Back in the day when oil lamps and clockwork mechanisms were used, lighthouse keepers played a crucial role in maintaining these beacons of safety that served as a navigating aid to ships around treacherous coastlines. Over the centuries, their role has changed as a result of technological advances but an air of mystique and romance still surrounds these keepers of the light.
Local lighthouse keeper Colin Oliver from Mount Pleasant, has more than 20 years’ experience at various lighthouses along South Africa’s coast, and is currently stationed at the Danger Point Lighthouse in Gansbaai. With more and more lighthouses becoming automated, Colin may well be one of the last to man this lighthouse when he retires next year.
We are fascinated by lighthouses not only because of their historical significance but also their poetic setting in wild, beautiful, and often lonely places. Colin gave me a glimpse into the isolated life of a lighthouse keeper, at the mercy of wind and waves.
He had always hankered after the sea, starting his maritime career in the torpedo section of the Simon’s Town naval base. From here he took to fishing before joining the then Transnet National Ports Authority in 1985. He was stationed first at the Danger Point Lighthouse, before being sent to a lighthouse keeper training facility at the Cape Columbine Lighthouse on the West Coast.
After graduating, Colin did stints at various lighthouses up and down the coast, including the Cape Agulhas, Great Fish Point and Dassen Island lighthouses.
Probably the most interesting posting was the lighthouse on Dassen Island, situated 9 km off the coast of Yzerfontein, which was home to Colin and his wife, Angela for three years. It was quite a radical change – penguins and birds for neighbours, no other human contact save for two nature conservationists and their families, and a helicopter trip every six weeks to do the shopping. So how do you fill your days when stuck on some remote island battered by the weather, including gale-force winds and high waves?
On an average day, Colin got up at 05:00 to start assessing local weather conditions – which included visibility, clouds, swell and rainfall – in order to be ready when the Meteorology Bureau and later Cape Town International Airport officials called for the report at 08:00. Once the weather had been reported, the lighthouse work started. This involved checking oil, diesel and fuel levels, and various other maintenance tasks that kept the lighthouse and the premises in shipshape condition. The light had to be perfect, so the lens would be polished, as would all the brass fittings. Lunch was from 12:00 until 12:30, a home-cooked meal that often included locally-sourced fish.
The afternoon would be taken up with much of the same, with the occasional outing in the company bakkie to collect fuel from the jetty at House Bay. In bad weather, when it was too dangerous for the helicopter to fly, the boat brought food supplies in addition to fuel. At night they watched TV and with the excellent reception on the island, they had no problem getting their favourite soapies and keeping abreast of news from the mainland. An added advantage of life on the island was that there were no electricity or water woes – they generated their own power and collected rain water.
Being cut off from life on the mainland didn’t bother Angela, who said she had adapted to the isolation and had come to enjoy the tranquil life of a lighthouse keeper’s wife. Of course, it took a lot of planning when you were only able to shop every six weeks. The secret of success was to pick the brains of those who had gone before, she said. The result was a well-stocked freezer, long-life milk, and plenty of spices for those fresh fish dishes. The vegetable garden planted by the nature conservation staff also supplied them with some fresh produce, so life was simple but good.
Catching up with family was a huge treat as they were usually transported to the island in the “chopper”, which the nephews and nieces loved. Another highlight on the island was New Year’s Eve, when Colin and Angela would go to the top of the lighthouse to watch the celebratory fireworks and flares at midnight over Table Bay.
Angela also found a niche for herself helping the nature conservation crews with washing and caring for oil-drenched penguins and birds. In 2000, when the MV Treasure cargo ship sank between Dassen and Robben Islands, causing a hazardous oil spill, even Colin took time out to help rescue the hundreds of birds and penguins that washed ashore. The healthy birds were sent to Port Elizabeth, and those that were in bad shape went to SANCCOB.
On completion of their three years on Dassen Island, Colin returned to his first posting at the Danger Point Lighthouse where he has been for the past 18 years. While the hands-on work of the lighthouse keeper has decreased significantly, Colin is still responsible for keeping the station shipshape. Colin and Angela got married at the Danger Point Lighthouse in 1987, so it is without a doubt their favourite lighthouse.
If you are fortunate enough to visit the lighthouse, Colin will jump at the chance to dispense some historical gems on its workings. Weights, gauze wicks (which needed to be changed several times during the night) and gas cylinders were all part of lighthouse history. The very first lighthouses used a system of weights to turn gears which in turn rotated the light. This of course took muscle power to hoist them to the top again, and was a process which happened several times a night.
Apart from giving visitors to the lighthouse a vivid account of both its history and its workings, Colin oversees the day-to-day running of the self-catering cottage that is available for hire. He also makes a point of being there to open the gates for the walkers taking part in the Lighthouse 2 Lighthouse Ladies Walk every year (when the lighthouse is usually closed to visitors) as they arrive at their destination after a gruelling 100 km coastal hike.
Danger Point Lighthouse stands on a rocky promontory named after the HMS Birkenhead, a British troopship that was shipwrecked on the submerged rock (now called Birkenhead Rock) about 500 metres offshore in 1852, with the loss of 445 souls. Although several vessels had sunk in these treacherous waters prior to the Birkenhead, it took another 43 years before the lighthouse was commissioned in January 1895. It is an octagonal masonry tower painted white, fitted with a white lantern house and red dome. It stands at a height of 18.3 metres. The character of its light is group flashing 3 every 40 seconds.