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

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