The history around the famous Chapman’s Peak Drive

Chapman’s Peak is one of Cape Town’s most scenic drives, and is a must-see Mother City stop for tourists returning to the CBD from coastal towns like Hout Bay and Noordhoek.

More colloquially known as “Chappies” the peak was named after John Chapman. Many believe Chapman was a brave mountaineer or governor, but in reality he was a lowly Captain’s mate on a ship.

In 1607, the British ship, Contest, found itself unable to move — as there was no wind blowing to propel it – in Hout Bay. The skipper of the ship sent his pilot to row ashore in the hopes of finding provisions. The pilot was Chapman.

The bay was later recorded as “Chapman’s Chaunce”, which literally translated means Chapman’s Chance, and the name stuck, becoming the official name of the bay on all East India charts.

In the early 1920s, Sir Nicolas Fredrick de Waal – who was the first administrator of the Western Cape – ordered the construction of a high-level road linking Cape Town with the Southern Suburbs. The roadway — which was De Waal Drive and is now Philip Kgosana Drive – was well received. As a result, he requested for another road linking Hout Bay to Noordhoek.

Two possible routes were under consideration in 1910. The choices were between Chapman’s Peak and Noordhoek Peak. The latter was a close second to the more spectacular route along the vertical sea cliffs.

In 1914, preliminary surveys were conducted on the road, and scared many. The cliffs and ravines were steep and unstable, and at times the surveying party was on all fours as they investigated the perpendicular terrain. The route over the nek appeared to be no better; and the project was an expensive ‘mission impossible’. De Waal however, would not take no for an answer and eventually he ordered the ‘go ahead’ for along the cliffs which appeared, at the time to be the better option.

The road was cleverly planned with the road surface based on the very solid 630-million-year-old Cape Granite contour, while the many roadside cuttings were from the slightly softer Malmesbury sediments.

In 1915, using convict labour supplied by Union Government, construction began from the Hout Bay end and in the following year work began from Noordhoek. The first portion of the road to the Lookout was opened in 1919.

This spectacular roadway took seven years to complete, at a cost of ₤20,000.

The Hout Bay – NoordHoek Road ‘hewn out of the stone face of Sheer Mountain’ was opened to traffic on Saturday, May 6, 1922, by His Royal Highness Prince Arthur of Connaught.

In 1994, Noel Graham was injured and partly paralysed in a landslide incident on Chapman’s Peak Drive, which resulted in a court case against the Cape Metropolitan Council who was the road management agent at the time of the incident.

Amidst increasing concern for public safety and legal liability, the South Peninsula Municipality (SPM) established a sub-committee of officials. The new road management agent, appointed in 1997, consisted of officials from the local, metropolitan and provincial authorities. They were to guide the management of Chapman’s Peak Drive, who insisted high visibility rockfall warning signs were to be erected on Chapman’s Peak Drive during 1999.

The sub-committee also adopted a specific Chapman’s Peak Drive closure policy. This stipulated that the road had to be closed to traffic in rainy weather (very light drizzle excluded). It was also to remain closed for a number of hours after cessation of any rainfall and until deemed safe by SPM’s Road management staff. This closure policy/procedure was implemented by SPM’s Road management staff with lockable booms put in place to prevent unauthorised entry.

On 29 December 1999, a falling rock caused the unfortunate death of a Noordhoek resident. In early January 2000, Ms Lara Callige was killed, and a passenger in the same car seriously injured in a rockfall incident on Chapman’s Peak Drive. Weather conditions were good and clear. The rockfall risk on the road was not considered high.

This was of serious concern to the local and provincial authorities alike and emergency meetings to discuss closure of Chapman’s Peak Drive were held between the relevant political bodies. Before a decision could be taken on the matter, and still in January 2000, the worst mountain fires in decades raged in the Cape Peninsula. This, including the mountains above Chapman’s Peak Drive, causing numerous rockfalls onto the road and effectively rendering the road impassable.

As a result of these incidents, Chapman’s Peak Drive was officially closed to traffic indefinitely by the Provincial Minister of Transport in January 2000. Chapman’s Peak Drive reopened in 2003.

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