It was the menacing treadmill in the old Breakwater Prison, where punishment involved walking the wooden wheel for up to 55 minutes of every hour, that stuck in my mind after the Historical Walking Tour of the V&A Waterfront.
Thandikhaya Tsondwa was my guide, dressed gregariously in period costume, and he brought a fascinating new perspective to a stroll around the V&A Waterfront and elicited a few stares as well. We started off standing by a stone marker, which I’d never noticed right by the amphitheatre in the heart of the V&A. It was here in 1860 that Prince Alfred (Queen Victoria’s son) tipped the first load of stones to make a breakwater for the new harbour. The terrible storms of 1858 wrecked so many ships that Lloyds of London refused to insure any more ships coming to Cape Town unless a harbour was built.
Therein begins the story of this historic part of Cape Town. The Breakwater prison was constructed at the same time to house convict labour and Thandikhaya showed me delicate carvings in the stone walls; one showing an African warrior in traditional dress, another featuring a lion, unicorn and British flag dated 1900, suggesting it was engraved by a British prisoner. There’s evidence of the old prison in all the buildings along Portswood Road; like a grate in wall of the dining room of Portswood Hotel, through which a priest would offer solace to lepers bound for Robben Island, or the cell doors that line the corridors of the Graduate School of Business.
The tour is organised by the Chavonnes Battery Museum (see our review of the Da Vinci Exhibition held at the museum). As we crisscrossed the V&A I often caught glimpses of Cape Grace sitting grandly on its own jetty and when the tour ended I made a beeline across the Bascule Bridge straight for Cape Grace’s Bascule Bar, where I was rewarded with a much needed refreshment.
The Historical Walking Tour costs R100 for adults and R20 for children. It leaves from the V&A Information Centre (by Mitchell’s Brewery) daily at 11am and 2pm and lasts about 1½-2 hours. Book ahead by email, phone 021 408 7751/021 416 6230 or just turn up.
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