Paternoster, West Coast, South Africa
Latitude 32° 49’ 39” S Longitude 17 ° 51’ 23” E
Senior Lighthouse Keeper - Japie Greeff
Lighthouse Official - Wayne Brown
Standing on the ship’s bridge with the consistent rise and fall of the ocean swell, one looks landward and sees a windswept headland. This massive granite boulder is Castle Rock and, clinging like a limpet on the rock, stands the comforting sight of the uniquely-designed Cape Columbine Lighthouse, commanding sweeping views across the Atlantic Ocean. For those on the bridge of a ship, or a sailor at the helm of his fishing boat or yacht, this tall, buttressed tower and powerful light, provides a dependable guardian for this treacherous section of coastline.
The Cape Times edition of 5 October 1936, reported,
‘There is no part of the South African coastline more dreaded by mariners than the uncertainties of Paternoster, for there are more hidden dangers than at any other locality. Heavy gales and a dangerous and confused sea are encountered through many months in the year and when the wind is not blowing, a fog obscures the whole coastline.’
I recently had the great pleasure of meeting both Japie Greeff and Wayne Brown in the lighthouse on Castle Rock. Japie, a man of strong character and integrity, proud and serious, is totally committed to duty, yet with a delightful sense of humour. Having been a dedicated Lighthouse Keeper for the past 40 years and one of the last to man a light, Japie has made a substantial contribution by providing safety to yachts, fishermen and ships. The light has guided them with their precious cargoes, passengers and crew when navigating the long, rugged and often extremely dangerous South African coastline.
Reflected in his face were his many proud years of endurance and resolve. The harsh realities of isolation and loneliness, danger and wild weather, and on occasion, shipwrecks and loss of lives, tests one’s courage and strength of character.
Japie entered the Lighthouse Service on 2 July 1979 at Diaz Point Lighthouse, Lüderitz, Namibia. In subsequent years, he was stationed at Dassen Island, Cape Recife, Cape Point and Pelican Point and took charge as Senior Lighthouse Keeper at Green Point Natal, Cape St Lucia and Cape Columbine. Some of these stations were very isolated and, essential to all Lighthouse Keepers, was the support of family and colleagues, with occasional visits from friends. Keeping constant vigil, exposing him to many unexpected and different situations, his duties would have ensured the searching beams of the lighthouses uninterruptedly swept out across the sea, guiding mariners along their coastal routes.
After chatting with Japie, he introduced us to Wayne, his Lighthouse Assistant, who had been his colleague for many years. Of interest too, in the visitor reception, were the glass-fronted cabinets displaying Japie’s model aircraft, which had been assembled and painted as a hobby during the free hours in his days. Our party, including my husband and his cousin, was privileged to be taken on a tour of the immaculately kept and lovingly cared-for interior of the tower. Everywhere exuded a pride in presentation.
Japie led the way into an inclined passageway of highly polished, wide, green, stairs, connecting the Lighthouse reception room/shop to the foot of the Lighthouse. The ceiling was gleaming; varnished wood and the side walls were hung with numerous identically-framed photos of various South African Lighthouses. As an aside, Cape Columbine Lighthouse (80m above sea level) was designed by H.C. Cooper, who also designed Cooper Light on the Bluff in Durban (137m).
Our first stop was the foghorn compressor room with the original equipment which, unfortunately is no longer operational, but still enjoys attention shown in the immaculately maintained paintwork. A modern electrical foghorn is erected on a large tower a short distance from the lighthouse. An Automatic Identification System (AIS), a tracking system for identifying and locating vessels by electronically exchanging data, is installed in the tower, making this the first Lighthouse to have had all three technologies – light, foghorn and AIS - installed during construction. The foghorn is a critical safety component when the dense West Coast fog rolls in. For those sailors finding themselves enclosed by this all-enveloping fog, the regular, haunting sound of the foghorn will guide them away from the dangers of the shoreline. One appreciates that this warning will have saved many lives along this coastline. Thinking of the past, we remember the drowned sailors and unfortunate castaways whose ghosts may still wander the coastline.
The first two levels in the lighthouse are accessed by steep, narrow wooden ladders with no handrails and a trapdoor set into each floor. As we climbed step-by-step, we were following what each Keeper had been doing day-after-day, whilst going about their duties since October 1936.
At the second level, we continued our climb up the short, steel, spiral staircase into the lantern room where highly polished brass fittings gleamed and the sun’s ray’s refracted rainbows of colour within the multi-layered Fresnel lens. Gone were the days when the Keeper had to polish the many individual lenses regularly, after being coated with black soot from the burning oil. Today, the brilliance of the lens, so devotedly cared for, scattered light from the sunbeams streaming through the windows of the lantern room.
At an elevation of 80m above sea level, we had an exceptional and expansive view across the Atlantic Ocean to the clear line of the horizon. One wanted time to stand still as the captivating aura of the lighthouse set high above the ominous black shoreline rocks below, contrasted with the picturesque miles-long white beach as well as the stark inland landscape. Our imagination took us to the months ahead, when the semi-desert dunes would be transformed by the seasonal blossoming of the desert flowers, transforming this dramatic landscape into a colourful pageant of flowers.
Thank you Japie for a most memorable experience.
Suzanne-Jo Leff Patterson
SV Columbine the British wooden sailing ship launched in 1824, was on a voyage from London to the new British colony of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, with a cargo of mixed goods, beads and religious books. On 31 March 1829 the Columbine ended her days of voyaging when, in the middle of the night she was storm-driven onto the reef 1.5 km north of Cape Columbine Lighthouse.