Beneath Cape Town’s striking topography, classy restaurants and well-trodden tourist attractions lies a city with a complicated and colourful history that’s filled with stories. Stories of daring adventurers and holy men. Stories of war, peace and forbidden love. Stories that only those willing to dig a little deeper will find. Join us as we uncover the forgotten secrets of Cape Town.
The Heritage Vine
Cape Heritage Hotel
What is it The oldest wine-producing vine in South Africa, and perhaps the entire Southern Hemisphere. It was planted in 1771, and continues to thrive, despite having gone for long periods untended, with only the winter rains providing it with nourishment.
The history Jan van Riebeeck, who served as an assistant surgeon in the Dutch colony of Batavia, believed that wine could cure scurvy. Though he was mistaken, it was one of his better mistakes, as it meant wine production would be a priority at the Cape Dutch outpost to which he was assigned command.
It’s not certain who planted the vine at Heritage Square, but the townhouses that surround it date back to 1771, and wealthy citizens of the colony liked to cultivate wine in their private gardens. A journal entry from 1785, written by the local landlord, reads “Drinking wine under the grape tree”. Little did he know that citizens of Cape Town would be doing the same thing in the same spot, over two centuries later.
Interesting fact The vine is one of the few survivors of the The Great French Wine Blight, which devastated vineyards throughout Europe and the Cape during the mid-19th century. This makes it a rare example of the original French vinifera rootstock.
Good to know Wine produced by the vine is bottled under the label “Heritage 1771”.
Where to find it Cape Heritage Hotel, Corner of Bree and Shortmarket Streets
Cost of entry Free
Contact 021 424 4646, email@example.com
The Ghost Table
Where Kronendal Estate
What is it A table reserved for two every night at Kitima Restaurant (though the staff would be rather shocked if the couple it is reserved for actually turned up). That’s because they’re the ghosts of South Africa’s very own Romeo and Juliet, who continue to haunt Kronendal Estate long after their affair reached its tragic conclusion in 1840.
The history According to the legend, the daughter of the Dutch colonel who owned the estate fell in love with a British soldier, but her father forbade the union. The boy took his own life out of despair, hanging himself from a tree in Oak Avenue, and the daughter died of a broken heart soon after.
Since then, strange sightings and occurrences have been reported on the estate, which now houses one of Cape Town’s top restaurants. Staff have reported pots flying off walls, lights dimming of their own accord, and strange apparitions appearing at the top of darkened stairways. The owners of the restaurant have embraced the legend, and made it a nightly tradition for staff to prepare a romantic dinner for two, at a table reserved for the spirits of the doomed couple.
Interesting fact The Kronendal Estate, which dates back to the 17th century, was declared a national monument in 1960. It was the first farm in Hout Bay, and remains a rare example of H-shaped Cape Dutch architecture.
Where to find it Kitima, Kronendal Estate, 140 Main Road, Hout Bay
Contact 021 790 8004/6
or Book Online
The Kramat of Sheikh Abdurahman Matebe Shah
Where Klein Constantia
What is it The shrine of a Muslim sheik – one of three teachers believed to have brought Islam to South Africa in the 17th century.
The history Sheik Abdurachman Matebe Shah arrived in the Cape Colony in 1667, only 15 years after it had been established. Like many holy men, he had been exiled to Robben Island as punishment for resisting the Dutch conquests in the East.
What the Dutch didn’t know is that Abdurachman was a special kind of holy man, a hafez – one who has memorised the Quran down to the full stops and commas. He quickly gathered a following among the slaves and, by the time he died, was regarded as one of Islam’s most respected teachers.
Legend has it that the location of his body was lost for 100 years, until a farmer accidentally stumbled upon his burial spot – the very spot where this elaborate shrine now stands.
Interesting fact The construction of the shrine supposedly fulfills a 250-year-old prophecy that the Cape will one day be protected by a “circle of Islam”. In this case, the circle is made up of the shrines of other holy men, including the kramats at Signal Hill and Robben Island.
Where to find it Klein Constantia Road, Constantia.
Cost of entry Free
Where Cape Point Nature Reserve
What is it A submerged rock, upon which many a ship has met its end.
The history The rock is named for its first recorded victim, the Albatross, which was wrecked here in 1863.
Other famous casualties include the Thomas T Tucker, an American transport ship that was undone by the Albatross while en route to North Africa in 1942. It was carrying supplies (including some Sherman Tanks) meant for the Allied war effort, but a compass malfunction resulted in the ship running aground.
Around 20 years later, a Dutch coaster named the Nolloth was shattered upon the rock while transporting a supply of liquor. Anyone hoping to find a crate of 50-year old rum floating about here will be disappointed, as Customs officials were quick to salvage the cargo.
Other victims include the Star of Africa in 1880, the SS Umhlali in 1909, and a Swedish freighter named Bia in 1917.
Interesting fact The Thomas T Tucker was one of many such transport vessels churned out by the American war machine during World War II (they were designated Liberty Ships). The ship was hugging the coastline in order to avoid German U-boats, as was standard practice. Furthermore, authorities had ordered that all lighthouses along the Cape Coast be deactivated at night during wartime.
Where to find it The rock lies about 1.5 kilometers offshore at Olifantsbos Point. It is a well known diving site, although it’s not recommended for beginners, and should only be dived in good conditions. The remains of many of the ships that ran aground here can be seen on the aptly named Shipwreck Trail at Cape Point.
Cost of entry Access to Cape Point Nature Reserve requires a conservation fee of R135 for adults and R70 for children.
The Vault of Olof Bergh
What is it The oldest church in South Africa, and the burial place of Olof Bergh – adventurer, scoundrel and explorer extraordinaire.
The history Olof was entrusted with a number of important missions by the Cape’s first governor, Simon van der Stel (also buried at the Groote Kerk), who had a very high opinion of the soldier’s ability. That said, he had a roguish streak that would occasionally get him into trouble.
Soon after being promoted to lieutenant, Olof was assigned leadership of a salvage crew tasked with recovering cargo from a Portuguese ship that had run aground near Cape Agulhas. The crew returned with their haul, but a suspiciously low amount of loot was turned over to the council, prompting an investigation that led to a hidden cache being discovered in Olof Bergh’s garden.
Caught red-handed, Olof confessed to the crime, and was given a choice between accepting a posting in Ceylon, or being stripped of his rank. He chose the former, and following years of exemplary service in the distant colony, was promoted to Captain and allowed to return.
He retired a wealthy man, and upon his death was buried beneath the Groote Kerk, just a few feet away from his former employer, Simon van der Stel.
Interesting fact Olof Bergh’s numerous missions for the governor included bartering with Hottentots, and charting the unexplored wilderness. He played a significant role in opening up the interior for further expansion.
Where to find it The Groote Kerk, Parliament Street
Cost of entry Free
The Pump Tree
The Company Gardens, Expedia.ca
Where The Company’s Gardens
What is it A water pump, dating back to 1842, embedded in the stump of an old oak.
The history The pump was used to draw water from the old well beside the tree, but was gradually “assimilated” by the oak to which it was attached. Unfortunately, the old oak tree was destroyed during a storm in 2015, but the stump was restored, along with the old pump handle.
Interesting fact Wells in the Company Gardens were an important source of water for the colonists, but fell out of use once a proper water service had been implemented.
Where to find it The Company’s Garden, Queen Victoria Street
Where Bo Kaap
What is it South Africa’s oldest Mosque, dating back to the 1790s when it was built on the land of a freed slave named Coridon van Ceylon.
The history Stories vary as to whether it was Coridon van Ceylon, one of his descendants, or a third-party that had control of the building at the time it was converted into a mosque. It’s likely that the British had authority over the Cape colony by that time and, though the Dutch East India Company did not forbid the practice of Islam, it would not have permitted construction of any religious buildings other than Dutch Reformed churches.
Either way, its historical significance ensures that the Auwal Mosque stands out among the many places of worship to be found in the colorful Bo Kaap district. Though the building has undergone many changes (part of the structure collapsed in the 1930s), two of the original walls remain intact.
Interesting fact The Auwal Mosque’s first Imam, Abdullah ibn Kadi al-Salam, was an Indonesian prince arrested and detained for conspiring with the British against the Dutch. While imprisoned on Robben Island, he wrote several copies of the Koran from memory, some of which are still on display at the Auwal Mosque.
Where to find it 43 Dorp Street, Cape Town City Centre
Please note Visitors are welcome at the mosque (open from 6am – 8pm), but should avoid entering during prayer times.
The Treaty Tree
What is it The spot where the Dutch surrendered control of the Cape to the British.
The history In 1805, during the Napoleonic Wars, a British fleet arrived with the intention of seizing the Cape Colony before it could fall into French hands. Governor lieutenant general Jan Willem Janssens was tasked with defending Dutch interests, and put up a brave fight despite being hopelessly outmatched. He eventually conceded defeat, admitting to his officers that “the bitter cup must be drunk to the bottom”. Thus the Articles of Capitulation were signed, ceding control of the Cape to the British in exchange for safe passage.
At first glance, the Treaty Tree doesn’t look anything special, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you had just stumbled into someone’s backyard. But the tree has witnessed around 500 years of history, and it was not always a place of peace. Portuguese explorer Dom Francisco de Almeida and his men are believed to have met their end here, at the hands of local Khoikhoi seeking revenge for the attempted kidnapping of one of their children. Slaves were sold under the tree, and convicts were sometimes hung from its branches.
Though the tree stands in the midst of dilapidated industrial housing; at the time of the treaty it would have overlooked the sea, where ships carrying valuable cargo could be seen entering the harbour on a regular basis. Those present at the signing of this treaty would have had all the reminder they needed of the value of controlling the Cape.
Interesting fact Milkwood trees can live to be over 1 000 years old, and the Treaty Tree is one of four in South Africa that have been declared national monuments.
Where to find it Corner of Treaty and Spring Streets, Woodstock
Robben Island’s Nine-inch guns
What is it One of the few remaining examples of the BL 9.2 inch gun line, the naval artillery that served the British Empire well during both world wars. This particular gun was used to protect the vital Cape shipping route from German raids during World War II.
The history German U-Boats prowled the seas during World War II, ready to pounce on ships delivering supplies to Allied forces. Cape Point, in particular, was a vital strategic target – the perfect spot to intercept hapless vessels attempting to round the southern tip of the continent.
But they weren’t so hapless once these fearsome guns were installed – three at Robben Island, three at Llandudno and three at Simon’s Town. The guns were perfectly positioned to bombard enemy ships, which could be tracked by radar stations operating in remote locations around the Cape.
Naval artillery was eventually rendered redundant by the advent of the guided missile, resulting in many of the BL 9.2 inch guns being dismantled. Only 28 such models remain in the world, including the three at Robben Island (as well as 9 others in South Africa).
Interesting fact The De Waal Battery no.3 gun at Robben Island was restored in 2009, and remains the only 9.2 inch gun from World War II that is still in working order.
Where to find it Robben Island. Ferries to Robben Island depart three times a day (9am, 11am and 1pm) from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront
Cost of entry A ferry ticket costs R340 per adult and R190 per child.
Contact 021 413 4200, firstname.lastname@example.org
Or Book Online
All Saints Church
What is it An Anglican church designed by South Africa’s first prominent female architect, Sophy Gray.
The history The church was established in 1860, and has been inextricably tied to Durbanville ever since. From the days when it served as a school and place of worship for a small community, it has grown to encompass several chapelries and a parish of around 2 000. A fire almost destroyed the church in 1996, but it was lovingly restored through the generosity of the local community.
Interesting fact Sophy Gray – the designer of the All Saints church, was an artist, architect, skilled horsewoman, and wife of Cape Town’s first bishop, Robert Gray. At least 40 of the 50 churches built in South Africa during her husband’s tenure were designed by her.
Where to find it 2 Baxter Avenue, Durbanville
Contact 021 976 8016
The Wood’s Cycad
Where Kirstenbosch Gardens
What is it The loneliest plant in the world – a species of tree that predates the dinosaurs but is now extinct in the wild, and unable to reproduce due to the lack of female specimens.
The history The specimen currently residing in Kirstenbosch Gardens is an offshoot of the original tree, which was discovered by John Medley Wood in 1895. The clump of four trunks (all male) growing in the oNgoye Forest of Kwazulu Natal were all that remained of a plant species that had survived five ice ages.
Fortunately, the Wood’s cycad (named for its discoverer) responds well to cultivation, so although it is unable to produce naturally without a female specimen, various offshoots have been collected and planted in gardens around the world, including this one at Kirstenbosch. Researchers still hold out hope that a female will be discovered somewhere in the wild, so that the ancient tree will no longer be the last of its kind.
Interesting fact Though the discovery of a female specimen is the tree’s best hope for survival, another possibility is that one of the male offshoots will change its sex, something that researchers have observed in other cycads. As Dr Ian Malcolm says in Jurassic Park: “Life will find a way”.
Where to find it Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens
Cost of entry R60 (adults); R30 (SA students); R15 (children, aged 6 – 17); Free (children under 6)
Contact 021 799 8783, email@example.com
Hippopotamuses at False Bay Nature Reserve
Where Grassy Park, Zeekoevlei and Lavenderhill
What is it The Rondevlei section of False Bay Nature Reserve is a protected wetland and lake area, famous for being the only reserve in Cape Town where hippopotamuses can be found.
The history Hippopotamuses once dwelled in the Cape, but were hunted to near-extinction by Dutch colonists soon after the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck. In 1981, they were reintroduced in an attempt to control the spread of an alien grass species from South America.
The project was successful, and Rondevlei’s hippopotamus population continues to rise steadily, while playing a critical role in preserving the reserve’s rich biodiversity. However, damage to the surrounding fences has resulted in the occasional runaway. In 2004, a hippo named Houdini was forced out by one of the older males, and went on the run for about 10 months before being caught and relocated to a reserve in the Eastern Cape.
In 2009, another youngling named Zorro – probably inspired by the legends of Houdini the Hippo – carried out his own escape attempt, and managed to survive in the Strandfontein sewerage works for 18 months before being recaptured.
Interesting fact As well as being home to the Cape’s only Hippopotamus population, Rondevlei is populated by around 230 bird species, along with a variety of reptiles and mammals.
Where to find it False Bay Nature Reserve: Rondevlei Section, Perth Road, Cape Town.
Contact 021 706 2404, firstname.lastname@example.org (Rondevlei Nature Reserve)
Cost of entry R12 per adult; R6 per child
Research: Tamlyn Ryan and Matthew Flax
References: Secret Cape Town by Justin Fox and Alison Westwood
Uncover the hidden gems of the Cape with the help of our weekly newsletter.