Take a tunnel tour of Cape Town for a completely new perspective

Posted on 10 April 2013

We all know that Cape Town has a million and one awesome tours and ways to explore the city and its surroundings. But perhaps there’s one you haven’t heard of, or you’ve heard of it, but you hadn’t had a clue how to book it. The Below the Surface tour of Cape Town gives you a completely new perspective on the city as you view it from the tunnels that run below.

The history

In the 1860’s, when the Cape Town colonialists wanted to start expanding and building houses and roads around Cape Town, they had a slight problem. There was a magnitude of water running down from Table Mountain everyday, creating streams and rivers that run from the mountain to where the harbour is today. In order for them to achieve their industrial ideals, they closed up all these open waterways to divert millions of tons of water straight to the ocean.

Since then, these tunnels have continued to take the water to the ocean, which is a pretty sad reality since the mountain actually supplies enough water for the entire CBD of Cape Town to use. But since it’s being wasted like this, we need to outsource our water supply. More on that later though. For now, it’s time to explore this tunneled world that exists below our city.

The tour

We entered through a manhole in a park in Vredehoek. Donned in our gumboots and headlamps, it’s safe to say that the excitement levels were pretty high. This particular section of the tunnel is only about 1.5m high, so we had to crouch-walk for the first 20 minutes or so as we started heading down toward the city centre. The water that runs along our feet is surprisingly clear, as there’s not a lot to contaminate it as it came from the mountain.

Soon the tunnel opened up wider and we were able to walk up straight. There’s a constant breeze coming in from the different manholes up above, so claustrophobes shouldn’t have a problem getting by. At two or three places our guide showed us a map of the location of a specific manhole, so you’d get an idea of where about you’re walking. Overhead, the cars drive over the manholes, echoing through the pipes.

The tunnel is divided up into three architectural sections, displaying how the building techniques changed over the years. As you get closer to the Castle of Good Hope, you reach the oldest section of the tunnel and it’s here where the tour ended. We climbed back up a manhole and popped out – quite disorienting – on the castle grounds. Only once we regained our bearings did we realise what an incredible experience we just had.

I’d definitely recommend this tour to anyone with a slight interest in Cape Town’s history, or just the city in general. It’s absolutely fascinating.

How to book

The company organising these tunnel tours is Figure of Eight. Visit their website or the Below the Surface Tour Facebook page to book. A tunnel tour costs R270 while a tunnel and forest tour costs R340.


Reclaim Camissa

‘Camissa’ is one of the many names for Cape Town and means ‘place of sweet waters’ in the Khoi language. As we did the forest tour before the tunnel tour, we learnt from Caron von Zeil, expert in Environmental Planning and Landscape Architecure, all about how the water that comes from the mountain is being washed straight into the ocean.

Cape Town uses only 15% of these millions of litres of water in the city and relies on distant dams and rainwater for all the rest. Cape Town has 36 natural springs where this water bubbles up from the ground and the largest supplies 3.5 million litres of water daily. Caron is proposing that, by 2020, these tunnels be reopened and the streams and rivers returned to the natural state, creating a 6.7km stretch of green land that runs from the mountain to the ocean. She is also advocating that we ‘reclaim Camissa’ and utilise these amazing natural springs rather that allowing all this precious water to run straight into the ocean.

Watch Caron’s TEDX talk on Reclaim Camissa

Looking for accommodation in Cape Town? Click here for affordable Cape Town accommodation options from Getaway Accommodation.

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