A lighthouse is there to warn passing ships of a dangerous coastline, to guide the captain on his journey. So says Onrus resident Jan Smith who built 48 model South African lighthouses. He has many a story to tell about these beacons of light.
Jan’s interest in lighthouses were sparked when he was given an instruction by his daughter, Elizma, to put together a practical activity for Voortrekker campers at Betty’s Bay. The only guidance was that it had to reflect the maritime theme of their camping environment. Initially Jan guided the children to produce their own lighthouse and later he developed a DIY kit to make the exercise easier. Helping with this activity fitted comfortably with Jan’s profession as a teacher at Durbanville High School. Today Jan lives with his wife in Onrus and continues to maintain his replica lighthouses.
Jan is quick to explain that not all of South Africa’s 48 lighthouses are operational but these traffic lights of the sea were all built close to shipwrecks for the obvious reason of warning passing vessels of a treacherous shore. Outside Gansbaai, Danger Point Lighthouse was commissioned in 1895 in response to the sinking of the HMS Birkenhead on 26 February 1852. An event that is commemorated every year by Gansbaai Tourism and the community.
Thanks to modern technology, ships are not so dependent on lighthouses anymore. However, these beacons remain a back-up to complement the navigation provided by electronic equipment. Lighthouse tourism is also an innovative way of promoting a destination. It brings additional interest and visitors to the benefit of the economy of coastal towns with lighthouses.
Jan’s exhibition in the Hermanus Library showcased South Africa’s lighthouses with all its interesting detail to colour, style and height. Some of this information was also captured in a book “Oubaas en sy Vuurtornings” published by Jan’s other daughter Danette. We are grateful for this great storyteller and his willingness to share his passion.
Don’t try to be the captain of someone else’s boat. Learn to be a lighthouse and the boats will find their way.