One of Cape Town’s biggest tourist attractions, the Waterfront evokes images of the early activities of the harbour. Much of its charm lies in the fact that this busy commercial harbour is set in the midst of a huge entertainment venue with pubs, restaurants, specialty shops, craft markets, theatres and movies.
Situated between Robben Island and Table Mountain in the heart of Cape Town’s working harbour, the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront has become South Africa’s most visited destination. Set against a backdrop of magnificent sea and mountain views, exciting shopping and entertainment venues are intermingled with imaginative office locations, world-class hotels and luxury apartments in the residential marina. We invite you to discover the experience… live, work, shop and play at the V&A Waterfront.
Seal-watching is an amusing diversion. Visitors to the Two Oceans Aquarium will enjoy a fascinating underwater world. The Maritime Museum focuses on the history of shipping from prehistoric times to the present day. Boat trips around the harbour and along the coast are always popular. Helicopter flips provide a broader perspective. The Information Centre provides maps and information on special events planned for the day.
WATERFRONT HERITAGE ROUTE:
Calls for greater public access and a wider use of Cape Town’s historic harbour started in the early 1970’s. In 1988, the then landowner (State-owned transport corporation, Transnet Limited) established a wholly owned subsidiary company, Victoria & Alfred Waterfront (Pty) Limited, to redevelop the historic docklands. This was received with large-scale public acclaim.
Since its origins in 1860, the Port of Cape Town has been the scene of excavations, reclamations, harbour construction programmes and land based developments. By the time Prince Alfred* tipped the first load of stone into the sea to initiate construction of Cape Town’s harbour, the trade routes to the East had transformed the city into a hive of seafront activity. The discovery of gold and diamonds in South Africa meant that the first section of harbour, the Alfred Basin, had to be added to and the Victoria Basin was built. (* Prince Alfred was Queen Victoria’s second son)
The construction of the two harbour basins took place between 1860 and 1920, and the area is notable for its outstanding heritage buildings. It retains the charm of Victorian industrial architecture and the scale of a harbour built for sail and the early days of steam travel. In the 1970s, containerisation had developed worldwide as the major method of cargo handling and transportation. It was this, together with South Africa’s economic isolation at the time and the reopening of the Suez Canal, that led to a sharp reduction in the utilisation of land and harbour facilities surrounding the Victoria & Alfred Basins. At the time, Transnet was in the process of rationalising harbour facilities and reviewing its harbour and other land holdings with particular emphasis on the returns being generated by these assets.
Over the past 140 years, the harbour has undergone numerous changes, which continue even today with the redevelopment of land and buildings surrounding the original Victoria & Alfred Basins. The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront project is the culmination of nearly three decades of planning and development proposals.
THE CLOCK TOWER:
Situated near the site of the original Bertie’s Landing Restaurant, the Victorian Gothic-style Clock Tower has always been an icon of the old docks and has become an important focal point in the Waterfront’s recent urban design. This was the original Port Captain’s Office completed in 1882. On the second floor is a decorative mirror room, which enabled the Port Captain to have a view of all activities in the harbour. On the bottom floor is a tide-gauge mechanism used to check the level of the tide. Restoration of the Clock Tower was completed towards the end of 1997.
TIME BALL TOWER:
The Time Ball (invented by Captain Robert Wauchope) is a signaling device in which a ball is dropped at a given time in order for ships’ masters to determine the error and rate of their chronometers whilst in harbour. The Time Ball Tower in the Waterfront was built in 1894 and is situated next the Harbour Engineer’s former residence (Dock House). It remained in use for 40 years after which new technology led to it lying idle for 63 years before being restored and officially recommissioned in November 1997.
ROBBEN ISLAND EMBARKATION BUILDING:
At the end of Quay 5 on Jetty 1 is the embarkation building for prisoners sent to Robben Island. Although the purpose and use of the island changed a number of times over the last century or so, it more recently gained international notoriety as a prison for contemporary political figures including South Africa’s first democratically elected President, Nelson Mandela. The Robben Island Exhibition and Information Centre situated next door to the Clock Tower building, is a unique museum depicting the history of Robben Island and the political struggle to overthrow apartheid. Bookings for guided tours are essential, and can be made at tel: +27 (0)21 419 1300.
Daily ferry trips to Robben Island depart from the jetty near the Robben Island Exhibition and Information Centre in the Clock Tower Precinct and from the Robben Island Embarkation Building on Jetty 1. Guided tours and bus tours on the island include a visit to the prison with viewing of the limestone quarry, Garrison Church (1841), lighthouse (1863), Leper’s Church (1895) and a Kramat. Seabirds, African penguins, ostriches and bontebok are some of the wildlife on the island. Tickets may be purchased from the Embarkation Building.
It is unusual to get a close view of seals, as offshore islands are their preferred breeding grounds. A colony of Cape fur seals are however a familiar sight resting on the seal landing in the Clock Tower Precinct next to the original Bertie’s Landing Restaurant and on old tyres lining the quaysides around the Waterfront. They are an integral part of harbour life and Capetonians are fortunate enough to have these seals living in such close proximity.
The original Breakwater Prison was constructed in 1860 to house the convicts working on the breakwater. A dramatic reminder of the punitive penal attitudes prevalent in the 1890’s is the remains of a treadmill visible alongside the former prison building, now housing the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business and the Breakwater Lodge – a comfortable hotel.
SOUTH AFRICAN MARITIME MUSEUM:
The museum showcases the maritime history of Table Bay and houses the largest collection of model ships in South Africa. Floating exhibits in the Victoria and Alfred Basins include the SAS Somerset – a retired Naval Defence Boom Vessel and the Alwyn Vintcent – a coal-fired steam tug. Both may be boarded for a nominal fee. Tel: +27 (0)21 419 2505.
CHAVONNES BATTERY MUSEUM:
Of particular significance to the new Clock Tower Precinct development, is its historical base – the Clock Tower, itself a national monument. Recently, preliminary excavation uncovered a portion of the Chavonnes Battery, which is one of the oldest European structures in South Africa, built in the early 1700’s.
Investigations conducted by the Archaeology Contracts Office at the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cape Town have yielded a full report on the history of the battery. Built in 1714-1725 by the Dutch East India Company, the Chavonnes Battery was designed to further protect the Cape, together with Fort Knokke and the Amsterdam Battery. Eyewitness accounts described the Chavonnes Battery as being the most formidable of the Table Bay fortifications. By mid-19th century, the Chavonnes Battery had been put to a number of uses.
Besides serving a military role, it was used as an isolation and convalescent wing of the old Somerset Hospital. Crews and passengers of ships stricken with contagious illnesses such as smallpox were confined to the battery until they were considered fit. The Battery was decommissioned in 1861. As part of the new development, the Chavonnes Battery has been retained and part of the ruins opened to the public for viewing – and acts as a real feature of the Clock Tower Precinct.