15. Riding the Kaapse Vlakte (Cape Flats) Railway line.

Our excellent railway transport system took us to some areas that were only accessible by train, and I always had one foot on Athlone railway station ready to go to the beach during our warm Christmas summer holidays. The train ride itself was an experience that I never tired of. The whole ride took in the Cape Flats that consisted of towns, suburbs, small holding farms, farmsteads, orchards, vineyards, forests, rivers and always close in the background the majestic Table Mountain with its appendages of Devils Peak and the Twelve Apostles. You knew you were nearing the ocean when the train arrived at False Bay railway station, and although you couldn’t see the bay or sea there you would smell the sea air. Then it was on to the beaches of Muizenberg (Dutch: Mouse Mountain) Saint James, Kalk Bay (Lime Bay), Fish Hook, again appropriately named because it was the end of the double train line, Glen-cairn and then Simon’s Town that was the train terminus and also a naval yard. The beauty of some of those beaches was that you stepped off the station platform directly onto the beach, and the access was due to the structured overhead tracks that allowed the trains to travel along the beachfront. Shade, shelter from wind and rain was provided by the continuous concrete concave tunnel canopies of the overhead railway track. At high tide when the seawater lapped those pillars it was a simple matter of moving further into the tunnels, and in the background always the encroaching mountains. Muizenberg, Kalk Bay, Froggy Pond, Glen Cairn, Kommetjie and Boulders Beach are the ones that our family frequented.  My dad was an adventurous man that would see him if he couldn’t take us there by bus or train, because he didn’t own a car, would hire someone’s truck or lorry to get us there. Camping gear, provisions and the family were packed on, and there were times when we would camp out for a week at some place that he thought we should experience and would enjoy…and we always did. He loved fishing, must have been the Portuguese in him, and on those trips we feasted on fresh fish and craw-fish, especially at Oudekraal. He was also the one who introduced us kids to mountaineering, and where ever there was a mountain slope in close proximity to where we were, he would be at it with us in tow. But that’s another interesting story for a blog on my mountaineering of Cape Town’s mountains.

A bit of ‘sending coals to Newcastle’ for my Cape Town compatriots through a bit of research done. Back in the 1600’s Muizenberg belonged to the Khoi people or Bushmen as they were also known. The Khoi were cattle farmers and they grazed their cattle in the area. In 1670 the Dutch East India Company who was in control of the Cape then took over the area around Muizenberg and established their own cattle farm. The reason being that passing ships had to be replenished and one of their requirements was meat.  Muizenberg got its name in 1743 when it became a military outpost under Sergeant Wynand Muis, and it was called Fort Muys. This name eventually evolved into the current name of Muizenberg. There was also ‘The Battle of Muizenberg’ on Sunday 7th August 1795 between the British forces and the VOC, and lasted six hours, from 2.00 pm until sunset. The campaign that followed ended five weeks later with the surrender of the Cape to the British. Only two days were spent skirmishing around Muizenberg — the balance of the action, such as it was, occurred around Sandvlei, Retreat, Steenberg and Wynberg. St James derives its name from the early St James Catholic Church, built in 1858 for the Filipino fishermen of Kalk Bay. In 1902 a Marine Aquarium and Research Station (the first in South Africa) was established in St James and it was here that Prof Gilchrist did valuable research that helped establish the Sea Fisheries Department.  The Marine Aquarium was demolished in 1954.

The village of Kalk Bay was probably established in the 17th century as a small community of lime-burners who used kilns to extract lime from the sea shell deposits for use in the construction of buildings, and mined the nearby deposits of limestone. Its name was derived from the Dutch term for lime.  In 1795 the Dutch located a small military outpost here, and after 1806 it began to flourish as a fishing village and whaling station. In the 1840′s a Philippine ship was wrecked off Cape Point and many of the sailors settled in Kalk Bay adding substantially to the small fishing community that had developed.  Over the years some Philippine sailors deserted from ships visiting the Cape joined them as well as emancipated slaves from the East Indies.  These Philippine settlers were Catholic and had to row by boat to Simonstown for mass that lead in 1858 to the St James Catholic Church being built nearby and of course giving the name to the area next to Kalk Bay in later years.  In later years a small mosque was built (located between Gatesville and Quarterdeck roads) by the Malaysian community that had also settled in the area. Certainly Kalk Bay’s next ‘great event’ was the arrival of the railway line in May 1883.  Previous to the railway line Kalk Bay was already a favourite spot for wealthy Cape Town business men from Wynberg and Rondebosch but the railway brought teeming crowds and the development of the fishing industry.  In February 1862 Mrs Ross, an English visitor to the Cape, described Kalk Bay as: “… a little fishing hamlet, consisting of a few old-fashioned Dutch houses, and a dozen or so of fishermen’s huts straggling for a mile between the rocky beach, and the precipitous mountains that rise up almost immediately behind it. It is accounted a very healthy place, and is the favourite resort of well-to-do people …” Cecil John Rhodes was of course the most famous person who had a holiday cottage here and it can be visited today as a museum.  Such was the growth that in 1895 Kalk Bay became a municipality and encouraged non-fishing families to settle in the area.  The increased population brought with it the resources to build the Silvermine Reservoir in the mountains above Kalk Bay as well as water borne sewage. In 1890 the railway line was extended to Simonstown.  This controversial decision had a major impact on the Kalk Bay community particularly the fishing community as the railway line cut through the middle of Fishery Beach.  This resulted in the winter storms smashing the fishing fleet against the stone viaduct and in May 1898 half the fishing fleet was lost as a result of a particularly bad storm.  Steel gantries were constructed as a temporary measure and a new breakwater and slipway was built between 1913 to 1919.  Once the harbour was built the entire character changed.  Steam-trawlers and other vessels safely docked in the harbour.  Fish was railed from Kalk Bay up to the rich markets of the Transvaal and Kimberley. Kalk Bay has one of the last remaining working harbours in South Africa with a fishing community proud of their heritage.  It is a community has remained intact throughout South Africa’s turbulent history, the only place in the country where all residents successfully opposed the Group Areas Act of the 1960s. 

 Fish Hoek or Vissers Baay or Visch Hoek appears on the earliest maps of the Cape. The arrival of European settlers in 1652 forced the indigenous population to leave the area, and during the 18th century farmers appeared in the Noordhoek area. Fish Hoek beach was used on an informal basis for whaling and fishing, but it was not until 1918 that it was laid out as a township. Until recently, Fish Hoek was a “dry” area – one of the conditions placed by the owner who gave the land for development was that there be no alcohol sold there. Nowadays, alcohol is available in restaurants and bars but there are no bottle stores.

Simon’s Town owes its name and original importance to Governor Simon van der Stel, who personally surveyed False Bay in 1687. He recommended Simon’s Bay as a sheltered safe winter anchorage – but it was only in 1741, after many shipwrecks in Table Bay, that the Dutch East India Company decreed that their vessels anchor in Simon’s Bay from May to August. The development of the small settlement, Simon’s Vlek, was slow due to the almost impossible access overland to Cape Town. However stores were built, ships repaired and fresh provisions supplied. A three-gabled hospital was built as well as a few more substantial houses. Simon’s Town, as we know it today, grew more rapidly with the establishment of the Royal Naval Base there soon after the second British occupation in 1806. Admiralty House, previously a private dwelling, dates from 1814. During the 19th century the Simon’s Town Naval Base was responsible for the care of Napoleon Bonaparte, exiled to St Helena Island, until his death in 1821. The Royal Navy was actively involved in combating the slave trade from African ports. The railway line eventually reached Simon’s Town in 1890 and furthered the development of the town and harbour. The Royal Navy was responsible for the care of the Boer prisoners-of-war in Bellevue Camp – now a golf course – during the Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902).

Kak Baai, the affectionate name given to Kalk Bay because there would always be a drol bobbing pass your face when swimming there. And what about the fine sea-sand that would blow up just when one was going to eat a home-made sandwich that would add a bit of girt to it, but who cared when it could be washed down with home-made ginger beer. Now there was a drink that our parents excelled in. My dad use to make that the night before, bottle and cork it by also tying string over the cork and around the neck so that it wouldn’t pop off. Wrong! During the night we would be awakened by a few popping off, which saw my dad having to re-cork them and the shaking train ride to Kalk Bay didn’t help neither. The arriving at False Bay station with the sea ozone drifting on the breeze through the open windows got us all excited, and when sighting the beaches of Muizenberg and Saint James we got the weird feeling of wanting to jump out of the train straight away. When arriving at Kalk Bay our little feet would be itching to get to the water which saw us begin to strip off within the overhead canopies no matter who was there to put on our cossies. What an exhilarating feeling when the water lapped our feet, and with hands held, which was a condition laid down by our parents or else, we would kick and splash to our hearts content. Wrapped in towels munching down always felt better than eating at home and you weren’t told to mind your manners. The next adventure was always to go with bucket to gather seashells, pebbles, starfish, crabs and periwinkles amongst the rocks so as to decorate the sandcastle next made. Our dad though use to confiscate the periwinkles for himself and go search for more so that he could take it home, boil them up with a handful of salt to toughen them up and then pick the flesh out with a pin. We also knew that our dad would be fishing off the ‘dock of the bay’, and that if there were trips around the bay, we would be on it. I think that’s where I found my love for the sea and my sea legs because I’ve never had the misfortune of getting seasick, even when being in the Merchant Navy and the ships sailed on were buffeted by monstrous waves on the ocean. Although having a love for the sea I have a confession to make, I can’t swim for the love of me and have never tried because I’ve never had the inclination to. I have taken and been in the water with my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, but only to let the waves wash over me. I have been caught out a few times when making my way to shore with my back to the waves and been knocked arse over tit, and although they find it funny, I don’t. Although our mum and dad packed heaps of foodstuffs we always seemed to run out because we became ravenous little pigs at any beach because of the invigorating sea air and our full out activities. We also knew that it was time to leave when told; “last swim” and they began to pack up. We then became grumble-bum kids with long faces, but to appease us, we always got an ice-cream cone from the café there. And then it was ‘home James’ for us rather tired but happy, contented kids, and we would sleep all the way home.


Muizenburg Beach in my time and it was called ‘The Snake Pit’. I wonder why?



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