“Big fish, large fish, fish at the top of the food chain - these animals excite me the most!” So said my old friend David Ireland, the famous Australian underwater photographer. As a writer mostly on marine life, I share his excitement. But I am also excited by big guns, large guns, guns at the top of the Cape’s mountain chain and especially those of historic importance. Unfortunately, the descriptive plaque of my favourite one - affectionately known as Betsy - was stolen long ago. I am therefore indebted to Cdr. Gerry de Vries, the Simon’s Town Museum and the SA Navy Museum also in Simon’s Town for access to their meticulous records.

Betsy was British born from wrought iron stock in Woolwich at the Royal Gun Foundry in 1865. A nine inch 12 ton rifled muzzle loader, she was one of 190 built there as broadside guns for ironclad ships and for harbour defenses. Her 147 inch barrel could accommodate shot, shrapnel or armour-piercing shells. However, her favourite ammunition was the 256 lb. common shell, which at an elevation of 13 degrees, she could hurl 6000 yards - that’s 5,48 kilometres!

Betsy’s first trip abroad was to Halifax in Nova Scotia from 1866 to 1878. She then visited Bermuda to 1881 and Sheerness in the UK to 1885, before finally settling in her present position near Simon’s Town in 1896. Her last firing was on 27th April 1903, after which she slowly aged until 1983. This was when the marines moved to Scala Battery and Capt. Mike Thomson arranged for her rejuvenation at the Gun Shop in the SA Naval Dockyard. Although her massive mounting could now do with another coat of paint, she still looks good. Unfortunately, this cannot be said for the underground magazine and other masonry structures.

The Navy has neither the money nor time to maintain what is essentially obsolete equipment. In any case, it is wasted effort outside security areas because of vandalism. With the probability that National Parks could soon take over, matters are bound to improve. Meanwhile, although Betsy has suffered comparatively little vandalism and is well worth a visit, I dare not reveal her locality. There are too many hazards without proper supervision. These include bush fires, snakes and sharp projections on the gun itself. Furthermore, the steep and narrow access road has dangerous corners, but many drivers ignore the warning signs to hoot.

Most of us are quite happy to drool over the Navy Museum’s fabulous collection of old guns. The adjacent Simon’s Town Museum also has some very interesting displays, including an eighteenth century Dutch East India Company cannon at its entrance. However, those enthusiasts who use technical terms like “cascable” and “slide” will no doubt find their way to Betsy - the only gun with six rifling grooves. In such learned company, I can only stare out to sea and think about big fish, large fish, fish on top of the food chain!

Bevan Pank





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