by Melanie Du Toit on March 7, 2017
4 min read

A sunny Saturday morning in South Africa‘s darling city saw me venture underground, beneath the 17th-century bastion fort known as the Castle of Good Hope. I was embarking on a Tunnel Tour. Lauded as the oldest building in the country, the castle’s distinctive walls and iconic pentagon design are in stark contrast to its surroundings: Cape Town‘s towering business buildings, bustling sidewalks, and car-filled streets.

Cape of Good Hope is the beginning of the Tunnel Tour

Our story begins at an obscure manhole adjacent to the castle, marked only by a single orange cone many would be forgiven for simply walking past. Once beneath the surface, adventure-goers find themselves navigating a series of stormwater drainage tunnels that are connected beneath the city, mapping out underground passageways that lead from the likes of the castle to parliament.

No matter their end point, all of these tunnels carry water that stems from one source: Table Mountain.  Water from Table Mountain filters down to its base, reaching the tunnels and flowing through them before eventually reaching the chilly Atlantic Ocean waters on the other side of the City Bowl.

The hole at the start of the Tunnel Tour

It’s hard to believe but nigh on two centuries ago, these tunnels were open and Cape Town looked more like Venice than the city it is today (minus the gondolas and Italian phrases that would have wafted down the canals). When the City Bowl was nothing but farmland and Victorian houses with broekie-lace terraces dotted the streets, open canals lined them, too.

It's hard to believe there are tunnels under this beautiful spot

These canals, far from being the picturesque waterways we imagine today, were pollution hotspots and major causes of devastating disease outbreaks at that time. It was even said that sailors used to return to their home ports after tours around the Cape and tell their loved ones that Cape Town was a city you could smell before you could see. Sounds appetising, right?

A wall at the Castle of Good Hope

Officials knew that something had to be done. Following a particularly nasty and detrimental bout of disease outbreak, it was decided that Cape Town had become a breeding ground for despair and its canals were the cause for this distress. Over the next 35 years, bricks were brought over from England to cover the canals. It was said that South African furnaces didn’t burn hot enough to set bricks that would withstand the passage of time and the onslaught mother nature unleashed following winter rains. Eventually, the canals were covered,  the city was built up around them, and over time people forgot that they even existed – until now, that is.

Discovering the forgotten tunnels on the Tunnel Tour

With the friendly, amusing, and thoroughly knowledgeable guides from Good Hope Adventures, myself and a group of other self-described explorers meandered around the castle and into the depths below it, protected by bright pink hard hats and led by trusty torches.

Matt Wiese journeyed with us on the Tunnel Tour

Considering the city’s current water crisis, I was more than a little surprised to enter the storm water drain and feel mountain water rushing past me and skimming my ankles. The cavern below is decidedly large once you’ve turned your head torch on and looked around – large enough that a claustrophobic-prone worry wart such as myself felt totally fine.

You can get a bit wet on the Tunnel Tour

From this point onwards, our journey saw us head upstream beneath what is the City Bowl’s famed District Six region and downstream again towards what would have been the sea. Low rumblings could be heard emanating beneath the earth here and there, the only sign that there was a train passing by overhead. Nails line parts of these drains and are the only indicators of how high water levels can become after it rains, with bits of natural debris such as spider webs, twigs, and leaves hanging from them.

Watching out for permanent residents of the tunnels Matt, our tunnel tour guide, warned us to keep an eye out as remnants of the last century have often been picked up off the floor, whether in the form of old buttons fallen from an unfortunate sailor’s uniform or coins that must have slipped into the canal decades before. We were also told to keep an eye out for the more permanent residents of these stormwater drains: faint scuttling and a well-pointed flashlight unveiled large cockroaches who shied away from the glare.

A lovely discovery on the Tunnel TourAfter an afternoon spent exploring the castle and what lay beneath its foundations, learning of the ghosts who wandered the underground tunnels, and a few moments being serenaded by a woodwind instrument in the dark, our tunnel tour journey came to an end. We had reached a wooden doorway which led us out into the sunlight, above ground, onto a busy road, and back into the 21st Century.

Even a crab can be spotted

Special Thanks:

Good Hope Adventures

To embark on this Tunnel Tour adventure (and many others around Cape Town), contact Matt Wiese.