The East Fort (and a bit of back story)
Did you know that Hout Bay is the third oldest surviving formal settlement in South Africa? Cape Town is the original and so it’s the oldest, of course, but only Simon’s Town beats Hout Bay in terms of age. The valley first became settled when its vast forests of hardwood were discovered; hence the name Hout Bay (“wood bay” in Afrikaans). And since the Cape is mostly carpeted in fynbos, which isn’t very useful as building material, timber was established as a primary industry in Hout Bay soon after Jan Van Riebeeck’s arrival in the Cape. Once all the forests had been cut down, the industry here turned to farming and fishing.
What does all of this have to do with Hout Bay’s militarisation and the building of a string of forts along the eastern and western flanks of the bay?
Well, Hout Bay was actually viewed by the government of the day as the soft-underbelly of the new Cape Town settlement. The Dutch were concerned that the bay was wide open to possible marine invasion from the south by British warships and so four coastal fortifications were erected during the period 1781 to 1806. The Dutch East India Company (DEIC) built the West Fort Battery on the western side of the Bay in 1781 followed by the East Fort Battery the year after, which is today bisected by Chapman’s Peak Drive.
The East fort now lies in ruins but its original shape and basic structure can still be seen and makes for a nice hour’s exploration. There’s also a battery of 8 x 18 PDR (Personal Defence Rifle) guns, which have been restored and, on certain special occasions, ceremonially fired.
Original Farmsteads (and a special river)
As mentioned, Hout Bay was originally populated when its hardwood forests were discovered, making available to the Dutch a source of timber for the building of the new settlement in Cape Town. Within 30 years of van Riebeeck’s arrival, however, this valuable resource disappeared and so the activity here shifted from logging and timber to agriculture. The reason this industry took off so well in Hout Bay was because of a very special feature of the valley’s nature heritage: the Disa River, the only intact riverine ecosystem rising from Table Mountain. This river supplied the valley with a steady and generous source of fresh water and the farmers prospered, building for themselves beautiful homesteads and farmhouses over the years.
Today, farming is largely a part of Hout Bay’s past although many of the original homesteads and farmhouses still stand as heritage buildings. And you can visit many of them! Kronendal (pictured above) and Oakhurst are two of Hout Bay’s original farmsteads. Established in the 1670’s, Kronendal was the first farm in Hout Bay and its Cape Dutch Homestead (built in 1800) is the only surviving example of an H-plan house in the Cape Peninsula!
Also, many of Hout Bay’s retail outlets and restaurants (such as Cheyne’s, Lucky Bao, and Woodcutter’s Arms) are located in heritage buildings that have thankfully been tastefully restored.
Hout Bay harbour
An important facet of Hout Bay’s history that still thrives to this day – and is still appreciable by all who visit the valley – is its fishing industry. The bay’s prime positioning along a coastline wealthy in seafood has, over the years, lead to the establishment of a busy working harbour and a colourful fishing community. Every morning, fishing trawlers return to the harbour laden with a fresh catch, a portion of which can be purchased directly off the boats or from the local fresh fish shop. Of course, most Capetonians know of the Hout Bay harbour as the home of the perennially popular Bay Harbour Market – a weekend food, arts, and crafts market. But more than its market, Mariner’s Wharf, and restaurants, the harbour has become a beating cultural heart and a stunning place to spend a leisurely afternoon.
Hout Bay’s leopard
On the other end of the bay, you’ll find the Hout Bay leopard. In 1937, the last ever Cape leopard to have been seen in the valley was spotted on Klein Leeukoppie Mountain (Little Lion’s Head). In 1963, Ivan Milford-Barberton sculpted a life-like leopard out of bronze, which was subsequently mounted on a granite boulder on the eastern periphery of the beach. This statue, which proudly stands today, serves as a memorial to the many wild animals that once called the valley and its surrounding mountains home but have sadly been edged out by human habitation.
Hout Bay Museum
Opened on 5th April 1979, the Hout Bay Museum collects, displays, conserves, and researches the cultural and natural history of Hout Bay and the neighbouring suburb of Llandudno. You’ll find the museum standing next door to the Hout Bay Tourist Office and is worth a visit for its collections of artefacts dating back to 1652, when the Dutch settlers first arrived in the Cape. There is a fascinating wealth of memories and information of Hout Bay's past to be discovered here; also, admission is free! Embracing the museum is a garden of local wild plants and medicinal herbs: edibles the earliest people here would have used for various reasons. For more information, go to: www.westerncape.gov.za/facility/hout-bay-museum