When I was in Cape Town a few weeks ago, I stayed in an area of the city called the “Bo Kaap” which means “Upper Cape.” The area is noted for its colourful houses, cobbled streets and interesting history. It is located basically on the side of Signal Hill, which means there are steep climbs and lots of terraced houses.
The area is also sometimes known (somewhat erroneously) as “The Malaysian Quarter” as this is the place where the former slaves (some from Malaysia, but many from elsewhere) settled after slavery was abolished. Because they were required to wear and live drab circumstances when enslaved, after they gained their freedom, they made sure their houses and clothing were brightly coloured.
The Bo Kaap is the centre of Cape Town’s Muslim community, with no less than nine mosques in this one small area (less than 6,000 people.) Some of the mosques were tiny, but there were two or three with the capacity to broadcast the call to prayer over loudspeakers. Although there are (I think) 5 daily “calls” only the ones at dawn, noon and sundown seemed to be broadcast. My B & B was at the top of the Bo Kaap so I heard the calls loud and clear. The prayers are done live – first there would be one, breaking the silence – an ancient, eerie kind of music, sung with great passion and vigour. And then, as that one died out, another mosque would broadcast their call – with the singer doing his best to show at least as much “prayerfulness” as the first. And then, a couple of mornings, I heard a third singer get into the act.
Since, theoretically, all the calls should be happening simultaneously, I could only assume that some kind of friendly competition was going on. Sort of an “anything you can pray, I can pray louder” type of thing.
The people of the Bo Kaap were incredibly friendly and welcoming. It is not (yet) a big tourist area…and although there is some worry about gentrification, the area still retains much of its 19th century charm. I was very happy to have stayed there – as the proprietor of my B & B said when I commented on how lovely the area was, “It’s a special place, isn’t it?”
This is the hill I had to walk up to get to the B & B. It was even steeper than it looks.
But THIS is the view I had from the terrace:
On the far edge of the Bo Kaap, about halfway up Signal Hill, you can find the “Noon Gun.” This is a very old tradition in Cape Town – they shoot a cannon off precisely at noon every day but Sunday. They’ve been doing this since 1806. It is somewhat of a tourist attraction. I walked around the side of the hill and up a path and some stairs to where the armoury was. The stairs were very much dis-used, apparently most people come up the road. But I managed to find my way. There were many old cannons and cannon-related items up there and the view was terrific.
A sign informed me that this was to be the 65346th firing. Other signs warned people to “cover their ears” and stay well
away from the firing zone.
At about 11:30, they began to prepare to shoot the cannon. A few people drove up in cars and there was a small tour bus. An officer came out and gave us a bit of background history. These are the oldest cannons still being fired in existence. The timing is done with absolute precision – through an electrical charge that is connected to a facility in Greenwich, England! And though they only shoot one cannon, there is a “back-up cannon” loaded that can be set off manually, in case the first cannon doesn’t work. He raised a flag and showed us how he put the charge into the cannon. It is a bag filled with gunpowder, tamped down into the barrel of the cannon with a wooden plunger that looked as though it may well have been in use in 1806!
When the cannon went off, it was deafening…and pretty cool. No doubt that everyone in Cape Town knew that it was noon!
I had planned to have lunch at this cafe called “The Noon Gun Cafe” at the bottom of the hill, but found that it had been closed for the past 8 months! I passed another little restaurant on the way down and found it booked to capacity with a tour bus! So, I made my way down the Bo Kaap and ended up having a wonderful lunch in a little corner Indian cafe…excellent lamb Biryani and naan. Then I climbed back up to my B & B for a swim and a nap!
I do think that when I return to Cape Town, I will stay in the Bo Kaap once again. It felt like home.
Love these posts, Julie! Noontime cannons….I like that too!
So glad you loved Bo Kaap. It truly is a special place.