Shine a light on South Africa’s lighthouse-keeping heritage

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The Transnet National Ports Authority (TNPA) is highlighting South Africa’s 180-year history of lighthouse protection this Heritage Month. The TNPA is mandated by the National Ports Act No. 12 of 2005 to provide, operate and maintain lighthouses and other maritime aids to navigation (AtoN) in ports and along the South African coast.
littoral. TNPA, through its Lighthouse and Navigational Systems (LNS) business unit, operates and maintains:

  • The 45 lighthouses of South Africa
  • The Automatic Identification System (AIS) network, a coastal network of AIS base stations that provides real-time information on ships calling at the eight commercial ports, as well as on ships traveling along the coast; and
  • An AtoN service to the eight commercial ports through the installation, commissioning and maintenance of buoys, quay lights, breakwaters, range and sector lights, and fog signals (182 buoys, 144 lights).

South Africa’s first lighthouse keeper
South Africa’s first lighthouse keeper was employed in 1841 at Green Point Lighthouse in Cape Town, the oldest in the country. He was in charge of taking care of the light which was supplied with oil and then with gas, and the optics which was turned by means of a clockwork mechanism driven by a weight. He lived in makeshift accommodation next to the tower.

Records show that lighthouse keepers served at 27 South African lighthouses, as well as two lighthouses along the Namibian coast. Island lighthouses – Bird Island off Gqeberha in the Eastern Cape; and Dassen Island off Yzerfontein and Robben Island off Cape Town in the Western Cape – have proven to be the most difficult for lighthouse keepers and their families.

Island life
Supplies and provisions were delivered monthly by harbor tugs and were often delayed due to adverse weather and ocean conditions. It was very difficult to grow fresh produce due to the limited access to fresh water, and steak was a rare luxury. The children were sent to boarding school on the mainland. There were rarely other humans on the islands, and the isolation was suffocating at times.

But there were also many advantages. There was a plentiful supply of the freshest crayfish, mussels and fish. The children spent their school holidays in a haze of sun and spray. When helicopters replaced tugs to deliver supplies and visiting maintenance personnel, lighthouse keepers’ wives could visit the mainland each month to do their own errands and meet friends for a cup of tea and a chat. Lighthouse keepers traveled to the mainland once a year on annual leave, and relief keepers replaced them.

Dedication to duty
The lighthouse keeper’s life progressed at a slower pace, but the days – and nights – were full of activity. There were oil lamps to fill and wicks to trim. When gas lanterns were introduced there were paraffin reservoirs to be maintained and replaced. There were lantern lenses and panes, slippery with the salty sea air, to be cleaned, and countless brass linings and linings to be polished. There were hundreds of gears and levers to clean and grease, and diesel generators to maintain. Painting and varnishing were seemingly endless tasks, as the harsh sea air corroded the walls, doors, frames and ladders. Outside the lighthouse there were bushes and shrubs to be pruned at regular intervals to deter snakes and other local wildlife from settling in the tower or living quarters. At night, the lighthouse keepers watched the light and wound up the heavy clockwork mechanisms at regular intervals.

These were used to rotate the light continuously and at the correct speed. Lighthouse keepers also performed an important surveillance function and participated in numerous rescue and rescue operations along the coastline. When the SA Seafarer ran aground on the night of July 1, 1966 just in front of Green Point Lighthouse in Cape Town, the rotating lens stopped and light was focused on the ship to help helicopter crews carry people. on board to safety.

The impact of technology
Technology has come a long way from the early years of lighthouse keeping and has dramatically reduced the need for traditional lighthouse keepers. Incandescent bulbs and powerful LED lights replaced the original oil and gas lanterns, and electricity replaced the original weight clockwork mechanisms. Sensors determine when to turn lights on at sunset and off at dawn, and when to turn fog signals on and off. Automatic lamp change mechanisms replace faulty lamps while the headlight is in operation, and standby diesel generators provide back-up power in the event of a power failure. The “internet of things” allows technicians to remotely monitor lights, as well as solar photovoltaic systems used in some lighthouses.

Today, 45 lighthouses operate along the country’s coast, from Port Nolloth in the west to Sodwana Bay in the east, and all are fully automated.

South Africa’s last lighthouse keepers
There are only nine lighthouse keepers in service today:

1.Wayne Brown at Cape Columbine Lighthouse in Paternoster, Western Cape;
2. Peter Saaise at Robben Island Lighthouse off Cape Town, Western Cape;
3. Cyril Mkhulisi and Russell Solomons at the Slangkoppunt Lighthouse in Kommetjie, Western Cape;
4. Hubert Visser at Danger Point Lighthouse in Gansbaai, Western Cape;
5. Martin Peterson at Great Fish Point Lighthouse near Port Alfred, Eastern Cape;
6. Joseph Kannemeyer at Hood Point Lighthouse in East London, Eastern Cape;
7. Fuzile Komanisi at Mbashe Lighthouse near Elliotdale, Eastern Cape; and
8. Raymond Wyness at Green Point Lighthouse near Scottburgh, KwaZulu-Natal.

They maintain the towers and optics under their charge and assist visiting maintenance teams with projects and tasks where possible. They welcome visitors and overnight guests, and gladly share their vast knowledge and experiences. They build relationships with customers and help connect TNPA to the communities we serve. They embody the spirit of ubuntu because they understand the true value of respect, trust and teamwork.

Image: Unsplash


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