To the lighthouse of Simonstown: The legacy of Roman Rock

A story of history and its repercussions

Placid water ebbs against the belly of the boat. It licks the kayak, tasting the fibreglass as if just to say hello like a friendly dog. Dipping the oar into the water is like wading through butter, so calm it feels thick.“Please keep to the right side of the submarine!” Derek the kayaking instructor yells. I was given a kayaking experience as a gift and, having never been at such close proximity to the ocean depths, my sense of sight feels heightened. It’s like putting on a pair of glasses after years of blurry vision.

The submarine peeks out of the water with beady eyes, only bits of metal slyly sticking out in the harbour. It looks as though it is actually lounging in a pool of oil, suffocating from lying so still. Cornering out of the harbour the great blue swallows us whole; grey blue-black water surrounds us, lapping us up into its vast colours. There is a sailboat or two slowly edging towards us, entering the harbour after a long day spent cruising on the ocean with windless sails. The pink sky plays on the resting water, watercolours of blue, black and shades of pink. In the distance Roman Rock is but a nipple on the horizon enveloped in the pink of dusk. Floating towards the old iron lighthouse, seals chase each other below in the clear turquoise.

“Now at your left is the lighthouse,” Derek indicates to the iron structure in the distance. From here it doesn’t carry any hint of grandeur or romance, I initially thought it was a buoy. On a night like this, the old structure is a piece of rough rust in an otherwise soft surrounding. Unsurprisingly, not a lot of time is spared for the tower as Derek wants to show us the penguins.

The goal of the trip was to be a lazy Sundown-kayak exploring the harbour and False Bay. Derek has clearly learnt what showstoppers his visitors enjoy. Floating, searching for the birds, I can’t help but think back on the lighthouse. It’s such a lonely, abandoned structure housing years of heavy memories, seeming old and out of place in such a calm surrounding. What histories lie locked in its body? Why is it even there? A light moves over us, and six-seconds later it returns. The beast has woken. Frankly, I’m surprised it’s still alive…

In 1823 Joseph Nourse, Commodore from the Royal Navy wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Admiralty in London, pleading for a lighthouse in False Bay. He based it on his concern for British ships entering the harbour at night. According to the Simons Town Historical Society’s notes about Roman Rock, named after the lighthouse’s placement atop a rock in False Bay, construction started in 1861 on the structure and was finished four years later. On the rock, a four feet concrete wall was built as it completely disappears in high tide. On top of the wall, cast iron rings shipped from England and bolted together created the tower. The first three metres of the tower was then also filled with concrete in order to withstand the surge of the sea. Over the years the rock itself had to be reinforced multiple times with concrete as it has started cracking under the pressure of the tower’s weight. Fearing the stability of the structure, the tower was never inhabited.

Two men had to row to the rock every day, passing their time fishing on the man-made outcrop. The keepers were paid some of the highest salaries in service, competing with those of high-ranking officers. In 1900 a severe storm hit the bay with a relentless South-Easterly wind acting as an instigator. The two lighthouse keepers were stranded in the iron enclosure for two weeks without any luxuries to speak of before they were relieved. A mere 14 years later Roman Rock was converted to electricity. Today no-one fishes from the balustrades anymore, no-one even visits it, save to reinforce the rock.

Delving deeper into the heritage of Roman Rock, I pay visit — or rather homage —  to the final resting place of the lighthouse as of old. Outside the Simons Town Museum, a large man is raising the South African flag in front of the old house converted to museum. There are old canons and an enormous old anchor lying in the parking lot of the establishment. Next to the double-doored entrance at the top of the stairs, stands a giant, yellow lightbulb made of three-inch glass, a piece of memorabilia of days gone past.

“You know this is the original light of Roman Rock?” Eddie Weselo, museum manager, excitedly explains. Eddie and his wife Daphne aren’t formal employees of the museum. They only act as volunteers on Saturday and Sunday to relieve the week-time caretakers. Eddie’s passion is the ocean and all the adventure tales of old around it. While Eddie is busy ogling the flag, Daphne softly boasts that Eddie is the chairperson of the Simon’s Town Historical Society. When he tells stories of bits and bobs of history, he starts  them all with the familiar “You know”, the middle-aged man becoming like a little boy again, trying to squeeze as many stories as possible into one breath.

“You know a man named Maclear brought the lighthouses here 160 years ago? He put one at the top of Cape Point on the mountain. He said he wanted the whole world to see it. Then there was a great mist one night and a ship wrecked itself on the rocks. One hundred and eighty people lost their lives that night. He then had to build another lighthouse at the foot of Cape Point, did you know that’s why Cape Point has two lighthouses?”

The museum building is known around town as “The residency”,  having served previous lives as a hospital, post office, school, customs house, police station, gaol and magistrate’s court. Inside the museum, individual rooms are designated to historical periods/events. Walking through the house you wander through the early history room, the churches, schools, hospitals and cemeteries room, the military room, the people of Simon’s Town room, the Africa station room, the Royal navy room  to end your trip in the shipwreck room.

The shipwreck room is the last room of the house, in an old sun porch with giant windows looking over the harbour. Although the room is decorated with the same generic decor of ropes and lifeboats generally found in seaside pubs and restaurants, it exudes a sombre mood. Against the wall is a long yellowing list of ships that sank in False Bay over the past 300 years. There are 44 stories of suffering that hang on the wall, dated between 1720 and 1914. Perhaps the most tragic tale of how wrecking was a norm, is that of the SS UMHAHLI inscribed on a plague inside the “Flotsam and Jetsam” exhibition, among rows of sealed bottles with unopened letters:

“on the calm night of 15 September 1909 the SS UMHAHLI struck Albatross Rock. The only casualty was a baby when the lifeboat capsized.” 

Another haunting memory is that of the SS Clan Stuart, wrecked off Vishoek on 21 November, 1914. Being holed on a rock right off the shore, all passengers got to safety with plenty time to spare . Later they even came back to the wreck where the wheelhouse was taken to the Glencairn Hotel. Its captain, Admiral Woodley, lived in it with his wife until their death. Today, last remnants of the Clan Stuart are still visible off the shore in Glencairn opposite the Oil Refinery. With only the engine block sticking out, it looks like a beached submarine.

“By the time a ship realises it’s heading for trouble when in the bay, its already too late,” Lieutenant Chris Walters explains as he mans the Simons Town Naval Museum for the day. Lieutenant Walters looks as though he should be in his late thirties, based on his mannerisms and way of talking. His skin looks red and leathery from constant sun exposure. To accompany his red, hardened skin, he has red hair and a quickly receding hairline, with eyes that wander  erratically as he speaks of ships. His gingered complexion and double-jointed knees seem awkward here in an air-conditioned room, so far from the water. He couldn’t look more like a sailor.

“The sharpest turn a ship of serious size can make is 30 degrees. So it steams forward for a couple of precious minutes before it will make any significant change in direction,” the Lieutenant furthers. Walking through the naval museum there is a sense of intense pride, mangled with intense fear. Just as the shipwreck room, the museum is flooded with replicas of ships that have seen their end in the cold Cape waters. There are keys, steering wheels and bells fished out from the ocean, all pristinely polished, ready to go back into active duty at the drop of a hat.


 “The sharpest turn a ship of serious size can make is 30 degrees. So it steams forward for a couple of precious minutes before it will make any significant change in direction”


The museum opens out onto the old sailor’s chapel on the way to the downstairs exhibition. Three boys run past the chapel, hardly even noticing their footsteps banging on the thinning wooden floor. They are eager to get to the submarine simulator one floor below. Stampeding on, I hear their voices screaming  as they notice an out-of-service helicopter hanging in anticipation three feet from the ground. The ignored chapel, however, seems to carry a lot more suspense than any heavy machinery ever could. There are 13 wooden pews on either side, with 12 pews right at the front reserved for high-ranking officers. All the pews are abandoned, but still carry the imprint of years of seated soldiers. The wall to the left is embedded with large slide-open windows opening towards the harbour, the other wall was once white but has since been edited by unknown hands, showing a black and white mural of sailors fighting a dragon.

Today, the past dangers of sailing have changed, with the introduction of radio, radar and constant off-shore communication. With the last recorded  wreckage in the Cape Peninsula happening in 1914, one can even question the need to have rusting towers such as Roman Rock alight all night long. With the advent of technology, the sailors’ ‘dragon’ has been tamed. But it is the fear that remains. Walking through the two museums littered with old steering wheels, ropes and life buoys, it is clear that the sea still has a stronghold over the community… a community that has grown on waves.

At the Simons Town Museum the largest exhibits are those of the navy, the shipwrecks and stories about its first inhabitants who arrived by boat. Downstairs is one small room, a forgotten basement left almost empty, labelled “Trade and Industry”. Inside the small, windowless room you find a laundry, a dentist’s chair, a saw and two old Singer sewing machines. Yes, dentists are important to any town, but it can be highly doubted whether that was the industry on which Simon’s Town was built on. Shipwrecks, soldiers and the sea, that’s what the history seems to be bleeding with, and that’s possibly why it wants to be denied so badly. That history has passed, but the memory, the skeleton remains. Driving to Simon’s Town, past Glencairn, a  memento peeks from the shoreline, remnants of the SS Clan Stuart peeking out like the monster of Lochness. Fear is a powerful memory.

Clive Stegman, an 83-year-old man has lived around the Cape bays his entire life. He is sitting at the pier of the Simons Town Harbour, watching the semi-emerged submarine amongst sailboats. Clive grew up in Kommetjie, got married in Hout Bay, worked around Kalk Bay and Fish Hoek, and now for the past 15 years settled in Simons Town where his children live. “The sea is in my blood,” the wrinkled man says in a deep, hoarse voice. The bright sun makes the wrinkles etched into his coffee-coloured skin flow deep over his face.


“Now I don’t know if you’re religious, but God, I swear I saw the Lord that night as we stumbled on. I always thought old Roman Rock as a hideous thing, but God, ever since that night my knees buckle every time I see it. We wouldn’t have wrecked but we needed guidance, and that light was Lord himself telling us where to go.”


“My dream was always to be a ship engineer, I got into a programme to become a technician so I started working on the fishing boats to bring in some extra money. It sounds like a horrible job but I loved going out in the trawlers in the morning.  It’s something special to be on this little floating thing in the middle of the ocean. Back then though, we thought we were the ones in control, we thought we managed the waters,” Clive laughs a low laugh coming from the depths of his memory.

The last time Clive set foot on a boat was October 1931 on the Molly Rossouw. After a successful catch the crew on the trawler decided to have a party. “We brought in the Snoek to Kalk Bay, and went out again. We thought we were being quite fancy, like the rich yachts, you know.” Clive takes a few seconds to chuckle and continues, “Before we realised it, we were on the wrong side of Cape Point, it was dark, there was a wind picking up from the South, mist was rolling in, and we were drunk.” Clive and the crew of the Molly Rossouw knew the general direction they had to go, but didn’t exactly  know where their endpoint was. “Now we needed to get to Kalk Bay, but at Simons Town we started panicking as the waters became quite rough. Now I don’t know if you’re religious, but God, I swear I saw the Lord that night as we stumbled on. I always thought old Roman Rock as a hideous thing, but God, ever since that night my knees buckle every time I see it. We wouldn’t have wrecked but we needed guidance, and that light was Lord himself telling us where to go.” After the experience Clive left the trawlers and became a harbour technician. He doesn’t exactly specify why the drunk night in the fog stole his sea legs. Instead, he vaguely states, “The ocean is a wild beast, and God showed me the way that night.”

Kayaking past the old iron structure on this quiet night, Roman Rock is rusting away, being taken by the ocean just like the SS Clan Stuart. Right underneath us, where the seals are chasing each other in the pink of the sunset an electric cable runs to the shore to keep the withering lighthouse burning. One hundred years ago, two men rowed to this lighthouse every day through calm and storm on a heavy, wooden rowboat, taking on responsibility for every ship and crewman to pass it t with every dip of their oar. In the two-week storm that ravaged the seas in 1900, these men stayed in a cold wet tin-can ensuring safe passage for hundreds. Now a cable runs underwater and no-one would ever need to return to the Rock. Why then keep it at all? Simons Town was birthed by the ocean, and many returned back to the ocean through its water doors. Those two men kept the town, the life of the city, the harbour alive by ensuring the stroke of a match against a gas-lit lightbulb. Taking the rotting iron and crumbling rock apart would offend their legacy.

Why is it even here? Because. Some histories need to be respected and honoured, and more than everything, some stories need a physical remainder as reminder of how brutal the soft blue-black-turquoise waters can be.

 

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