I don’t like cockroaches.
Rats, I can manage. Mice aren’t a problem. But don’t show me cockroaches unless I have a can of bug spray in each hand. So an hour spent scrambling through historic storm water tunnels – parts of them evidently holding a Periplaneta Americana convention – was perhaps a strange way to spend a morning.
But let’s take a step back, out into the sunshine, for a minute.
From Vredehoek, a leafy suburb above the Cape Town city centre, there’s a splendid view of the front face of Table Mountain. Hundreds of metres of sandstone soar heavenwards, its face pocked with gullies carved by streams. In winter, these streams become torrents and the ‘mountain in the sea’ glistens with water.
So it’s perhaps no surprise that the indigenous Khoi called this place Camissa; ‘the place of sweet waters’. The Dutch East India Company rather fancied them too; for growing vegetable gardens and keeping its soldiers, ships and sailors well watered.
But once those gushing streams hit the city they all but disappear. Except they don’t, not really. They’re still there, simply hidden beneath the tarmac.
“This road, and tunnel that runs beneath it, was once an open river with houses built on both banks,” explains Dwain Esterhuizen from adventure company Figure of 8. “Platteklip Stream and Silwerstroom converge just above here, and this was the stream that fed the Dutch castle at the Cape.”
Having locals and livestock living atop your supply of drinking water is never a good idea and before long the open river was canalised, then enclosed. As the suburbs expanded, the tunnels stretched further up the mountainside. Through the East City, across Roeland Street, past the Gardens Centre mall and, well, right up to beneath our feet where the manhole’s open maw was waiting to swallow our small group of tunnel tourists.
“But are there rats down here?” asked one tourist nervously, as we clambered down. There aren’t, but it didn’t stop a few people asking the same question over the next hour.
With everybody in and headlamps on, the manhole cover clangs shut and we start walking. Snippets of trivia float backwards from Darren, and we stop often to soak up our surrounds: the precise brickwork, lattice of spider webs and mysterious side-tunnels.
Although this is officially a storm water drain, at first there’s barely a trickle beneath our feet.
“It’s very dry today,” agrees Darren Massyn, our tunnel guide from Figure of 8. “Sometimes the water comes up to your calves! But we don’t even think of running this tour in the winter. As soon as the heavy rains arrive, it’s far too risky.”
Along the entire length of the tunnel storm water drains disappear off to left and right, no doubt connected to distant streets.
And they’re not the only evidence of life on the surface. Although there is surprisingly little rubbish down here, the occasional take-away wrapper or cigarette box is a reminder that litter has to end up somewhere.
Further on, a far-off tree’s fibrous roots wend their way deep into the tunnel, sucking up moisture from beneath our feet. An engineer’s oversight is here too; the foundations of a mystery building up above punched through the roof.
Every few hundred metres we stop beneath a manhole cover, the daylight and extra headroom offering a welcome break. At each stop Darren whips out a photograph to show where we are: perhaps alongside the Garden centre, or in the intersection of Roeland as it heads towards Parliament.
It was one of my favourite parts of the tour; knowing we were just beneath the feet of unwitting commuters. Darren swears that a British tourist once climbed up to beneath the manhole cover and asked passersby for directions to the beach.
As the tunnel drops, the water level rises from a trickle to a gurgle. And the tunnel changes character too. Late-20th century concrete becomes century old brick as the tunnel widens. A few hundred metres from the Castle, the oldest section is oval and built of shale; just like the Castle.
“That light at the end of the tunnel is our exit into the Castle grounds,” says Darren, pausing for effect. “Either that, or it’s a train.”
Chuckles of laughter – some of it relieved – echo back down the tunnel. After an hour underground we pop out into the grounds of the 300-year-old Castle of Good Hope.
It’s not often you give much thought to manhole covers as you drive around a city, but those holes have to lead somewhere. And in one instance, they lead to one of the Mother City’s most interesting urban adventures.
So next time you’re driving over a manhole in Cape Town, stop for a minute… there might just be a lost tourist down there.
For tunnel tour bookings and dates, contact www.fo8.co.za or call 021 439 3329. A reasonable level of fitness is required, as you’ll mostly walk bent over, and on brick that is often slippery.
First published in Sunday Times Travel