The Man Who Draped His Jacket Over the Alexandra Dam Wall
NB Publishers has shared an excerpt from Early One Sunday Morning: I Decided To Step Out And Find South Africa, the new book by Luke Alfred.
The chapter is titled “The Man Who Draped His Jacket Over the Alexandra Dam Wall”.
Read the extract:
Constantia Nek via the Overseer’s Cottage and the five Table Mountain dams to the remains of the Kasteelpoort Aerial Cableway and back again – about 15 kilometres
Having climbed about 200 metres above the Constantia Nek parking lot, I stopped to gather my breath.
Summer was creeping from the trees far below, pools of soft yellows and dying greens so various they were difficult to describe. It wasn’t only happening in Tokai and Constantia. Braaing outside one evening before I left Joburg, I was amazed to hear the sound of nearby popping – I couldn’t quite pinpoint from where. The sound was somewhere above me, deep in the trees. It was happening regularly, perhaps in response to the falling temperature, but without rhythm. I listened again. It wasn’t mechanical and it wasn’t that familiar sound of a close-but-faraway woodpecker; neither was it the crazed hammering of a young barbet who often attacked his reflection in a window pane. I sipped my beer, chuckled at my inability to trace the sound, and wondered if I was going slightly mad.
Perhaps invisible children were lobbing acorns onto our tin roof? No, that wasn’t right, but what was it? What on earth could it be? After another puzzled sip, I stalked the sound. The furious pop was coming from splitting wisteria pods, releasing the last of their summer seeds as they fell to the ground. I bent down to examine one: the outer pod was covered in an almost velvet-like skin of olive-green. Inside, the dark wisteria seeds were housed in perfect white hollows like sleepy toddlers eased into a duvet. Back in September I’d started my walk in Pringle country by describing the first heavy fumbling of spring. Now the great river of summer was slowing, dispersing at its end. Up in the darkening sky, the leaves of the stinkwood close to the wisteria were creaking closed like halves of a clam. The walnuts were stretching open their thick green jackets, a sure sign of ripening. Soon our wintertime companions, the rats, would be scrambling for the warmth of the roof.
Autumn was less obvious up on Table Mountain. The fynbos carried on regardless, a kingdom of exquisite miniatures, almost bonsai-like, all delicate pinks and rich reds. I began to notice tiny yellow daisies popping up in the grass that grew between the tracks as I slogged upwards, sometimes on gravel, sometimes on the edge of the concrete slab. In places, dogs had walked in the drying concrete where the jeep track had been repaired. There was something sadly comical about the trail of prints, here one moment, gone the next. I thought about them and why they touched me as they did, as I paused to admire the view. My eye travelled south-east across False Bay to Rooi Els and the faraway pincer of Cape Hangklip. In the middle distance were the cool water ways of Marina da Gama and the bustle of the Muizenberg coast. East of that was the sprawl of the Flats, a milky haze lingering in the air. The morning was still, the few clouds high and silent. It was a wonderful day for a hike.
As I gasped for the summit after about an hour of hard walking, I was passed by about 10 old Mountain Clubbers rolling off the mountain. They were sun-flushed and chirpy, well kitted out in hats and good boots. Two or three pulled themselves along with ski poles. They gave off a good aura, something beyond conviviality or happiness. It had to do with shared experience and made them quietly buoyant, as if they were levitating. As they passed, I heard the bubble of several conversations and then they were gone, spirited away, as if by magic.
Before long I saw the first of the five dams – De Villiers – off to my left. The water level was low, and directly above the high-water mark you could see the almost-white rock of the original dam wall, preserved by the tannin-coloured properties of what was usually a higher water level. The final stripe was almost black, a combination of lichen, pollution and everyday corrosion, but my eye kept on returning to examine the whiteness of the band beneath. This was how it would have pretty much looked when it was built over 100 years ago, the final stone being laid by Sir John Henry de Villiers and various Wynberg councillors in February 1910. It was a glimpse into another time, rare and thrilling. The dog prints were of the same register – traces of what once was, a world gone forever. I am sometimes chilled to wordlessness by such things, yet cannot grope towards understanding with anything but words. The idea that this is all lost, that there were once lives here, and dreams and beating hearts, is sometimes too much for my soul to bear. I think, as I write this, that we might all be born with something like millennial grief. I suspect that I could be more predisposed than others to experiencing it, but certain landscapes surely lend themselves to such feelings more than others. The top-of-themountain tableland, a sort of beautiful outdoor reliquary, full of industrial abandonment and forgotten voices, brought my grief full to the surface. I walked with it as a companion throughout the day.* * * * *
When seen from above, the five dams of what is called the Back Table are not dissimilar in shape to a gigantic question mark, with De Villiers Dam forming the mark’s full stop, angled slightly off to one side. Above that, in the main body of the mark, are Alexandra and Victoria dams and, higher still, Hely-Hutchinson and Woodhead. Named after queens, worthies and mayors, the dams were all built between 1890 and 1910, a response to the growing realisation on the part of City of Cape Town officials that demand for water would soon outstrip supply, a conclusion sharpened by the fact that the middle years of the 1890s were unusually dry ones. Table Mountain and its slopes are, in fact, a network of pipes, tunnels, pump stations and reservoirs. The Woodhead Tunnel, for example, takes water flowing in the Disa River and shoots it off the Back Table above the kramats south of Bakoven.
The water is then channelled back towards Camps Bay along a contour path. If you walk the pipe track (in the opposite direction) from Kloof Nek, you often walk beside these pipes as they transport water via a filtration plant, around the Nek and into the Molteno Reservoir in Oranjezicht. After the tunnel was built, it was embarrassingly realised that the Disa often dried up in summer. The Woodhead Dam was therefore built to supply regular water for the tunnel, which, in turn, fed the Molteno Reservoir, and not the other way round.
Some of the toil and ingenuity that these engineering feats demanded is captured in an album of old black-and-white photographs in the South African Museum, in the Company Gardens. One photograph stands out. It is taken from close to where the Kloof Nek wash houses are today, and shows Lion’s Head in the background. In the foreground is a staging post or temporary camp. We see several two-wheeled trolleys or carts upon which rest a solid wooden base or platform. On this platform lies a massive steel pipe, several metres long. The trolleys have been hauled by faceless teams of African labourers. They all wear gigantic hats and the ropes they’ve been pulling lie curled at their feet. A growing stack of pipes stands next to them in open veld like so many cannon barrels, and everywhere is the spool of dust, f lattened grass and industry, the sharp bite of the African sun on what I would guess is a hot January or February day. A couple of grim Victorian gentlemen with impressive moustaches are standing around, supervising matters. They are wearing pith helmets and breeches, and are dressed as if for hunting or exploration. In some photos they have brought their dogs.
The labour segment between the unsmiling British engineers and the slaves was occupied by professional working men. These were often Welsh or Cornish miners induced to the Cape in search of opportunities just like this. They dug the Woodhead Tunnel and ferried out the rock in cocopans. They also built the brick aqueducts that supported the pipe, clean and neat and expressive of an age when masons and dressers of stone were not far removed from artists.
Each dam has its own shape, design and engineering challenges, although all are broadly similar. Looking down off the De Villiers Dam wall, for example, there appear to be what look like four stone hinges at the base of the wall. They almost look like the flying buttresses one sees in medieval cathedrals, except they’re far smaller, acting as covers, perhaps, for run-off to a small pump house nearby and ultimately down into an indigenous forest on the Hout Bay side of the mountain below. For some unknown reason – perhaps it was the microclimate or the rays of the sun – the dam wall on this side is generally cleaner and appears to have weathered better than the other walls that I looked at deeper into my walk. On closer inspection, I also noticed that the cleanest part of the dam wall on the water side wasn’t entirely white. It was mostly white, sometimes darkening to a gentle cinnamon or biscuit colour. Still, all these dams were handsome structures, built with what I can only describe as love by the masons and engineered with grave, clean dignity by a Scottish civil engineer called Thomas Stewart.
It is not only the gentle curve of the dam walls that captures the imagination. Further along, past the Overseer’s Cottage (and its wild sprawl of button-sized stone roses growing outside) and up a gentle incline lies Alexandra Dam and, head to tail, as it were, Victoria Dam beyond that. You are not meant to swim in these dams or drink their water, the colour of Fanta Orange, but at the thinnest point of Victoria – its ankle, you might say – I stopped to drink and unwrap a sweet.
I found a comfortable rock, enjoyed the shade it provided, and looked east towards the dam wall. Beyond the wall, my eye fell onto the top peaks of the Hottentots Holland range on the other side of False Bay, some 50 kilometres away. I sensed that all the dams were built like this. They were built according to the sturdy principles of functionality but there was always something aesthetically satisfying about them, some soft nod or acknowledgement to the beauty of form.
Beyond that they often snagged in the land in such a way so as not to dwarf the broader environment – and what rose and fell all around. Like an excessively polite visitor loath to intrude, they were not meant to draw attention to themselves. In their restraint and proportion, however, they did the very opposite of what perhaps was intended. You wanted to look again, or look more carefully. It was not only an exercise in watching time up here but it was a long seminar in aesthetics. These dams demanded that you look with hunger, almost acquisitively, and when you had looked for a long while you looked some more.
Once I was up on the Back Table proper, the walking was level and easy. There were no trees up here except for the odd spreadeagled old pine. The fynbos was fragrant and delicate. There were bulrushes and small shrubs, all tiny-leaved and looking vaguely medicinal. This for lumbago, I could imagine some wise Noordhoek hippy telling me, an infusion of this for heart-sickness. Drink tea of such-and-such for ailments of the liver and spleen. A poultice of this for flowery language, perhaps, and this for the writer who suffers from the curse of taking himself too seriously. I busied along, eager for the next dams, the star attractions – Woodhead and Hely-Hutchinson.
I wasn’t disappointed, although best of all were not the dams themselves but the walk between them. You can thread a path at the foot of the Hely-Hutchinson, looking to your left at the wind-ruffled surface of the Woodhead, her dark waters somehow grave and weighty. Up to your right, rising up like the cliff of a canyon is the Hely-Hutchinson wall, bowed and, at eye level, busy with moss, lichen, calcium stains and leaks. As I turned around to draw a brick weir in my notebook, I noticed a black grass snake seeping ghost-like into its hole. A chill brushed over me.
The weir and outlet canal were magnificent, made of the same dressed stone as the dams and quarried nearby. There were weeds and grasses growing in its cracks now but there was something monumental here, and so pleasing. A vision perhaps or at least a philosophy. It made me want to know more about Stewart and the men who laid every lump of stone, each one painstakingly dressed, each one subtly different. As I walked through the non-existent shadow of the dam wall (I somehow imagine, now, in recollection, that there was shadow), I noticed that each block of stone had a depression in it, like a belly-button. Each small hollow was equidistant from the long sides, and no matter what the dimensions or shape of the block it was almost always in the same place. As I examined a block of stone, my eye passed upwards to something snagging on the edge of my peripheral vision. Two large crows were standing imperiously on the dam wall railings. Seen from below, they looked large and unusually menacing. Later in the afternoon, as I climbed off the mountain, I noticed them again, tumbling carelessly above the slopes. There were now three and they played in the wind without care or sorrow. ‘Listening to the crows and wind,’ I remember texting my wife, now that the cellphone signal was restored as I edged off the Back Table after nearly six hours’ walking to the Constantia Nek parking lot.
Beyond the far edge of the Hely-Hutchinson reservoir wall (to judge from the inlaid plaques on the walls they are properly called reservoirs) is a small waterworks museum, now closed. The museum is surrounded by steam cranes with massive blackened boilers and large pieces of heavy machinery, wheels and bogies. I struggled to read the maker’s name on the crane, but could just make out the words ‘JM Wilson and Company, Liverpool’. I walked around, peering through the windows and reading the artefacts’ captions upside down.
There was a carbide miner’s lamp, some old-fashioned scales and a ship’s bell: ‘This was mounted outside the resident engineer’s office above the Woodhead Reservoir. (This later became the Waterworks Overseer’s home.) The bell was used to ring out the daily working hours during the construction of the two dams.’
Pride of place in the museum goes to a small narrow-gauge steam engine imported from Kilmarnock in Scotland. Material, including cement in casks, also imported from Scotland, was initially transported from the Kasteelpoort Aerial Cableway in miniature trucks pulled by mules. Later, the engine was imported, dismantled at the foot of the cableway and then reassembled once the parts had reached the top. The route it followed from the edge of the mountain can be walked from the waterworks museum, past the stone quarry and behind the Mountain Club hut, which occupies a bluff overlooking the Woodhead Dam. Continue further past the three old pines, and the jeep track seems to follow almost perfectly the curve of what was once the railway line.
You can see the rubble-raised corners and the straights. Alongside the track are slightly raised concrete platforms, now weathered and overgrown with bushes and fynbos. Worker compounds were apparently erected on these platforms. There was even a kraal for animals. Workers, including the Cornish masons, Welsh miners and Pondo labourers, lived here for about three years, as did Stewart, living on this subtle tableland as he supervised the completion of the Woodhead. Today there is evidence everywhere of human habitation – some of it fairly recent. There are three or four old boarded-up houses and a cloying air of gentle melancholy.
At the end of a slight curve, with the Atlantic glistening at your feet, are the remnants of the Kasteelpoort Aerial Cableway. Not much remains. There is a rectangular stone blockhouse, which was probably used to house the winching equipment, and you can see holes in the walls through which the cable wire passed. Peer over the edge and you can see old timber slats bolted into the rock face. These were probably used to anchor or direct the cables – possibly to protect them. Looking about, hearing the surge of the wind in your ears, it is impossible not to marvel at the mad audacity of what you have just seen. It all has a slight sandcastles-in-the-sand type feel. Soon enough, a final high tide is going to wash away the last remains for ever.
There is a photograph loitering on the internet of Stewart and a colleague being pulled up from Camps Bay in the Kasteelpoort lift. The men are close to the top and both look upwards, directly at the camera, neither looking happy. It’s not entirely surprising: the lift or basket amounts to nothing more than a rudimentary cage with wooden planks for a floor. One can imagine the horror of a wind-buffeted descent or the awkwardness of having to share the limited space with some small but vital piece of equipment. Still, such journeys might have been relatively infrequent, because Stewart spent all of the three years required to build the Woodhead with his engineers and labourers up on the mountain. By the time the Hely-Hutchinson was needed, however, he’d had enough and decided to get married, spending most of his time in the suburbs below. Trips onto the Back Table became rare. Having recommended several good sites for natural catchment closer to the Constantia Nek side of the mountain, he might even have decided to have walked the route that I just had – climbing onto the Back Table via the zigzag path and the jeep track from the Constantia Nek saddle.
Although it is a beautiful structure, the Woodhead Dam’s contribution to solving Cape Town’s water problems was negligible. At the end of the 1890s, the demand for water from the city and its adjoining municipalities (like Wynberg) had spiked. There were various reasons for this state of affairs. The upgrade and extension of the local sewerage scheme demanded far more water than had hitherto been the case.
Winter rains were also poor during the immediately preceding period, and there was an influx of visitors, soldiers and refugees because of the upcountry Boer War. Folk were clearly drinking themselves silly. This being the case, the authorities impressed upon Stewart the need for another dam, and this became the Hely-Hutchinson, built with largely the same crew, living in the original compound. ‘As a matter of practical importance the construction [of Hely-Hutchinson] could be carried out from the existing camp,’ he wrote in a report to the council, noting that after surveying the area once again, he had identified locations for further dams. In time, these became the Victoria, Alexandra and De Villiers dams, all three serving the flush and bumptious Wynberg Municipality, which had yet to be incorporated into the greater Cape Town metropole.
After inspecting the Kasteelpoort structure, I walked back towards the Mountain Club hut, tugging down on my cap every so often to prevent it from being blown off my head. I’d frozen water overnight and now downed what remained, nestling into a perfect hollow between two craggy pine roots as I sat down to munch nuts and dried pears. Up above, the pine branches creaked and drifted in the wind, and I sunk into bliss. As I sat in this perfect chair and ate in this perfect outdoor restaurant, I cast an eye over my immediate surroundings. Off to my right, a couple of metres away, there was a patch of grass that looked almost level enough to accommodate my tent. I fantasised about whether I would get away with it. My morning had been dogged by a white Cape Nature bakkie nosing along the jeep track to open sluices and transport hikers’ equipment to and from the Overseer’s Cottage, rented out to groups for the night. They had passed me four or five times and might head this way again, although I somehow doubted it. At nightfall, having made sure the mountain was empty, I’d pitch my tent, haul out some boerewors or steak, build the small fire that, if found, would see me fined or imprisoned.
Of course, I did nothing of the sort. I finished my supplies, becoming just slightly morose as I realised what I could have been eating. In my mind’s eye I conjured up a fresh white roll, fat with cheese and mayonnaise. I was happy and relaxed and content yet I was also none of these things because, as I heaved a final handful of raw nuts into my mouth, I was dissatisfied. No, I was more than that: I was discontented.
Indeed, I was sinking – quite rapidly – into a little strop of discontent. I was spoiled, I knew it. I was also, more importantly, underprepared. Our sons were always laughing at what they saw as my hopeless propensity for thrift, which manifested itself most obviously in undercatering. Now I was undercatering for myself. This was emotional terrorism of the worst kind. There are those who cater well and are therefore happy, which was my homespun version of René Descartes’s famous dictum. Yet here I was, undercatered for and therefore unhappy. It was the perfect booby trap because I could do nothing about it either, which made me realise that I must – at some level – like being unhappy.
Perhaps even being unhappy, perversely, made me happy, although, of course, we could spin this out in a different way, which was that being unhappy, given that I had undercatered, simply deepened my unhappiness. This was a sobering thought, a more sobering thought than the relatively straightforward recognition that I had undercatered. Was this the perfect definition of the postmodern condition – the idea that even in our quiet reveries, the rare periods in which we are at our most content and happy, we are, in fact, unhappy, and unhappy for no more compelling reason than we are forever wanting what we can’t and don’t have. So that’s it, is it? Our post-industrial, privileged lives are no more than high-wire balancing acts, with the possibility of happiness stretched thinly before us and the great chasm of unhappiness beckoning everywhere else. Maybe such feelings aren’t confined to our current epoch. Perhaps all people, across time, have lusted after what they can’t have, for this is what differentiates the human from the animal. It seems that animals are at one with their appetites, whereas we humans are never spiritually reconciled. We are forever snagged on the horns of better alternatives, always having to deal with the worm of dissatisfaction.
Yet was this quite right? I was behaving pretty much like an animal now, wasn’t I, worrying about base instincts, like hunger? I might have been trapped in the Escher-like stairway of my own thoughts but, at the instinctual level, I was still an animal. Perhaps this was it – we were all unhappy animals, were we not? Despite my feelings of being hard done by food-wise, I realised that as I packed up and resumed my way, I was boundlessly and stupidly happy. As I started my gentle downward climb, I noticed that the lunchtime heat was softened by a growing wind. I walked back towards the gorgeous bow of a footpath at the base of the Hely-Hutchinson Dam wall and looked around with renewed vigour. I passed wild geranium. The flowers were mauve and everywhere the geranium’s leaves were dusted with a furzy down. I marvelled at their hardy longevity and skipped on, noticing that clouds were now scudding in from the south-west. More and more of them poured in as the afternoon shadows grew longer, and eventually they covered the Silvermine mountains with a shifting blanket of cloud. As I walked past the Hely-Hutchinson wall, I noticed that water was being released into the Woodhead through a masonry culvert. It was folding at my feet, frothing in great creamy bubbles like freshly poured Guinness, as it made its way through marshy ground and eventually into the shallow reaches of its partner dam alongside. I barrelled on, walking briskly. There was no one on the mountain any more, and I had it all to myself. I walked brazenly into the cloud-littered afternoon.
Before long, I came alongside the two middle dams. I wasn’t entirely sure, but one of the old black-and-white photographs I’d seen on an earlier trip to the National Library showed the workings on either the Alexandra or Victoria Dam wall. Above the dam wall, supported by a lattice of pine slats, was a substantial wooden bridge. The tracks held a steam crane, which ran to and fro on rails approximately the length of the wall itself. Below the dam wall was another set of rails, supporting a rudimentary platform upon which rested a second, less powerful crane or winch. The dam wall, growing upwards and surprisingly thick, stretched between the upper and lower railway lines. According to some of the research I had done, the dam walls were often filled with rubble masonry, then ‘faced with dressed stone’. This one must have been 10 metres thick, so comfortable that it supported loads of recently quarried rock, as well as two large groups of workers. I noticed that a couple of labourers had removed their dark jackets and had hung them casually over the top of the dam wall. Looking more carefully still, I noticed that one mason was in the midst of draping his jacket over the dam wall as the photograph was being taken. He was wearing a hat and his face was shrouded in shadow, but the act was unmistakable. These were days before the advent of institutional uniforms and overalls, when men wore waistcoats, hats and jackets to work. Who was this refugee from the gloom of the past? How exactly did his labours have an impact on the project and its completion? I couldn’t help myself, and ached to know more. Where was he from? What were his loves and private reveries? Placing a jacket on a dam wall was an act so careful, so intimately human, that I found it touching. The dams were all named and celebrated, Stewart and his fellow engineers feted and recognised, but who speaks for the massed dignity of the casually forgotten? Who lights a candle for the nameless man in the black hat placing his jacket on a dam wall in an act so everyday that he did it both carefully and without thought. Where did he go to when he got off the mountain? I imagine he had his boots shined, afterwards sauntering into an Adderley Street bar, where the barman pulled him a pint. With a steady hand he took his drink to a quiet table, the quietest corner of the bar.
He sipped from the beer’s head, took out paper and a fountain pen from his jacket pocket and closed his eyes, better to imagine his wife’s fragrance. Sun was wafting through a far-off window, he could almost feel it on his skin. He thought of her laughter and the way she lowered her eyes when he teased her. He remembered the mole on the nape of her neck and began to write her his weekly letter.