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World Inside the Beacon’s Eye

Technology and cost-cutting are putting the lights out on the old men of the sea – and closing the book on their stories of far-flung places. Lighthouses and their keepers may be isolated, but the histories they accumulate speak tellingly of wider events.

Original publication: Sunday Times Lifestyle, January 1999.

Image courtesy of Kim Ludbrook

When storms are violent, the dirt road along the shore vanishes underneath waves that seethe up into the bushes and grass. These cross-border raids by the ocean would unnerve some people, but Joseph Kannemeyer has learned to live with the sense of vulnerability they bring. ‘The island belongs to the sea,’ he shrugs, ‘and if the sea wants it, he’ll take it.’

Joseph, 32, is one of two lightkeepers based on Robben Island, and he’s proud to work on a landmark famously associated with the liberation movement. When he moved into South Africa’s own Alcatraz a year ago, friends and relatives were eager to visit him, particularly his cousins, who’d been incarcerated elsewhere as political prisoners.

‘A weight fell off them when they got here,’ Joseph recalls. ‘They had peace of mind.’

Not for long, though. As with all his visitors, their elation turned into listless anxiety after barely a morning. ‘It gets very quiet here,’ Joseph says, leaning in his Portnet overalls on the lighthouse’s balcony railing.

Beneath the tower and its peeling walls, a few kilometres of bushveld unfold hot and silent towards the island’s opposite end, where the prison lies out of view. Here and there the undulating bushveld is broken by the corrugated roofs of disused buildings; closer at hand is a six-pack of tanks containing desalinated water, and alongside it, virtually consumed by vegetation, is a concrete blockhouse built in World War II. In the distance a tour bus slopes down a gravel road towards the village centre.

Once a month Joseph or his co-lightkeeper sails to the mainland for supplies; occasionally one of them fills in at other lighthouses when staff are ill or on leave. Aside from that, Joseph lives in solitude with his wife and children, watching TV after work or gardening in his house.

He walks around the balcony to display the view from the other side of the lighthouse’s glass dome: a forceful contrast. As flat and narrow as the island is, the mainland is massive and Olympian. Table Mountain bulges up from the ocean to fill the sky, and a megapolis shimmers at its base. Yachts and container boats ply the waters of Table Bay, which crackle inside grids of shipping routes, of commerce and leisure, and of invisible lines shooting over the horizon to connect with the rest of the buzzing planet.

Joseph turns his back on this to view the island again, known as the SAS Robbeneiland when the Navy controlled it in the 1950s. ‘Sometimes it feels as if the place’s floating on the sea with just water underneath it; other times it doesn’t feel like I’m on an island. There’s people, cars, shops. It’s as if I’m on land.’

It’s as easy to forget the mainland as it once forgot the island, a place of outcasts since Bartolomeu Dias first rounded the Cape in 1488. Famous as a prison under Dutch, British and apartheid rule, Robben Island is less well-known as a nineteenth-century banishment site for other marginalised people, so-called ‘lunatics’ and ‘lepers’. Joseph gazes from the balcony, and the island – a near ghost town of rusting merry-go-rounds and faded Coca-Cola signs – closes in upon itself.

But not even an island is an island unto itself. However marginal, the island’s been central to the power-struggles on the mainland, and its built-up section is inscribed with traces of metropolitan history.

For instance, alongside the newer government buildings on the town’s main road, with its halls and cream-coloured houses (some inhabited), is a garrison headquarters dated 1841. Further along, past stop signs one could ignore despite the occasional bakkie or minibus, lies an overgrown stone church, seemingly transplanted from rural England: gouting from its walls is a gigantic bougainvillea bush.

Though isolated, the island is marked by debris of larger histories, by its involvement with the outside world. As a prison guide says, ‘Each of us contains a bit of everyone we’ve met; no one’s an individual.’ These words apply equally to the island, yet they have a particular relevance for Joseph and others in his lonely profession.

Minto Hill, where Robben Island’s lighthouse has stood since 1865, is reportedly where Van Riebeeck had pitch burnt to warn ships at night. But the site, arguably, of South Africa’s first luminous beacon will survive to see its last lighthouse-keepers leave someday, made redundant by automation. Three-man stations were once the rule; only two remain. A decade or so ago South Africa had 23 manual lighthouses; 11 are left. When Joseph watches waves climb the shoreline, he represents all lightkeepers, solitary people in often solitary places, all awaiting the outside world.

‘It’s a slowly dying trade,’ says Henny Swart, lightkeeper at Cape St Blaize, a headland overlooking Mossell Bay. He seems to have been dogged by history. He was a fitter on steam locomotives, then moved to lighthouses when locos died out; he was stationed at Walvis Bay lighthouse, then moved back to South Africa when Namibian independence came.

‘A lotta staff couldn’t cope in Walvis because of the desolation, desert and fog,’ Henny says. ‘I mean, there’d be fog for a week, and the foghorn never stopped blowing. The place did bother me for three years, but after four years I got used to it. After six it didn’t matter.’ For him, lightkeeping ‘isn’t a job, it’s a way of life,’ and says ‘it is romanticism – is there such a word? – that captures the job’s essence.’

For the past two years Henny hasn’t had much isolation, having been based in Mossell Bay. His office watch room, adjacent to the tower, contains radio equipment, barographs, cloud charts, and nautical knick-knacks such as perlemoen ashtrays and a crayfish entombed in a Perspex block.

Lightkeepers, Henny explains, are responsible for safety at sea, and are plugged into a global circuitry that regulates shipping movements. Each lighthouse emits characteristic signals, both from its lantern and its radio-direction-finder masts, and lightkeepers often assume port control duties or co-ordinate rescues with the NSRI. In addition, they log meteorological data and maintain the grounds – in this case, a tightly-packed encampment of out-buildings and rock-gardens. Henny works normal office hours, but lives on site on 24-hour standby.

The light itself is reached by way of a series of willowy, bendy ladders that rise dizzyingly higher from one platform to the next. The glass dome, all brass fittings and filigree ledges, is a stifling capsule buzzing with flies; the noise of the wind is muted inside, but the dome registers its force and amplifies its reverberations.

In the centre is the optic: light bulbs housed in huge lenses that concentrate the beams. The optic rests on a pedestal that was once rotated by clockwork weights, but is today motor-driven.

The lantern’s interior is hallucinatory. Within the rainbow dispersions of its prisms, one sees worlds inside the beacon’s eye, inverted images of sea and sky outside, as though the lighthouse not only projects light outwards but absorbs the unfolding history its beams irradiate.

The whitewashed lighthouse complex has the air of a Spanish fort, an appropriately Mediterranean ambience for a town that commemorates the maritime pioneers of Portuguese colonialism in the names of its streets and service stations. Arrayed beneath the lighthouse, Mossell Bay offers a vista of the picturesque and ordinary: caravan parks, old-fashioned fishermen’s cottages, car lots, industrial zones …

When the wind rises, it rattles guy-ropes on flagpoles and whips up the tinsel on Christmas lights over the streets; it reminds one that the place belongs to the sea. Like many coastal towns on the southern Cape, Mossell Bay seems transitory, liable to be washed away in a powerful-enough storm, and the displays in its museum bespeak an awareness of the catastrophe the sea can unleash: chunks of flotsam and yellowing photographs of drowned crew document one shipwreck after the other.

Most famous of these disasters is the sinking of the HMS Birkenhead off Danger Point in 1852. Over 400 sailors and soldiers died when it struck a reef while shipping reinforcements to a frontier war in the Eastern Cape. Danger Point lighthouse was built a good forty years later, but even recently bulldozers happened to unearth skeletons nearby, identified by buckles and shreds of clothing as Birkenhead crew who’d been hastily buried there 146 years ago. The hectares of rubbery, puff adder-strewn undergrowth around the lighthouse conceal untold numbers of such graves.

‘I could write books about the funny things I’ve seen, Bibles about the bad stuff,’ says George Peach, no stranger to sea disasters after 31 years in lighthouses. Lightkeepers are lonesome nomads, and George’s three-year stint at Danger Point is nearing its end; Cape Columbine on the West Coast is his next transfer. Staff-rotations are a perennial bugbear, particularly for lightkeepers with school-going children, but George’s have all grown up.

‘This lighthouse can take a punch,’ he declares, and by the looks of it, so can he. But can his profession? ‘It’ll never die out completely,’ he argues, maintaining that a human presence will always be needed on lighthouses in the event of technical failure or crime-threats. ‘If no one was here, even the foundations would get stolen.’

Still, he admits, the lighthouse fraternity of his youth is nearly extinct. ‘In the olden days, small towns considered the lightkeeper as the main man, your day-and-night boy there to help you. If there was a party, he was No. 1 on the list. Today they don’t even know about him, or want to. But I’m still proud to keep my light burning.’

While George speaks, it sounds as if a party’s happening in the tower upstairs. But it’s just the echo; it’s just George and his memories.

However, his friend and contemporary, Mervyn White, has no lack of visitors: some 50,000 come his way annually. Having worked at every base from Swakopmund to Cape St Lucia, Mervyn, 51, has climbed more flights of ladders than he’s received visitors (‘climbing gives you a tight arse’), and today he’s lightkeeper at Cape Agulhas, Africa’s southernmost point and the only place on the continent where the sun both rises and sets in the ocean.

It’s windy, too. ‘The wind does stop here -- to change direction,’ says Mervyn, one of the profession’s self-confessed ‘characters’. Before leaving the lighthouse – a spare white block surmounted by the tower and sided by chimneys in which sheep fat was once melted – he checks the wind direction ‘so that I know which way to lean.’

The town is a holiday and retirement retreat, but the lighthouse, built in 1848, predates its oldest building by 75 years; and even older than it are the Khoisan ‘vyvers’ along the coastline, rock pools made to trap fish when the tide receded. In this early desolation, lightkeepers collected driftwood to stoke their fires and buried shipwrecked bodies on the grounds. To this day the figurehead of an unknown ship stands outside the building, and George has discovered wooden slates marking graves, among them the burial site of a lightkeeper’s daughter, taken by diphtheria in the 1900s.

‘I don’t think we’ve got 10 years left,’ Mervyn remarks. ‘As the guys retire, they probably won’t be replaced. When I started, it was completely different. Every lighthouse had a senior lightkeeper and two assistants, and they were gods unto themselves. Trainees were non-entities. You’d wash the rings off their bathtubs and clean their bucket toilets: all you did was paint and clean.

‘The strictest lightkeeper I met used to say lightkeepers married girls from the gutter – then dragged them down to their own level.’

Mervyn’s generation of trainees tended to meet prospective wives in one of two places: through the telephone exchange, where they issued daily weather reports, or on lighthouses themselves. But certain lightkeepers took extreme measures to safeguard their daughters. One old Captain Haddock refused to allow trainees inside the car with his daughters on trips to town, relegating them to the boot instead.

‘It took a special kind of man – no, it took a special woman to live on a lighthouse,’ observes Mervyn, a widower of 10 years. ‘If it wasn’t for their wives, men wouldn’t have had a chance. It was the womenfolk who had to put up with the isolation, get nappies dry and worry about sick kids when there was no doctor. It was the womenfolk who had to heat irons on stoves because there wasn’t electricity. They ran the base.

‘It worked because they knew what to expect when they got married. Their fathers and grandfathers had been lightkeepers. Virtually everyone was related.’

The end of an era? Not quite. ‘This should’ve been the southern tip of Africa,’ says Peter Dennit, surveying the exquisite majesty of Cape Point, its plunging cliffs and shattering waves. ‘Something special’s happening in the landscape.’ Peter is senior lightkeeper here, and if this, the second last three-man station in South Africa, will someday be the last to be manned at all, it’s the base that will both co-ordinate automated lighthouses and carry the imperilled human tradition into the future.

The high-tech watch room, with its telemetry systems and 360-degree view, stands high above the sea. Further below is the lighthouse; outside is the world: scores of tourists. And behind, an entire continent extends out of sight. No island outpost, the watch room is fixed to the mainland as if it were its helm, steering the land unafraid into the roaring waters.


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