A Drive and a Half: Exploring Beautiful ‘Chappies’

Last year, I had the unexpected pleasure of experiencing the full Chapman’s Peak Drive in all its breathtaking glory when my travelling companions and myself spent a hot, sunny September morning exploring the 9 km route that stretches between Hout Bay and Noordhoek (both charming coastal areas in their own rights).

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The drive consists of 114 curves, some amazing examples of engineering and the most gorgeous 180-degree views of the endless Atlantic waters and natural vegetation (Please note: Obviously, I visited before many parts of the surrounding areas were so tragically gutted by the horrific wild fire(s) that raged earlier this year) – but it also has some splendid viewing- and picnic-spots and not only makes for a perfect day- or sunset-drive, it is also a great route for cyclists, pedestrians, joggers and hikers to enjoy. What’s more, it’s considered – both by locals and foreigners alike – one of the most “spectacular marine drives in the world,” and can even be used for whale watching!

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With stunning, deep blue waters on one hand and towering mountainous cliffs on the other, Chapman’s Peak Drive – which is so named after the 593-metre high Chapman’s Peak, Constaniaberg’s southerly extension, and which is fondly referred to as ‘Chappies’ – is truly a drive and a half and well-worth the ‘full passage’ charges, which currently run as follows (the cost is, however, dependent on your mode of transport):

  • (Registered Taxi Operator) Minibus Taxi – R20.00
  • Motor Tricycle, Cycle and Quad Bikes – R26.00
  • Light Motor-, Minibus- or Utility Vehicles – R40.00
  • Midibus and Small Heavy Vehicles – R158.00
  • Bus, Medium Heavy or Heavy Motor Vehicles: R395.00
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(There are also special ‘Wild Card’, ‘Usage Discount’ and ‘Frequent User’ tariff deals. For more info. on these deals, please see: www.chapmanspeakdrive.co.za or contact the Toll Plaza Office on: +27 (021) 791 8220.)

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Photo Credit: blog.chapmanspeakdrive.co.za

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Alternatively, you may request a ‘Day Pass’ voucher at the toll, which will allow you to drive up to a certain point for free (but after that, you must either pay the toll fee or turn back around when approaching Noordehoek via Hout Bay and in turn, Cape Town), take photos or picnic at the lovely viewing spots or hike, provided that you do so during daylight hours and only head 2.7 km past the toll plaza building.

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A History of ‘Chappies’ – and Past Challenges It Has Overcome:

Chapman’s Peak itself was named after John Chapman, pilot and friend to the skipper of English ship, ‘Contest’. As the tale goes, in 1607 when Contest became becalmed in the modern day Hout Bay, its skipper sent John Chapman ashore to try find provisions. Chapman later recorded the bay as ‘Chapman’s Chaunce’ (or Chance) and thereafter, it became the official named used on East India charts.

Then, in the early 1900s, Sir Nicholas Fredrick de Waal, the Cape’s first administrator, ordered the construction of the De Waal Drive roadway. Due to its positive reception, he ordered the construction of another roadway, which would link Hout Bay and Noordhoek and by 1910, two possible routes were under consideration. The lower of the two routes was second to the more spectacular cliff route.

In 1914, preliminary surveys began and the surveyors used discovered it was a hair-raising task, which, on some occasions, even had them on all fours, as they tried to navigate across the unstable, steep terrain of the local cliffs and ravines. In truth, both routes proved to be fiercely trying but De Waal and his crews refused to admit defeat.

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A year later, convict labour insured that construction could begin from the Hout Bay end and in 1916, work began from Noordhoek’s side before finally, in 1919, the first section of the road was opened up till the Lookout. On May 6th, 1922, the Governor of the the Union of South Africa, His Royal Highness, Prince Arthur of Connaught, officially opened the road, which took seven years to complete and which cost ₤20, 000.

Further additions (namely, a partial road widening in 1962) and headaches followed (when, in 1977, portions of the road were washed away; this was replaced by a bridge that cost R150,000) that saw the road’s closure on May 14th.

However, tragically, in 1994 – due to a landslide on Chapman’s Peak Drive – Noel Graham was injured, leaving him partly paralysed and a court case against the Cape Metropolitan Council (CMC), the-then road management agency, ensued. Five years later, the High Court ruled CMC negligent in “management of the road” and though they appealed the ruling, the Supreme Court subsequently dismissed this appeal in November 2000, ordering CMC to pay out all costs and claims.

In 1997, the newly appointed road agency, South Peninsula Municipality (SPM), established “a sub-committee of officials from the local, metropolitan and provincial authorities to guide the management of Chapman’s Peak Drive, who instigated high visibility rockfall warning signs to be erected on Chapman’s Peak Drive during 1999.”

They also adopted a closure policy, which meant that the road must be closed to traffic in rainy weather (with the exception of light drizzles) and remain closed for a number of hours “after cessation of any rainfall and until deemed safe by SPM’s road management staff.” Lockable booms were implemented to ensure the enforcement of this.

Tragedy struck again in December 1999 when a falling rock caused a Noordhoek resident’s death and then, a few weeks later, in early January of the following year, Lara Callige was killed, whilst a passenger in the same car was seriously injured, in yet another rockfall, despite good weather conditions when rockfall risk was considered at its lowest.

Naturally, this was a serious concern for local- and provincial-authorities alike and emergency meetings to discuss its closure got underway, however, before a decision could be reached, later in January 2000, the worst mountain fire(s) in decades raged in the Cape Peninsula, including in and around Chapman’s, thus causing numerous road rockfalls and ensuring the road was impassable. Due to these incidents, the Minister of Provincial Traffic closed the road indefinitely that same month.

Developmental funding was made available (from the Provincial Administration’s Transport Branch) to make the road safer using a process known as ‘rock-barring’ (which refers to the removal of loose/dangerous rocks) and, in March 2000, SPM were awarded contracts for this work.

When it became clear that this process would take far longer than initially thought, work was halted in May 2000 and an integrated environmental management process (IEM) was put into place and given a set of requirements that the IEM had to meet.

After reviewing the rock-barring work, it was decided that this process must also be accompanied by various engineered rockfall protective measures. In September 2000, the improvements and protective measures were approved, with “the overriding and urgent requirement to reopen the road to traffic as soon as possible being supported by all participants.”

However, some or all of the following needed to be implemented: catch fences, rock gallery protection, concrete roof protection, existing structure repair, road surface and layer-work repair, slope stabilization work above and below the road etc.

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In late November that same year, public meetings were held to present the project’s current status to the Hout Bay-Noordhoek public, with further meetings held in March 2001. The IEM process was guided by a team consisting of: Provincial Administration, Western Cape officials from the City of Cape Town’s South Peninsula and CMC administration officials.

When it became clear that financial limitations would present the biggest challenge, the Provincial Administration Western Cape (PAWC) implemented a plan to create a public-private partnership and to proclaim the route a Toll Road under the Western Cape Provincial Toll Road Act, as it was quickly established that these two implementations could cover the majority of costs attached to the road’s re-opening.

After being short-listed, the Chapman’s Peak Engineering Group Joint Venture (which comprised of: Vela VKE Consulting Engineers, Meli & Du Plessis Geotechnical Engineers, Stewart Scott International, Zietsman Lloyd Hemsted (assisted by environmentalist, Megan Anderson Landscape Architect), OvP& Assosciates (landscape architect); Dr Ross Party-Davies, a geotechnical specialist, and Prof. Rolf Kratz, a structural design specialist) was awarded the tender and the project was overseen by Entilini concessions, the “special-purpose company established by the consortium of Concor Holdings, Haw & Inglis and Marib Holdings.”

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Due to its location within the Table Mountain National Park, an integrated environmental approach to the rehabilitation and upgrades was also required.

After intensive reconstruction and design, Chappies was re-opened to traffic as a toll road on December 20th, 2003. It was a welcome return, as the drive “an international tourist destintation”, further complemented Western Cape tourism (local businesses also welcomed this re-opening) and what’s more, it was heralded as a great success, espcially with regards to local engineering achievements as “the coupling of 21st-century cutting-edge and construction processes with the courage and determination of the early 1920s who built the original drive has resulted in this project showcasing the outstanding talents of South African engineering.”

Yet, three “extremely high intensity” rainfall incidents (with a total of 396 mm recorded in two months, compared to the usual 740 mm annual rainfall reading) during July and August of 2004, resulted in damage to the catch fences and once again, Chappies was closed – this time for 55 days, whilst debris was cleared and four of the catch fences were replaced.

Still, in 2004, Chapman’s Peak Drive received an excellence award for rockfall protection, as well securing the following noteworthy achievements:

  • Winner of the SAACE National Award for Engineering Excellence .
  • Winner of the SAFCEC National President’s Award
  • Winner of the Bentley Systems prestigious international award (civil Design) for 3D and 2D rockfall hazard analysis and design using the Micro-station suite of geospatial software packages
  • Runner-up in SAICE’s National Award for Excellence in Civil Engineering

(Please Note: To read more on the masterful engineering processes and challenging, yet successful undertakings, please see the website: http://www.chapmanspeakdrive.co.za)

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In June 2008, the road was once again declared unsafe for road users and subsequently closed for major upgrades and repairs. This took over a year to complete, with Chappies eventually being re-opened on October 9th, 2009. By and large, Chappies has remained open since, barring for temporary road closures for routine maintenance and during dangerous weather conditions (you can get daily updates on the weather conditions and availability of the road on the above-mentioned Chappies website).

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It’s important for me to add that when I experienced the drive in September 2014, it was as beautiful and lush as ever – yet, sadly, earlier this year, in early March, the Cape Peninsula and Chappies were ravished by terrifying wildfire(s) that raged day and night (for a period of several days), causing severe damage right across the Cape Peninsula.

Personally, I was heartbroken by the photos that I saw posted on social media sites (especially Twitter and Facebook), as well as by the hourly reports that reached me over the airwaves, not only because of the natural, protected vegetation and the man-made structures that I knew were surely perishing or being ruined by the hellish flames, but above all, my heart ached for the helpless, terrified animals and people who were caught up in this natural calamity.

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Photo Credit: Lee Slabber

The drive – which was naturally closed to traffic for a time, both during and after this – suffered extensive damage (so much so, that it was almost unrecognisable to me when I later saw the empty, charred picnic spots and various parts of the mountainside/roadway that had been utterly gutted by the inferno) and, according to blog.chapmanspeakdrive.co.za, this saw extensive loss of vegetation (which acts as “the slopes’ natural soil stabilisation mechanism in terms of rockfall and debris attenuation”,), the release of trapped and acculumated rock debris (“rendering them potentially mobile during episodes of strong winds and/or rainfall,”) caught up in said vegetation and finally, the fracturing of both rock blocks (on the slopes) and on rock faces due to the intense heat, creating “rejuvenated sources of potential rock falls.”

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Photo Credit: blog.chapmanspeakdrive.co.za

Although the drive was re-opened to traffic on March 9th, 2015, an extremely cautious management approach to the drive going forward must be adopted. This will mean regular assessments and possible closures in the interests of safety for all road-users (motorists, pedestrians, cyclists and tourist groups etc.) and decisions will be based on weather conditions, which could lead to further rockfalls.

As a result of the fires, the Cape Town Cycle Tour had a newer, shortened 47-km, circular route (which kicked off as usual “at the Civic Centre to the end of the M3 and back the same way to a slightly altered finish in Green Point,”), given that its usual, iconic route through the usually scenic Chappies was made impossible after the flames’ devastation.

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Photo Credit: blog.chapmanspeakdrive.co.za

However, what resulted was a beautiful solidarity ride, which saw the usual cyclists partaking, as well as some of our brilliant firefighters, who, day and night, had so bravely battled the blaze in sweltering heat conditions, earlier that very week. This was yet another powerful example of the resilience of the human spirit and the unconditional love that we all share for our most beautiful city and province and one that really moved me.

My small, personal thanks go out to the heroic firefighters, emergency teams, paramedics and health officials, disaster experts and everyday citizens who went the extra mile in truly trying and scary conditions in order to save the lives of our people and animals.

It goes without saying that, despite the tragic loss that resulted from the fire, Chappies will heal in time and hopefully (I haven’t seen it since the fire), is already looking a bit better six months on… all I know is, in time, the natural beauty of the drive and its setting will arise up from the ashes and come back even stronger and experts have said that this was, in fact, necessary to the survival of the Cape vegetation and that is something that provides a small sense of comfort when one sees images from or recalls from memory days past.

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Back to our drive through the then-untarnished Chappies… It was a truly splendid morning’s drive for our trio of excited travellers and I myself was utterly wowed by the sights of the ocean, the drive’s beautiful picnic spots and little groves along the way, as well as the breathtaking twists, viewing spots and mind-blowing examples of engineering that we passed under/through.

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It’s definitely one of the finest drives and scenic routes that this country (and I suspect the world at large too…) has to offer (and I have been blessed to experience a number of them since 2000) and honestly, even if you pay the full toll fee, it’s really nothing when compared to the rich experience you receive in return as it is one that should make a lifelong impression on you – especially if you are an avid explorer or amateur photographer like myself.

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We had a truly lovely time and the weather was indeed glorious (there was a nice, cooling breeze but it was wonderfully warm all the same) and it remains a very special memory to me personally, as it meant that I got to spend a wonderful day with my brother (who I hadn’t seen in over a year, as he now lives overseas) and his delightful girlfriend, as we explored the almost unrivalled beauty of the Cape Peninsula and Chappies. 🙂

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From there, we went on to Noordhoek (where we, along with happy families and excitable dogs, strolled along the pristine Noodhoek Beach taking beautiful photos, as I, as ever, eagerly gathered seashells. Just a word of caution: beware of the blue bottles, for they were quite plentiful on the day of our visit) before we headed to Kommetjie and then curled around Kalk Bay’s side back into the Mother City, tired out (in the best possible way) after a truly spectacular day, as evidenced by the photos we returned home with…

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Chappies get a well-deserved 10/10 rating from me and comes very highly recommended – if you live near by and haven’t yet experienced it for yourself, my only question is: why on earth not? 😛

For more information, call the Customer Service Line on: + 27 (021) 791 8222 or Chapman’s Peak Drive Toll Plaza on either: +27 (021) 790 8220 or +27 (021) 790 9163.

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Alternatively, you can see the aforementioned blog and website or find and follow them on social media:

(Facebook) http://www.facebook.com/ChapmansPeakDrive or (Twitter) @ChapmansPeakSA.

When weather conditions are favourable, Chappies is open daily, 24/7. (Office hours are from 08:00 a.m. to 17:00 p.m., Monday to Friday.)

Current toll tariff (as of July 1, 2015) for Light Motor Vehicles: R40 either direction.

Many thanks to Chapman’s Peak Drive and to their www.chapmanspeakdrive.co.za website and blog (http://blog.chapmanspeakdrive.co.za), photographers and my travel companions for the additional photos used and information cited in this post, as well as to everyone who has ensured that South Africans and tourists alike have such a breathtaking marine drive to enjoy! 🙂

 

 

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