Freedom Day 2015: A Visit to the Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town (Part 2)

(To see Part 1 of my review, please see: http://tamlynamberwanderlust.com/?p=1012)

After the Key Ceremony, we all gathered around the small bronze cannon near the pathway’s edge, knowing that now, at last, we’d get to watch (and hear) the Signal Cannon being fired as the two gentlemen from the Cannon Association* were willing to show off their fine little cannon.

* (In partnership with the Castle, members of the Cannon Association restore and ‘rescue’ cannons, thus preserving them for the future. Some rather ancient ones have even been saved from rubbish dumps where they would otherwise have been left to rust away.

The man told us that, whilst he realises it is a fairly strange passion, he and his colleagues are dedicated to the preservation of such historical machinery. Personally, listening to him speak about the cannons and his concern for them in that way, I found it more touching and inspirational than strange, as he’s clearly someone who knows and loves his craft…)

The cannon in question was an English gun, a half-pounder from around 1777, that, if it were to still use its true shot these days (it is his job to ensure that it does not, as it could do some serious damage), would fire an 80 gram charge, (we were briefly shown this before it was carefully put back into a bright red box labelled ‘Explosives’) with a 5-6 metre firing range.

The cannon master – as I mentally dubbed him (it seems a fitting title) – gave us an excellent and fascinatingly in-depth verbal explanation, as his assistant, John, provided the physical demonstrations, on how to maintain and fire the half-pounder.

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We learnt how gunners used to have to clean the cannon after the firing of each shot using various tools such as: the ladle, the rammer, the ‘pricker’ and so forth.

(A cloth bag, filled with gun powder, was used in the firing process and a tool known as ‘the worm’ would then be used to extract the burning remnants from the bag, before a sponging tool – that many of us mistakenly assume would have been for the cleaning of the cannon – was pushed down the barrel and into the chamber to extinguish any burning embers. This was an essential part of the loading procedure as it ensured the gunners’ safety.)

Nowadays, they make the charges up in aluminium foil, which, as the cannon master said: “(This) is, of course, cheating, but this is our concession to the modern age of safety.” Before he added in explanation: “Aluminium foil does not lie smouldering in the chamber, it doesn’t start bush fires or anything like that.”

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After that, once the cannon was all but ready to be fired and everyone had been shepherded away from the firing line, the cannon master indicated towards a cylindrical container, saying that, for a hundred rand (R100) donation fee, a member of the audience could, with his assistance, be the one to fire the cannon.

On this first occasion – which I was present for at ground level, as I was standing almost directly behind the cannon with my video camera at the ready – a boy, presumably between the age of 10-12, rushed up with the necessary amount and, with the cannon master’s hands protectively covering his ears, got to fire the cannon.

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The boom was quite considerable, I have to admit and there was a lot of nervous laughter and a few startled exclamations upon its firing.

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I did manage to capture the firing but I think it’s something to experience for yourself so I have against uploading the video, although it came out surprisingly well and really captured the audience’s verbal reactions.

(Honestly, every time I heard it go off – which was four times, as it is fired on the hour, between 10h00-13h00 – the cannon’s boom only seemed to grow in volume.)

Once the smoke had (quite literally) cleared and the excitement had died down, the crowd dispersed as we went off in separate directions to continue exploring the Castle grounds.

Although I made particular note of a nearby sign that read ‘Tour Departures’, I wasn’t sure that there would be an official guided tour (there were a number of unofficial ones), so, with my trusty ‘Gateway Guide’ in hand, I set off to explore as much of the Castle as possible (I think I did a pretty good job of it too, as, barring the sections that were undergoing extensive renovations, I covered the main areas indicated on the map).

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First off, I decided to visit the William Fehr Exhibition, which is housed in the Block F’s Kat Balcony. This beautifully ornate balcony is believed to have been designed by German sculptor and woodcarver, Anton Anreith, who worked with military engineer and architect, Louis Michel Thibault (after whom the city’s Thibault Square derives its name) on it.

Be sure to have a look at the VOC-marked 1748 cannon guarding its doors -it was discovered in 1961 when it was brought up in the net of a fishing trawler, ‘George Irvin’ twenty-nine miles west south-west of the Cape of Good Hope* where it had lain 1800 ft below the ocean’s surface for more than 200 years. Out of all the cannons I saw at the Castle, this was my firm favourite.

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*(I will be doing a travel review on that special place in the future so watch this space…:) )

As with most exhibitions, the rules of: no photos (note: this includes using smartphones for snaps so, to be safe, I kept my phone tucked in my pocket the entire time I was in there), touching, smoking, eating and drinking apply. Also, child prams are not permitted inside.

There are staff on-hand to monitor visitors’ behaviour but please adhere to the rules and keep an eye on the little ones as this exhibition features seriously antiquated items that, up until this point, have been most well-preserved… let’s keep them that way.

The Collection – originally lent to the Castle in 1952 by businessman and fine art collector, William Fehr before it was bought from him by the local government in 1964 – features, “fine examples of paintings and decorative arts relating to the Cape… It contains a wealth of historical information about the peoples and landscapes of early colonial South Africa and is one of the most important public collections of artefacts of the period.”

There are some really beautiful and fascinating items on display in the Exhibition and I really enjoyed carefully taking in every inch of the place.

My two favourite items were the antique golden cutlery display and the long-case clock, made by Dutch clockmaker (or so I assume), Gerrit Marcus. This is dated as ‘c.1760-1775’ and honestly, it’s impossible to adequately describe how intricate and breathtakingly crafted this really is… you have to witness it for yourself; I was absolutely spellbound by its beauty.

Upstairs, one can find the rather long (I didn’t bother walking right to the end of the room, it was that long) Anne Barnard Banquet Hall. According to our tour guide, it can be rented out for formal functions and seats 101 – easy to believe!

The Exhibition is well worth spending a good half an hour or so taking in – I’m not usually a big fan of exhibitions of any sort, but I enjoyed it and truly think this is one of the finest ones around.

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After that, I went across to the Inner Archway and then proceeded through into the Inner Court, which, whilst it is not as architecturally stunning as the Outer Court, is charming in its own respects too. I actually think it affords one even better, clearer views of The Mountain.

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Here you will find a guidepost indicating where the following places are: Sally Port, Torture (Chamber), Forge and (Dolphin) Pool.

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This is the part where I confess that, though I did the first tour of the Castle wholly on my lonesome so to speak, I did follow fairly closely behind a separate, unofficial Afrikaans guided tour group, which helped me to access where I could or could not go and to pick up extra info.

I followed said group to the Forge (the main tour did not come here as we were pressed for time and they are only able to cover the Castle’s main highlights/places of note). It was dusty and quite dark but I liked seeing the old machinery and implements… Some of my favourite shots of the day were captured there.

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(I didn’t go into the Bakery or Bakhuys, as it seemed to be closed off to the public but it is located nearby.)

After that, I rather reluctantly went into the Torture Chamber. (In essence, it’s just two small rooms, one of which is known as the ‘Donker Gat’ – translated, this means ‘dark hole’ – where prisoners were kept in perpetual darkness for months on end as a means of torture… I didn’t even want to peek through its ‘doorway’, it was too terrifyingly dark.)

I entered just as the last stragglers of the group were filing out and even though I was only in the main room – where confessions were extracted from prisoners via various means of torture and brutality (I will go into more detail about this another time) – for a few moments and I didn’t sense any spirits (there are rumoured to be several ghosts that haunt various sections of the Castle… Personally, I didn’t see or feel anything strange during my visit so perhaps I scared them instead) per se, I did feel most uneasy inside there and once I had taken a photo or two for my blog, I hurried away from there altogether.

 

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There’s something undeniably chilling about it, even before you learn of the unforgivable things that once transpired within. I am glad that walls can’t talk, for I would not like to hear the tales those ones could have told me.

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Next, I visited the Grain Cellar (I know my dad would utterly refuse to go into a place like that as it’s almost a ‘one person thoroughfare’ with a very narrow passage, so avoid it if you are at all claustrophobic…) and the Arsenal in Catzellenbogen (more about this later on).

These are musty and fairly dank, dark sections of the Castle but there is artificial lighting provided (at least until Eskom strikes… I was lucky enough to have full lighting on my first tour of the Castle but, later on the guided tour, we were somewhat less fortunate…) and they are still interesting to visit. I especially liked the old archways (and cannons) found in and around this area.

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After that, I crossed over to the Dolphin Pool. It was undergoing extensive restoration and was thus empty when I saw it, so don’t expect it to look as lovely as it does in the image featured in the Gateway Guide if you visit the Castle any time soon.

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Still, I loved this section of the Castle and had no difficulty seeing why Lady Anne used to sit on the balcony that overlooks the pool whilst she did her sketches. (The Governor’s old cellars and the former coach house and stables are also in the immediate area.)

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From there, I went to check out the old well found in a tiny room just off from the Inner Archway and, after a moment’s hesitation and a quickly uttered prayer, I rather boldly stuck my phone through the protective gate to get a clear, ‘bar-free’ photo of the deep, dark drop below. (Needless to say, I held onto my smartphone like a vise as I did that…)DSC_0658

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I went back to the Outer Courtyard, where, as luck would have it, I saw people gathering (the crowds had really picked up by this time) and it was announced that the official guided tours would be departing shortly.

After a moment’s deliberation, with something of a wry smile, I decided to join the tour group – having taken all the photos I needed and explored enough on my own for the time being – and soon our tour guide was gathering everyone round.

At this point, you get split into either English or Afrikaans groups based on your mother tongue and preference thereof – naturally, I opted for the English tour. (Though, if I go back sometime later this year, I think I will embark on the Afrikaans one. 🙂 )

Now, I feel it’s important to give a few useful hints about exploring the Castle based on my individual experience.

If you do decide to go on either of the hour-long official tours (and I strongly recommend that you do), be sure to explore on your own before the time (or even afterwards) for the following reasons:

  • It helps you to know what to expect.
  • There are less crowds, if any.
  • You have ample time to take photos, read the Castle signage and wander around at your own leisurely pace.
  • It really allows you explore each and every nook and cranny.
  • Gives you greater freedom – and you aren’t limited to what you do or don’t cover on the tour. (For example: If you want to skip the Torture Chamber because you find it ‘spooky’ or disturbing, then do that.)
  • You can also decide when to fit in the William Fehr Exhibition and the Military Museum. (For example, I did the first before exploring the rest of the Castle but checked out the latter after our tour.)

In the third and final Castle of Good Hope instalment (aka Part 3) I will include some interesting info. – courtesy of our excellent tour guide – as well as brief historical accounts of the Castle’s rich history too, my experience of and feedback from the tour (so, almost a tour review, in a sense) and my fun moments exploring the Military Museum and Leerdam Bastion rooftop and seeing the Castle’s lovely guest horses.

Please be sure to check it out if you enjoyed this instalment (or Part 1)! 🙂

Many thanks to the www.castleofgoodhope.com brochure and to the Castle of Good Hope itself for the additional info. used in this post.

Author: Tamlyn Amber Ryan

Tamlyn Ryan is a writer and blogger, who runs her own travel blog, called Tamlyn Amber Wanderlust. Despite a national diploma in Journalism, her preferred niche remains travel writing. She is a hopeless wanderer, equipped with an endless passion for road trips, carefully planned, holiday itineraries and above all else, the great outdoors.

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