The town officially called Simon’s Town, but often referred to as Simonstown, was originally named Simon’s Vlek after Simon van der Stel, the Dutch governor of the Cape Colony between 1677 and 1699, who surveyed the bay east of Cape Town in 1687 and earmarked it as a safe winter harbour during the months of May to September for which it was finally proclaimed in 1741.
Progress may have come slowly to Simon’s Town, but it has certainly left its mark. The town grew rapidly when it became a Royal Naval Base and the home of the South Atlantic Squadron under the second British occupation of the Cape in 1806, thanks largely to the construction of a huge man-made sandstone breakwater.
One of the tasks of this squadron was the care of a certain Napoleon Bonaparte during his exile at St. Helena Island some 1200 miles away in the South Atlantic Ocean.
Admiral Lord Nelson himself is also said to have come ashore from his ship to be nursed through an illness in the late 1770s, on the first of his two visits, long before the British occupation.
Over 300 ships were repaired at Simon’s Town during the Second World War, and the completion of the modern Simon's Town harbour and the Selborne dry-dock took place by 1910.
When in 1957 the Naval Base was finally handed over to the South African Government, at least 125 Allied ships had been sunk by the Germans, Japanese and Italians, in relatively close proximity to Simon’s Town.
Situated on the eastern side of the Cape Peninsula on the shores of False Bay, Simon’s Town remains an important naval base to this day, and the town which rises steeply above the harbour up the mountainsides is rich in both architectural and natural beauty, as well as Cape history and strange legends and tales.
A famous resident of the town was Able Seaman Just Nuisance, RN, the only dog ever to be enlisted in the Royal Navy, to whom a statue has been erected in Jubilee Square. The sailors' had a favourite Great Dane who was a resident in the town, and request was sent to the British parliament asking for him to be enlisted in the Navy. Permission was granted and the dog was brought to the Recruiting Officer, who inquired: “Name?” “Nuisance, Sir”, the sailor replied. “First name?” “Just Nuisance, Sir,” the sailor stated, giving birth to a great legend.
Peopled with many descendants of the world’s sailing and exploring nations, as well as many slave families from the 17th century, and many of South Africa’s indigenous people’s who were drawn to the area from across Southern Africa, Simon’s Town has a rich and multicultural heritage, although it does somewhat resemble an old and quaint Victorian seaside town today.
Admiralty House on St. George’s, originally a private dwelling, dates from 1814 as does the Wesleyan Chapel which was built in 1828 and represents the oldest of its type of church in South Africa. Both are said to be haunted by several different ghosts!
An interesting 17th century Muslim Kramat (or grave) was discovered among the trees on a terrace above Runciman's Drive in the 1800s. Whoever is interred in the Kramat may be unknown, but its location appears to have a strange spiritual aura. Muslims still hold the site as 'Moestajap', a word used to express inexplicable spiritual happenings.
Another interesting building is the Dutch East India Company Hospital with three front-facing gables. Constructed on the mountainside above the Residency in 1764, it was here that author and playwright Edgar Wallace served as a medical orderly in the late 1890s.
Robert Brown, generally regarded as one of finest figures in the history of British botany, called at Simon’s Town during 1801, where, for the first time, he saw members of South Africa’s national flower, the Proteaceae, growing in their natural habitats.
On returning to London in 1805, Brown began assembling a major monograph on the species, which formed the basis of his work: 'On the Proteaceae of Jussieu'. This great work embodies not only a revised classification of the whole family Proteaceae but also a monograph of the genus Protea itself, in which thirty-nine species were recognized.
The town has several museums which are worth visiting. Simon's Town Museum highlights events in the development of Simon's Town through the centuries. The South African Naval Museum in the Mast House (1815) alongside the Simon's Town Museum, displays models of ships and related maritime events.
The Heritage Museum in Amlay House on King George Street, also worth a visit, features many aspects of the Muslim community, and the nearby Mosque is absolutely beautiful.
Boulders Beach, a few kilometres to the south of Simon's Town is reputed to be amongst the very best beaches in the Cape, and is internationally renowned for being home to one of only three South African colonies of the African (Jackass) Penguins.
The False Bay Yacht Club is conveniently situated adjacent to the Simon's Town Waterfront Centre in the town. Boat charters and sea kayaking are some of the many activities offered from the centre, and professionally managed and run deepsea fishing and whalewatching charters are available.
The area deservedly draws many tourists, and if you are travelling to Cape Town it should be a ‘must-see’ on your itinerary. Good restaurants, pubs and places to stay abound. Tourism enquiries may be directed to the Simon’s Town Tourism Office on St. George’s Street, telephone (+27 21) 786 5880 or on via email: email@example.com
First published in The South African Magazine. For further enquiries, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 011 803 2040
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