A walk on the Cape Town waterfront



For me the Cape Town Waterfront starts at the City Lodge. You stood by the main door for a glimpse of the Waterfront’s iconic Clock Tower in the distance, while gangs of rag-clad men with bulging Mandrax eyes watched your moves like lions monitoring a lone, lost impala.

Not any more; I have to reset my bearings: the only jungle that comes to mind nowadays is the disorder of construction that stretches into the Silos and the North Wharf. As for the posse of men, who made you hail down a taxi rather than walk past them, they’re all gone.

I now have to align myself properly to discern the deep red of the Clock Tower, buried as it is between the Diamond Museum on the right and the Golf Hall of Fame on the left. But as I walk and wonder in the New Brave Waterfront, I ask myself: would I get an impression of London by just visiting Canary Wharf? Do I want every place in the world to look like Dubai or Singapore?

I have my own pet theory about the Waterfront. It became popular for two reasons: it used to be the only place you could walk around safely at night and because this is where the boats to Robben Island used to sail from, so it was a must-get-to.

The boats still leave from here, although a new, sheet-glass Nelson Mandela Gateway and Museum now dominates their docking. Like many new South African museums it is big on explanations and low on exhibits. Only one corner with original photographs – sorry, copies of original photographs – can be deemed interesting. At least entrance is free.

I have mixed feelings about the Waterfront, because the new structures – including the obligatory Ferris wheel – surround a truly historic centre. The V&A Hotel dates from 1904 when it was a coal store later converted to a warehouse for shipping. The Robinson Dry dock is one of the oldest in the world still in use. The North Wharf, which you can hardly recognise as a wharf today, was the location of the original 1840 jetty; a wooden deck at North Wharf square marks its position. The Silo Buildings and Nelson Mandela Gateway conceal long standing seal colonies.

The preponderance of fast food outlets, hipster cafes and designer shops, makes it difficult to visualise that this was the gateway to southern Africa. For three centuries every trek to the interior started under the shadow of the Table Mountain ever since Jan van Riebeeck established a small Dutch post in April 1652. I wonder what the old sea-salt would have made of today’s complete smoking ban over the Waterfront that extends to the open air.

Cape Town prospered even without natural or artificial docks; but come here outside the summer and the gales will blow you all the way to the top of Lion’s Head. Ships often ran aground by the Cape’s infamous northwesterlies, which is why by the middle of the 19th century Lloyd’s of London refused to insure them point blank: they had to winter in False Bay instead. This provided the impetus for the construction of the V&A Waterfront in the 1860s.



Locals love to correct you when you interpret the initials as ‘Victoria & Albert’. No, the A stands for Alfred, the Queen’s second son. He joined the Royal Navy and visited Cape Town in 1860 to inaugurate the Waterfront works; he returned in 1867 to see them complete.

Despite the prevailing funfair feeling, we should be thankful that new buildings in the centre have some historical awareness with no gherkins or shards among them, but this makes it more difficult to tell the new from the old.

The Ferryman’s Tavern, a magnet for craft beer enthusiasts, correctly claims to be the oldest surviving edifice in the harbour dating from 1877, although it’s only been operating as a pub since 1989.

Opposite, the Information Office is quartered in the Sea Rescue Shed, built around the same time. It housed an apparatus that could be rolled out to fire off of a rocket with a rope attached to any ship wrecked in the area, so that sailors could hold on to it and be rescued. It was last used in July 1966.

If you walk up Dock Road, beyond the Information Office, you enter the realm of the 2010 World Cup regeneration. Here rise buildings like the rugby museum – offering a Springbok experience – and the vast V&A Food market hall, before the biggest modern success: the Two Oceans Aquarium opened in 1995 and still going strong. You can certainly spend a whole day in there with demonstrations like shark feeding that vary from day to day and from hour to hour.

I may moan and I may grumble, but what do I do come midnight? Gone are the days when Ferryman’s was the only place in Cape Town open to 4am, yet I’m drawn there for the crowds and the memories. Although I have a choice of craft beers, I go for the traditional pint of Old Wobbly with its 11% alcohol, that I used to down in minutes and still able to count backwards from twenty.

Yet this time when I finish there are no more gangs of marauding men outside, so I walk home to my Green Point B&B in safety.

Progress comes in many guises.


You can get South Africa included as a stopover in the Discoverer round the world