V&A Waterfront Historical Walking Tour

Take a step back in time to a bygone era; to a time of sailors, seafarers and intrepid adventurers. Follow in the footsteps of South Africa’s founders when the majesty of the V&A Waterfront was a brave little jetty built by Jan van Riebeeck in 1654. Relive the frenzy of the shouts of the sailors and stevedores as we sidestep and expertly navigate the hustle and bustle of this iconic trading port’s vibrant history.

Stand proud as we salute HRH Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria’s second son, for inaugurating the V&A Waterfront’s construction as a 16-year-old midshipman in the Royal Navy in 1860.  Let us stand even prouder as we salute his return 10 years later for the official opening of the completed works in July1870.

Just as the pioneering Power Station bought the first light to Cape Town, so our registered tour guide will illuminate the history of the V&A Waterfront, regaling you with facts and anecdotes of South Africa’s most popular cultural destination. Book a Tour


A few of the Historical sights...

Clock Tower and Tidal Gauge

The three-storeyed red Clock Tower with its pointed Gothic windows and handsome clock imported from Edinburgh became a landmark as soon as it was completed in 1882 as the first Port Captain’s office. But it was a functional building in spite of its unique beauty.

On the ground floor was something few people knew about: the top end of a well-like tidal gauge which indicated the exact height of the tide at any given time for the benefit of the ships entering or leaving the docks, while the top floor was lined with mirrors so that the Port Captain could observe everything that went on in the surrounding docks merely by moving his eyes. There was also a reading room for ships’ captains.

In 1904 the Port Captain moved across the Cut to the new offices erected on the Pierhead, itself a fine example of the Arts and Crafts school of architecture.

In 1997 and 1998 the Clock Tower was restored by the historical architects Gwen and Gawie Fagan, the Edinburgh clock was refurbished and layers of grey paint were painstakingly peeled off to determine the tower’s original colour – today’s eye-catching red.

Did you know?

Over the years the Clock Tower has begun to lean slightly to one side. Today it is about 50mm – more or less the width of a cell phone – out of plumb. But a set of brass pins have been inserted in the brickwork of the building to ensure that any further movement can easily be spotted.

Port Captain's Office

The new port captain’s office (African Trading Post) 1904 -1977

Docklands are dynamic entities, continually expanding upwards and outwards as shipping needs change. The first Port Captain’s office was lodged in today’s iconic Clock Tower in 1882, but after the end of the 19th Century it had become too small, because by then about 5 000 people worked at the docks. So this handsome Edwardian building – the “New Port Captain’s Office”, as it was called – was erected in 1904.

The New Port Captain’s Office served till 1975. By then it, too, had become too small to handle the ever more complex day-to-day management of the docks, which covered everything from keeping track of the movement of large quantities of goods to the supervision of customs, labour and landing duties. It was replaced by the modernistic building at the end of the South Arm, on the outer edge of the Victoria Basin, which is now called “TNPA House”, standing for Transnet National Ports Authority.

This second office building had another important role. By 1904 the distant parts of the world were becoming ever more closely linked as telecommunications systems improved, and the Port Captain was at the forefront of these developments. The West Quay branch of the Post Office was located on the ground floor of the Port Captain’s building, which was directly linked by telephone to the Central Post Office in Adderley Street, and with the rest of the world, by undersea telegraph cables.

Alfred Basin

The Alfred Basin – completed in 1870 and opened by the Duke of Edinburgh.

You are now on the North Quay, looking at the inner Alfred Basin. Up to 1860 this area looked very different. It was all dry land, with the U-shaped Chavonnes Battery on a small promontory, ready to defend Table Bay. Then the battery’s left wing and everything behind it disappeared when the Alfred Basin was excavated and joined to the sea by the Cut – that is why the basin narrows at one end.  The stone was used to build the breakwater.

Initially there was much opposition to the project from the Eastern Cape parliamentarians, who felt their cities should have the docks instead of Cape Town, but Governor Sir George Grey managed to get the funding approved. By the time the docks were officially opened m mid-1871 - once again by the Duke of Edinburgh – they were already so busy that some ships had to lie at anchor in the roadstead for up to a week at a time.

Pride of place went to the mailships of the Union and Castle companies, Cape Town’s link with Europe, and they were given special berths. But not all Capetonians welcomed the harbour; the boatmen who had formerly ferried people and cargo to and from ships in the bay found themselves thrown out of work.

The ruins of the Chavonnes Battery can be seen at the Chavonnes Battery Museum on the other side of the basin below the Nedbank/BOE Building.

Robinson Dry Dock

The Robinson Dry Dock & Synchrolift – 1882

Named after the then Governor of the Cape, Sir Hercules Robinson, the Robinson Dock – Southern Africa’s first-ever dry dock – was opened on 20 October 1882 and is still in constant use after 130 years. Technically called a “graving dock” (deriving from the old technical term for the process of cleaning hulls), its primary task always been the inspection and maintenance of ships’ bottoms, and today it is the oldest functioning system of its kind in the world.

In its day it was a technological marvel, able to accommodate a ship displacing 8 000 tons – a large size in those days. It would be pumped full of water and then opened by removing a floating wall section, or caisson. When the ship had been warped inside by gangs of dockyard labourers, the caisson would be floated back into place and the dock pumped out, the vessel settling gradually on to massive, carefully positioned “keep blocks” to support the hull.

More than a century later the docking process remains almost exactly the same. The only real changes are that tugs manoeuvre the ship into the dock, and the pumps are driven by electricity instead of steam. But the reminders of the old days are still there – big yellow ships’ capstans with which vessels were winched in, and an old muzzle-loading cannon barrel bearing deep grooves worn into it by the towing cables.

Nowadays, docking a ship takes only a few hours. When the dock is empty, an operations manager prepares placing plans for the keep blocks, and then the dock is flooded, which takes about three hours. When the tugs have nudged the ship inside and positioned it correctly over the keep blocks, the caisson are floated into the entrance and 64 000 litres of water are pumped into it as ballast. Steadying beams are placed between the side of the ship and the dry dock walls to keep it upright and the water is pumped out.

The Waterfront Marina

The Waterfront Marina

The Marina Basin with its beautiful sail and powered pleasure craft is literally the V&A Waterfront’s “ground zero” – it started life as the quarry from which thousands of tons of rock were blasted and hacked for building the original breakwater and the Alfred and Victoria Basins. When its work was done, the quarry spent a century or so as the site of a labour compound, space for workshops and, from 1914 onwards, as an unsightly tank farm for oil storage.

This eyesore vanished in the early 1990s when the V&A Waterfront began turning it into the present-day Marina. It was a massive project in its own right. The company spent more than R4 million on having oil-industry specialists carry out a very comprehensive cleansing the soil of almost a century’s worth of contamination, then had to fill in the 19-metre-deep bottom to bring it up to the same depth as the Alfred Basin. By 1995 this had been done, and during the Royal Visit of that year Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, ceremonially detonated the explosive charges that let in the waters of the Alfred Basin.

It took two weeks for the huge new basin to fill. Then months of further construction followed. A blue bascule bridge (one whose roadway opens up from either side) was built over the gap to allow passage to the yachts with their tall masts. By November 1996 the work was complete, and Cape Town had gained an asset for its ocean-going visitors from near and far that it had never had before in its long life as the “Tavern of the Seas”.

By way of a lock, small boats from the marina can access the Rogge Bay Canal, which runs across the Foreshore to the International Convention Centre but is 3.5 metres above mean sea-level. Sea-water is pumped into the canal to create a natural flow, and after three days returns to the basin.

Two of Cape Town’s famous hotels – the internationally acclaimed Cape Grace and the glittering One & Only – enjoy spectacular views of the Marina and its surroundings, as do the V&A Waterfront’s 515 privately owned residential apartments, which were built between 2000 and 2009.

The Pump House and Power Station

The pump house and power station - 1882

Right next to the Robinson Dock is another African “first”: the Pumphouse. It contained the dynamo which on 25 April 1882 allowed the docks administration to switch on the continent’s first electric lights - 16 arc lamps, each of 2 000-candlepower – to illuminate the quays, warehouses and entrance to the docks, so that the frequently dangerous work there could go on 24 hours a day. It made a great difference – the Harbour Board reported to the Cape Parliament that it had “proved of great service, not only in minimising accidents, but in facilitating the working of vessels at night.” Cape Town itself was not electrified till 13 April 1895.

Did you know?

Kimberley, the city built on the mining of diamonds, only began using electric lights five months after the Waterfront.

The Treadmill

Breakwater convicts who caused trouble could be put in solitary confinement or, which was much worse, sentenced to hours or days on the treadmill. For 55 minutes in every hour a convict would hang on to an overhead bar while his feet kept the treadmill go at a steady pace. If he slacked off, the treads would crack him on the shins till the blood ran. Today the Breakwater treadmill – thought to be the only one in sub-Saharan Africa – sits in baleful silence next to the solitary-confinement cells, more than a century after being retired.