Your obedient servant' but was clearly a worried man. He had a wife and a young family, and was also responsible for the various boatmen and other assistants employed at the lighthouse.

The water problem was not resolved for some time and led directly to the death of one of the Gadsden children, Phillip, who died in infancy of typhoid - a water-borne disease which was rife in the Colony until well into the following century.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Bluff Lighthouse 1867

                                       Opening of the Bluff Lighthouse 22 January 1867    

Details of the new structure were circulated via the press. The lighthouse 'is to consist of a cast iron conoidal tower loaded at the base with concrete, surmounted by a cast iron lighthouse on plinth, and a gunmetal lantern, glazed with plate glass, with a domed roof covered with copper. The lighting apparatus is to be a second class holophotal lenticular apparatus on Fresnel's system with a first class lamp. The light will be revolving with brightest flashes at intervals of sixty seconds. The apparatus is composed of Concentric glass lenses in gunmetal frames forming an eight-sided figure. The light which would otherwise radiate through the portion of the azimuth which is landwards, and therefore does not require illumination, is intercepted by an arrangement of totally refracting lenses, and returned to the focus to strengthen the seaward portion of the light. The revolution of the apparatus is effected by means of clockwork fixed inside the iron pedestal upon which the apparatus is supported.' 

Durban's leading business and professional men were relieved to see the lighthouse finally completed after long years of delay. The imperial authorities had been inundated with requests for a lighthouse worthy of Port Natal's  position as a shipping port and even perhaps as a naval base.

George Cato, Durban's first Mayor and close friend of Captain William Bell, fought persistently for some twenty years for a lighthouse to be  placed on the Bluff. So it must have been a happy day for him to see the beacon opened at last.

At the time it was built, the Bluff lighthouse was the only one on the east coast of Africa, the nearest to the north being Alexandria.


Sunday, August 2, 2015

A Voice from the Waratah: James Conn

Despite the time which has elapsed since the strange disappearance of the SS Waratah in July 1909, her story continues to reverberate through memories, hearsay and public as well as private written records.

Not many Waratah enthusiasts are privileged to own letters written by someone who actually sailed on the Lund liner on that fateful voyage. One such fortunate person is Marilyn Greaves, whose great uncle James Conn was a greaser and fireman on the Waratah. 

Thanks are due to Marilyn and her family for permitting me to reproduce one of Conn's letters here and to Suzanne-Jo Leff Patterson for making this contact possible.

This letter carries an additional importance in that it refers to the incident which occurred off Kangaroo Island, about which there has been much controversy among historians.

James (Jim) Conn's letter to his sister Annie in London.

S.S. Waratah Port Adelaide, South Australia
January 19th 1909 

I waited until today to see if a letter from you would arrive…. So I will drop you a few farewell lines while I am in Australia and hope to hear from you by tomorrow or next day. I am writing this now in case I have not time later on and if a letter from you does turn up I will answer it from Cape Town when we call there.

I must tell you that last Saturday night at 12.20 a.m. the Waratah was as nearly wrecked as ever she will be – the officer on the Bridge mistook his course and was within an ace of piling her up on a reef, it was only the quickness in reversing the engines that saved her. Even as it was, she touched the ground, but not hard enough to do any damage. The night was very dark, but the sea was not rough and I think we could have managed to get ashore is she had broken up. It caused quite a commotion for a time, but the majority of the passengers were asleep and knew nothing about it. When I came up on deck from the engine room after we had her under way again, there was land and rocks all round us, so we were lucky to get off as we did. It was Kangaroo Island where it happened.

Since I started writing this letter I have heard that we are not leaving here before Friday morning, but I can’t say how true it is. You will see however by the paper when we do sail….

We have not many passengers on board and what few there are is mostly for Durban, but we may pick up a few from there and Cape Town for London. 

Signed …. Your sailor brother Jim.

Note: James (Jim) always signed his letter ‘your sailor brother Jim’ but the last letter he ever wrote  he signed, your sailor brother Jim, a few personal lines and then, Goodbye and Good Luck. Spine chilling in the light of what was to befall the ship. ... 

In another letter to Annie dated 16 June 1909 SS Waratah Sydney, Jim says:

We do have some trouble in berthing the Waratah at Port Melbourne and again here and in fact in every port we touched. She is so high that the wind has great power with her. She can snap big hawsers like cotton strands.

Crew of SS Waratah. James (Jim)  Conn -
4th crewman from the RH side of the second back row