1913 and motor cars were becoming more commonplace on the streets of Cape Town. An All Round the Cape Peninsula Road (ARCPR) had been mooted, which included a stretch of mountain face between Noordhoek and Hout Bay.
In a letter to the Cape Publicity Association date March 1910, the Commissioner of Public Works remarked that a road between Hout Bay and Noordhoek along the coast was impossible.
He remarked that such a road would present "features of extreme difficulty, there being in one section over a mile of perpendicular cliffs to contend with." He noted that these cliffs were high and sheer, some with drops of up to a hundred metres. Even while surveying the route, men had to crawl on their hands and feet. This danger and the expected cost made a road impractical.
A few months after the letter was written, Sir Frederick de Waal was appointed Administrator of the Cape. He loved road building and was determined enough to attempt the impossible. He hired an equally determined and thorough man, Charl Marais, a mining surveyor to survey the route.
These cliffs did not deter Marais, who hired a worker to carve footholds across the face and also to hack out ledges on which to place the theodolite. Working by sometimes suspending himself on a rope, he even lost his footing on one occasion and only saved himself from a horrific death by grabbing onto a strategically position protea bush.
Marais discovered that the whole of Chapman’s Peak comprised of horizontal layers of sandstone and shale resting on a dome of granite. This layer of granite was about a third of the mountain face and was largely a flat platform with the softer sedimentary rock above it. Cutting into the workable sediment above would be the most logical approach for Marais.
Sir de Waal raised the required capital; arranged 700 convict labourers and work began from the Hout Bay end in April 1915. Work from the Noordhoek end began in June 1916.
Working with crude machinery by today’s standards and unskilled and often unruly labourers, engineer Robert Glenday painstakingly worked his way along the cliff face with dynamite, picks and shovels. Workers often had to be secured by ropes as they worked the vertical rocks with the sheer drops to the rocky shores. Landslides or rather rock falls were an ever-present danger as indeed they are today.
The 4-kilometre section from Hout Bay to the lookout was opened in 1919. However it took another three years to overcome the even more daunting cliffs beyond there.
Normally when building a road, various sections can be worked at once by establishing work sites, but due to the formation of the route, only two groups could be established, hampering progress somewhat.
The completed Chapman’s Peak was opened to the public in 1922, by Prince Arthur of Connaught who remarked that the attraction of the drive “would more than compensate for nearly being blown out of your car in a southeaster."
Chapman’s Peak is a dangerous road, not only due to the sharp curves and narrow lanes but also due to the rock falls. Testimony to this is the 22 wrecks, which were removed from the shores and cliffs below during a clean up by helicopter in 1989. In January 2000 the road was closed permanently until an alternate solution could be found as a result of heavy mudslides and rock falls, largely facilitated by ravaging mountain fires and heavy rains prior to that.
This closure had a major impact on the economy of the Peninsula, especially the areas close to the Drive. Hout Bay suffered, as did Noordhoek. Its closure also robbed the tourist of some of the most breathtakingly beautiful scenery available in the Peninsula.
A toll road was opened in December 2003, with state-of-the-art designs to protect the traveller from the persistent rock falls. It is still beset with road closures but fortunately continues to offer the tourist a taste of the awesome beauty available on our doorstep.
The pleasures of the drive far outweigh the perils. The look out point teems with people staring in amazement at the cliffs and rocky shores below. There is also a sentinel at the Hout Bay end of the drive, a large bronze leopard staring across the Bay, a tribute to the many leopard which once frequented the mountains and valleys of this area.
There is also the East Fort Battery built by the British in 1796 to attack enemy ships seeking refuge in the Bay. Nowadays there is a well-signposted path to the battery but legend has it was once only serviced from the sea by a secret stairway from the battery to a cave below. However, no evidence of this has ever been found.
There are also three graves at the Round Table Bungalows further on, two of convicts said to have died of flu in 1918 during the flu epidemic while working on the Drive and the third is of a woman who’s body washed up nearby.
The peak itself was not named after some pioneer or dignitary. It was named after a lowly ships pilot, John Chapman of the British ship, Contest. In 1607, the skipper found himself becalmed in what is now known as Hout Bay and sent Chapman ashore in search of provisions.
Jan van Riebeeck named the bay t’Houten Baietjien yet the mountain retained the name Chapman’s Peak.
Chapman’s Peak is truly one of the most beautiful coastal roads in the World. Take in the sunsets of multi-hued blues and gold and the Sun reflecting off the sea. The mountains and the Sentinel at the one end offer a perfect breathtaking view of the natural beauty of the Cape Peninsula.