lighthouses on the West Coast

Red, white and blue: Cape Columbine is one of five South African lighthouses with guest accommodation

Seeing a SA lighthouse inspired a maker’s descendant to delve into their history, writes Sarah Hudleston.

There is something rather romantic about lighthouses. If you sit on the beach at night at Beira, as we did as children when we used to camp at the Club Nautico on sailing trips, you can see the Macuti lighthouse.

My 10-year-old sister and cousin were so inspired by it they wrote a 26-verse epic poem, which they managed to get published in their school magazine even though it ground along in the vein of Macuti by day, Macuti by night, its pulsing rays give ships a good light …

This and thousands of other lighthouses were built with lenses manufactured by one firm — Chance Brothers of Smethwick, near Birmingham in England.

Now one of the brothers’ descendants, Toby Chance, has written a history of lighthouses with the emphasis on the part his family played in making the world’s shipping lanes a lot safer.

Chance’s collaborator on Lighthouses: The Race to Illuminate The World is Peter Williams, founder of Leading Lights, a lighthouse enthusiast magazine with a surprisingly large readership. Williams has visited many of the Chance lighthouses while Chance himself visited the South African lighthouses and many of the 200 lighthouses in Britain. He also got inside the Port Said lighthouse in Egypt, which although out use since the sea level has receded, is still lovingly cared for with its lenses polished to perfection.

Although many of the 2400 lighthouses originally built with Chance lenses are not operating, many are still in perfect order. A large number have also been converted to electricity, but in some of the world’s more remote places, they still have the original oil-fired mechanisms. M ost, however, still have the original Chance lenses.

Chance says his book is supposed to be a work of history, not travel. He was inspired after a visit to the Slangkop lighthouse near Kommetjie.

“The lighthouse keeper could not believe he was talking to a Chance. I decided there must be a lot of interest in lighthouses and decided to record the history of my family through their work with lighthouses.”

The underlying theme, though, is the spread of science, technology and politics in the 19th century. In his research, Chance read family diaries which recorded odd social interactions with people of vastly different cultural backgrounds. “This story needs to be placed in the context of colonialism and the expansion of the Empire,” said Chance.

Using the Internet, Chance uncovered a large number of “obscure academic papers which I was able to knit together to make into a story”.

Pushing the family firm from being a manufacturer of glass into lighthouse optics, James Chance, the author’s great-great grandfather, cemented the firm’s fortunes and earned a baronetcy for his services to Britain.

The family’s venture into glass first began in 1788 with the construction of a glass factory. In 1822 Lucas Chance bought the British Crown Glass Company outside Birmingham, and it was this business that his nephew, James, made a household name.

In the years after he launched his new dioptric lens at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851, the Chance Brothers supplied the mechanisms and/or built the structures of lighthouses around the world.

Seventy-six lighthouses were built in Newfoundland, 61 in New Zealand, South Africa had 31 and Mozambique three, including the now-immortalised Macuti lighthouse. Countries from Borneo to Holland all opted for Chance lighthouses.

Lighthouses: The Race to Illuminate The World by Peter Williams and Toby Chance is available from at R353.95.

If you go …

Lighthouse tourism is growing worldwide as pharologists — lighthouse spotters — and ordinary tourists looking for a remote and romantic retreat at the ocean’s edge are opting for lighthouse stays.

The US, Europe and Australia have hundreds of stays on offer while southern Africa has a mere handful.

The most luxurious of the local offerings is the inactive Shark Island Lighthouse at the Shark Island Resort in Lüderitz, which will set you back a princely R500 per night.

Of South Africa’s 31 lighthouses, just five offer accommodation.

In the Western Cape, you can choose from three — in one of the three cottages at Cape Columbine near Paternoster on the West Coast, or in the self-catering cottage at Cape St Blaize, outside Mossel Bay. Danger Point — which looks across to the notorious rock that sank the HMS Birkenhead — also has self-catering accommodation. Heading up the coast, accommodation is available at the Great Fish Point lighthouse near Port Alfred, and the North Sand Bluff Lighthouse at Port Edward has two romantic cottages on offer.

If hunkering down with friends in a lonely lighthouse doesn’t appeal, daytime visits are possible to most of the country’s lighthouses.

For bookings and information, Further information is available on the National Ports Authority website www.transnetnationalportsauthority. net.