1. Silver in the Hills
In the 1600s, anything glinting was assumed to contain precious metals and hardly had the settlers arrived in the Cape, before they started digging for silver. They did their best to coax silver out of the glinting ore but all they got was burned rock and black smoke. Jan van Riebeeck was not convinced and sent some samples off to Batavia for testing. They didn’t find any silver either!
Some thirty years later around 1685, a Master miner named van Werlinghof, remained convinced that there was silver to be found and made a couple of hard-done-by workers dig a hole 16 fathoms (29 metres) deep. They didn’t find a single fragment of silver ore in any part of it and van Werlinghof was banished to a mine in Sumatra for wasting Company money.
2. The Old Cape Road
A 1937, magazine article printed a route map of the original Old Cape Road (now Ou Kaapse Weg), from the southern reaches of Cape Town over the mountain towards Simon’s Town. The road name naturally suggests that this must be the old wagon route and who would think of disputing such convincing evidence? But however hard people tried, no-one could actually find the original track and its suggested route seemed impossible for any wagon to pass. It turns out that Ou Kaapse Weg is named after a non-existent road that never passed over the Steenberg mountain range. The only Ou Pad (old road) heading south went via Muizenberg alongside the coast. Even the Administrator of the Cape, who opened the road in 1968, admitted that this was not the old Cape road in anything but its new name.
3. Gold Fever in Cape Town
After gold deposits were discovered in the north, South Africa was gripped by gold fever, but however hard they tried, none had been found in the Cape. That was until the mid-1800s, when someone found gold in a piece of quartz on Table Mountain. There were also strange reports from Noordhoek that “gold was visible to the naked eye.” When you want something badly enough you believe anything and when a Cape Town shopkeeper advertised that he’d found a nugget of gold on Table Mountain, the rush began. The shopkeeper set up a refreshment stall at the base of the mountain and did a roaring trade. Those searching for gold didn’t find anything resembling precious metal and when the shopkeeper did a runner one night, it came to light that the piece of gold he had displayed came from Australia. It was a brilliant 19th century scam!
4. Tigers in Africa
Tigers aren’t indigenous to Africa, but early settlers were unfamiliar with the wildlife and often called leopards tigers. Hence there are several place names in and around Cape Town using the word tiger, such as Tygerberg and Tyger Valley. To dispel myths that tigers existed in Africa, the British showed the public the real thing; a stuffed tiger from India, purchased in London around 1890 and placed in the South African Museum.
5. The Real Height of Table Mountain
In 1844, at the height of his career, Astronomer Sir Thomas Maclear declared Table Mountain to be 1085-metres high. He planted a beacon to denote the point and this has been the quoted height ever since. That is until a group of scientists measured it with a GPS in 2002 and proclaimed that the mountain was six metres higher than Maclear’s measurement. They used a theoretical sea level instead of true sea level, and later had to admit they were wrong. Their revised height showed that Maclear’s original calculation was accurate to within 20 centimetres.