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


Unknown said...

I am hoping to meet Japie when we visit Cape Columbine LH on 10 May 2016. I am looking for a tel. No.
Alf. 082 453 1323

Mole said...

Hello, I have passed your comment on to Japie but cannot guarantee you will receive a response. I do not know him personally and of course it is up to him.

Unknown said...

Hi Mole,

Thank you for your trouble. I found a tel. no. on the internet and made contact with Wayne. He will receive us on the 10th May as Japie will be on leave next week. Thanks,again.

Dennis said...

Japie Greeff,a very good friend of mine,passed away this morning in Payernoster...he was dianosed with liver cancer.RIP my friend and army buddy.

Dennis said...

Japie Greeff passed away this morning.

Mole said...

Thank you Dennis. Very sad news. I have posted an In Memoriam message at

Best Wishes, Mole