Perched on an ancient bed of granite rock and rearing up out of the Atlantic Ocean on the southern end of Hout Bay, you’ll discover Chapman’s Peak mountain…although, this megalith hardly needs any introduction. For almost a century, the 9-kilometer-long stretch of roadway that ribbons its way along the mountain’s almost vertical cliff-face (and just as precipitous drop down into the Atlantic Ocean below) has served as the quickest thoroughfare between the Atlantic towns of Hout Bay and Noordhoek. It’s also such a dramatically beautiful route that it has become known, internationally, as one of the most scenic drives in the world.
Being in our very own backyard—and one of the attractions our guests love the most about their visits to Hout Bay—we thought we’d become better acquainted with our very own world-famous drive. This is the story of Chapman’s Peak Drive…
The history of one of the world’s most scenic drives
The official opening of Chapman’s Peak Drive on the 6th May 1922.
Between 1915 and 1922, the roadway we now know as Chapman’s Peak Drive was hacked out of the face of the mountain in order to establish a more direct route between Hout Bay and Noordhoek. At the time, unsurprisingly, the endeavour was considered a major feat of engineering!
Unfortunately, in 1990, after a particularly devastating rock fall, which resulted in a fatality (and lawsuit), Chapman's Peak Drive was closed for a massive re-engineering project that would provide an exponentially safer roadway for motorists.
In 2003, Chapman’s Peak Drive was reopened as a toll road. And while rock falls are unavoidable on such a steep cliff face (which braves the wintertime north-westerly winds and rain almost dead-on), the extensive engineering that has been done, including massive steel rock traps and wall reinforcements, ensure that the road can be used safely.
Fun fact: Did you know that Chapman’s Peak was named in 1607 after John Chapman, the captain’s mate of the English ship ‘Consent,’ which had sought refuge in the sheltered waters of Hout Bay? It’s funny because most imposing landmarks are named after high-ranking officials like captains and governors or, at the very least, the mountaineers who conquer them. Not lowly captain’s mates.
A triumph of South African engineering
The marriage of cutting-edge, 21st Century construction and the sheer courage and determination of the original 1920's build has resulted in this project showcasing the outstanding talents of South African engineering. It only takes one pass of Chapman’s Peak Drive’s 114 curves to appreciate this accomplishment, especially when staring up the vertical rock face that hugs the road.
And, needless to say, the feat has garnered several prestigious awards, including the SAACE National Award for Engineering Excellence (2004) and the Bentley Systems prestigious international award (civil Design) for 3D and 2D rockfall hazard analysis and design using the Microstation suite of geospatial software packages (2004). That’s quite a mouthful.
To learn more about the engineering that keeps motorists safe on this hair-raising stretch of coastal road, you can read up about it on the official website!
The East Fort & Battery
Before Chapman’s Peak Drive had even been conceived, humankind had put the mountain flanks to good use as a lookout point over the entirety of Hout Bay and the ocean beyond. Built in 1782, the old East Fort Battery was one of four fortifications built in Hout Bay by the Dutch East India Company, and was intended to protect the bay (and its harbour and industries) against marine attacks from the south.
The husk of the fort’s old blockhouse (on the mountain side of the road) and the battery of canons (on the ocean side) remain to this day and have become key historical attractions in the area, made even better by the stunning views of the bay. Also, those guns still work—having been restored, proofed, and licensed—and are periodically fired on ceremonious occasions.
The question is: did the East Fort ever serve its purpose?
It sure did! On 15 September 1795, a 16-gun British warship, the HMS Echo, tried to enter the harbour only to be met by a fierce barrage of cannon-fire. The intruder beat a hasty exit; although it did sail on to Table Bay where—after some “negotiation”—the Dutch surrendered and the British assumed control of the Cape Colony.
Things to do and see on Chapman’s Peak Drive
Aside from gawking slack-jawed, either directly up a staggeringly imposing cliff face of the mountain, or straight down onto the boulder-littered coastline and crashing waves below, there are actually quite a few other things to do and see along this relatively short section of coastline!
- Viewpoints offer panoramic views over the whole of Hout Bay and the glittering Atlantic Ocean that embraces it. You can frequently spot dolphins and Southern right whales from these incredible vantage points, as well as seals sunbathing on the rocks below.
- Picnic sites are kept in pretty good condition (with bins for refuse). These also offer stunning, west-facing views over Hout Bay and the sunset, making them a favourite spot for romantic couples!
- The East Fort is a fantastic historic attraction to visit and the starting point for many hikes into the fynbos-carpeted foothills of Chapman’s Peak, a part of the Table Mountain Nature Reserve. It’s also a great spot to lay out a picnic and watch the sunset.
- Hiking trails: As we said, Chapman’s Peak is a part of the Table Mountain Nature Reserve and so it is home to a great diversity of unique fauna and flora, which makes hiking its many trails an invigorating pleasure! For more information on these trails, check out this guide by Cape Town Magazine.
Also, interestingly enough, Chapman’s Peak is home to two different endangered vegetation types that are totally endemic to the city of Cape Town—Peninsula Sandstone Fynbos and Cape Granite Fynbos—which can be found growing alongside this route…and literally nowhere else on the planet!
Chapman’s Peak in times of COVID
One of the awesome things about this quintessential Cape Town attraction, which is just as popular amongst locals as it is tourists, is the fact that it can be safely enjoyed in spite of the COVID pandemic. Because you explore Chapman’s Peak Drive by car, maybe pulling over at one of the rest stops to enjoy the views, there’s really no risk of transmission, as long as you keep your distance from other viewers.
With the most recent lockdown restrictions, however, the day pass facility that allows motorists to stop and the route’s attractions has been suspended until further notice; although, you can still drive the length of Chappies from Hout Bay to Noordhoek. You just aren’t permitted to pull over at any of the viewpoints or picnic sites, which is a shame but hopefully won’t last much longer.