Lighthouses of South Africa

Bookshelf: Lighthouses of South Africa

Lighthouses of South Africa – Gerald Hoberman

Word of the day: pharology, meaning “the study of lighthouses”.

Lighthouses of South Africa
Lighthouses of South Africa – Gerald Hoberman

I can think of no other edifice constructed by man as altruistic as a lighthouse. They were built only to serve.

George Bernard Shaw

I’ve had this book next to my bed for a while, but it got shunted to the bottom of the pile of books and I only rediscovered it recently. Gerald Hoberman is a South African travel photographer who is responsible for many of the postcards you see depicting iconic images of Table Mountain and the Cape Peninsula. He often works with one of his sons, Marc, but this is a solo project he did with the assistance of a pharologist.

This is a wonderful book. I loved it – I read half of it to Tony, constantly interrupted him to show him pictures of birds, seals, lighthouses, rocks, and wild portions of the South African coastline, and immediately started trying to figure out how I could live in a lighthouse for a while. He was glad, and I was sorry, when I finished reading it!

This book is a historical document as much as it is a celebration of the people who are custodians of these wild, sea-battered places all along our coastline. Hoberman visited every single lighthouse on the South African coast, and provides detailed technical information for the pharologist (what kind of light, how strong, its range, and so on), and beautiful photographs illustrating the locations, exteriors and interiors of these singular buildings: polished brass, graceful spiral staircases, and shining optics with commanding views over some of the wildest seas on our coastline.

There are several photographs of lighthouse keepers and technicians, smiling and proud and clearly in love with their jobs and fully aware of the responsibility involved. There are some brief interviews and stories from these folk, and I was filled with admiration (and not a little bit of jealousy) that they are able to spend their time in these often remote outposts. Many of the landscape photos were taken from helicopters, and these aerial views perfectly illustrate the isolation of many of the lighthouses.

Several of the wrecks we dive are within view of lighthouses – in Durban there’s the Cooper’s Light wreck, and just recently we dived on the Cape Matapan which is within sight of the Green Point lighthouse. The Green Point lighthouse also looks over the SS SA Seafarer and the RMS Athens. Lighthouses were often erected in response to several shipwrecks at a particular site, or to mark a reef or blinder that was a danger to shipping. I was amused to read that the original Cape Point lighthouse was built too high up, so it spends most of the time when it should be warning ships shrouded in fog. Now it’s a monitoring station for lighthouses around the country. The current, working lighthouse, was built closer to sea level and under the fog banks.

Incidentally, I learned a little bit about photography from this book: taking pictures at first light (not my best time of day!) and just around sunset is once again demonstrated to be the ideal time. And simple composition, especially when your subject is something like the interior of a lighthouse with many complex cogs and gears and shiny metal parts, is best.

Tony making trouble in front of Slangkop lighthouse in Kommetjie. Does this count as "simple composition"?
Tony making trouble in front of Slangkop lighthouse in Kommetjie. Does this count as “simple composition”?

Since the Cape coast is so notorious for shipwrecks – partly because of its wild seas and bracing winds, and partly (I think) because the peninsula is a funny-shaped piece of land to navigate around – there are a lot of lighthouses in the greater Cape Town area. Many of them are open to the public, and I think visiting some of them is now on my to-do list.

There’s a large format coffee table version that you can buy here, and the smaller version (exactly the same content, just smaller – this is the one I have, but be warned that the text is quite small and may be hard to read) that you might be able to find at Exclusive Books or similar. Non-South African readers can buy a copy here.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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