Monday, November 2, 2015

The Last of the South African Lighthouse Keepers: Hannabus family cont.

Dassen Island Lighthouse

Installed April 1893

Latitude          33° 25' 55’’ S.

Longitude       18° 05' 23 '' E.

55 kilometres from Cape Town

11 kilometres from the coast.

Isolated and bleak, and standing on a barren outcrop of rock and sand, Dassen Island Light remains one of the major beacons on the Cape shipping route.

Surrounded by water, the Western seaward side is deadly, with high seas beating in from the Atlantic and consequently, many ships have been driven onto the rocks with shipwrecks scattered around this area. The Eastern side, looking towards the mainland, is much calmer with hardly any breakers and on the South and North sides, are two sheltered bays.

The island became so notorious for the regular incidents of shipwrecks, that authorities released rabbits and tortoises onto the island to provide a food source for any survivors.

Whilst outward bound on her maiden voyage from London to Sydney in 1891, the SS Wallarah, commanded by Captain F.H. Ekins, and belonging to Wilhelm Lund’s celebrated Blue Anchor Line, was wrecked at Boom Point on Dassen Island. It was this loss, of yet another ship, which prompted the authorities to take action and the Lighthouse was erected.

The Blue Anchor Line ships regularly travelled the South African Coast and it was unfortunate that again in 1909, they faced calamity when their legendary SS Waratah, also on her maiden voyage, disappeared without trace on the Transkei Coast after departing Durban for Cape Town. 

P-J Hannabus, Lighthouse Keeper (Ret.,) had some interesting experiences on Dassen Island.

“All too frequently, when the tugs could not make their monthly voyage out to Dassen Island because of foul weather conditions, the Lighthouse Keepers would run out of food. At these times, penguin eggs were collected and eaten. Keepers would dive for perlemoen (abalone) and crayfish. Snoek and bream were plentiful, so the Keepers always had a meal on their tables.

In the early 1970’s, helicopters were used for transport which made things easier.  We would freeze fish, perlemoen and crayfish, securely pack them in boxes marked ‘FRAGILE’ Lighthouse Bulbs, ready for transportation to Cape Town. The Lighthouse Keepers from Green Point Lighthouse would collect the boxed ‘Lighthouse Bulbs.’ When the swop would take place for the next flight back to Dassen Island, Green Point Keepers would send steak, wine and brandy and other food items, in exchange for the seafood! 

In 1973 I was assigned to relieve on Dassen for three weeks and took just enough fresh food with me for this time. During the three week period, Mr Bruyns our Lighthouse Inspector, informed me that the Keeper due to arrive to take up the permanent post had just resigned and I was required to stay for three months! ‘Oh no’ I wailed! ‘I don’t have enough food!’ He asked me if I had any objection to eating penguin eggs, fish and crayfish, to which I replied, ‘No.’ ‘Good,’ said Mr Bruyns, ‘go and catch your food!’ I certainly had no objection to this!

In order at times to stave off boredom and pass the night shifts away, I would cut the gunwales off old wrecks and make ashtrays by chiselling out the rough-hewn wood, then gluing in the beautiful Perlemoen shells, which shimmered in their ever-changing iridescent colours of purple, blue, green and pink.  I would give them away as gifts and I was always very popular at Christmas!”

A series by Suzanne-Jo Leff Patterson
October 2015

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