Gazing out at the V&A Waterfront of today makes it hard to imagine the harbour as anything less than a glamorous destination for shopping, dining and perhaps a jaunt around the bay on a slick catamaran. But turn back the clock almost 300 years and Cape Town’s shoreline was an entirely different story.
With no waterfront basin, clock tower or harbour, let alone a shopping mall, Cape Town’s ragged coast was vulnerable to the tussles of sea-borne aggressors. Cue Chavonnes Battery – the original watchdog of Cape Town’s bay.
Built in 1724 by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and named for the governor of Cape at the time, the Battery (the term for a collection of cannons) was a coastal fortification linked to the Castle of Good Hope.
A Battery of Canons
Built in a ‘U’ shape on the water’s edge, Chavonnes Battery was mounted with 16 cannons, enabling the VOC to fire at hostile ships approaching the bay and warn the castle in the event of an attack. It’ exhilarating stuff, which is why the forts near disappearance from the books of history is even more curious.
But vanish it did. Partially demolished in 1860 to make way for the Alfred Basin (the basis of the V&A Waterfront we know today), the Battery’s walls were either used to rebuild the new and swanky harbour or forgotten about as factories and warehouses mushroomed up on top of it, until the Battery itself become more legend than fact – recalled by only a handful of locals.
Descend to A Secret Subterranean World
Like the mythical Atlantis, Chavonnes Battery may have been lost forever. However, in 1999, it was rediscovered during an underground parking excavation and restored as a museum on site – allowing visitors to appreciate this important part of the Cape’s history, noted as an official SA Tourism Hidden Gem.
When exploring Chavonnes Battery, you’ll descend into the depths of the otherwise
unassuming Nedbank/BOE building and land up right inside the excavated walls themselves. With your 18th Century Tricorne (think pirate-style) hat on, and surrounded by the largest collection of muzzle-loaded canons in the country, it becomes easier to imagine life on this harsh outpost that was regarded as little else than a halfway stop between Europe and the spices and silks of the East.
Walking the ancient walls, constructed from Table Mountain’s granite and inlaid with bricks donated from harbouring ships, what is most amazing is the fact that one stands on Cape Town’s original shoreline – the only place to do so now that most of it has been pushed back by the harbour.
Here, you can enjoy a guided tour, with anecdotes and awe-inspiring tales of the soldiers, local people, slaves, exiles, explorers (and even wild animals) who called the ‘Cape of Storms’ home – an experience that helped Chavonnes Battery earn their Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence for the second year in a row.
However, if you’d prefer to meander along at your own pace, the informative boards and life-like illustrations of the ships who met their watery end along the coastline where you stand are more than enough to impress. We particularly enjoyed reading the old diary entries from commanders that detailed the hardship of growing vegetables in unknown soil, and the eerie sketches of the hippos, lions and hunting dogs that once posed threat to the livestock. The battery also operated as a prison and quarantine location, so if you’re into grisly history, here’s where to soak it all in.
Delve a little deeper into the excavation and discover the wishing well and ‘magic carpet’ along with the detailed models of the battery as it was in its full glory.
Speaking of canons, they do ceremoniously fire them on occasion, so if you’re eager to end your visit with a bang, find out when the next ‘firing is scheduled for. As a second prize, step outside and watch Signal Hill’s daily Noon Gun blast that occurs at 12 pm every day.
Underwater Photography Exhibition
While the museum below might offer a glimpse into life on land, the upstairs hall is
dedicated to the teeming life below. The Underwater Photographer of the Year 2017
exhibition features the top 50 underwater photographs from over 20 countries, including South Africa. Begin with the winning pic, the “Dancing Octopus” – photographed just off the coast of Mozambique, before moving on to “Dolphins Hunting” – captured on our very own coastline, along with “Humpback whale feeding on Krill” – taken just a few miles from Hout Bay.
The fascinating photographs could easily suck you in for another couple of hours as you stroll through a world so unlike our own, so if you’re in it for the long haul, make sure you grab a cup of complimentary tea or coffee. They even have a dedicated play area for children, so if you’re visiting with the little ones in tow and fear short attention spans, settle them down at the colouring table while you continue your journey back in time.Join a Historic Walking Tour
If the history of the V&A has you gripped hook, line and sinker, book a walking tour and extend the fun. During the two-hour excursion, you’ll learn more about the iconic sights that surround the harbour (like our continent’s first power station), along with the tales and facts about the seafarers that helped to shape this trading port into the vibrant destination it is today.
Visit Chavonnes Battery Museum
Fri – Mon: 9 am to 7 pm
Tue – Thu: 9 am to 4 pm
FREE for Children under 16
R 100 Adults
R 50 Seniors / Students
Tel: +27 21 416 6230
Clock Tower Precinct
Visit their website for more.
Blog post by: Tarah Darge