The earliest known lighthouse is that of the great lighthouse of Alexandria, the Pharos Lighthouse. Alexander the Great built many cities in his life including Alexandria, but it was only after his death in 323BC that the new ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy built the lighthouse on Pharos Island in 290BC. It is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and was the only one with a practical application. It became known as the Pharos, the world’s first lighthouse and the second tallest building of the time, the Great Pyramid being the tallest. The “Pharos” name became synonymous with lighthouses in many languages, and consequently the study of lighthouses became known as “pharology”.
Due to the treacherous waters of the South African coast and thousands of ship wrecks, lighthouses began being built in the 1800’s. This was not an easy task as delivery delays were common, materials had to be transported over rough terrain by ox-carts on dirt tracks to desolate sites or by small ferry boats to dangerous rocky outcrops. Keepers and their family life had to be taken into consideration as theirs was not an easy life, isolated and without easy access to food and other household goods, education, equipment, etc.
The first lighthouse on the east coast of Africa was the original Bluff Lighthouse built in 1867 near the site of the current Millennium Tower. The foundation stone was laid by Port Natal Governor John Scott on 22nd November 1864. In the early 1900’s, a lighthouse engineer who’d studied under master lighthouse designers in Eddystone, Scotland was sent to South Africa to sort out our coastal warning system. Harry Claude Cooper found only a handful of working lighthouses and set to work designing and building most of the lighthouses along our coast.
In July of 1922, the optic equipment was replaced in the Bluff Lighthouse with a petroleum vapour burner that increased the light output so greatly that many Durban residents complained of it disturbing their sleep at night. Electricity only became available in September of 1932. During the 1930’s, the deterioration of the cast iron structure became such a grave concern that Cooper had the tower and foundations reinforced with concrete to lengthen its life. The lighthouse was eventually demolished during the Second World War and Cooper recommended that two new lighthouses be built; one at Umhlanga Rocks and the other at Brighton Beach. These were to be of similar design, with differing colours and light signals to differentiate them to shipping. (Until it’s demolition in 2002, the harbour signal tower was often mistaken for a lighthouse, but that seemed to clear up somewhat when the new Millennium Tower was built.)
The Umhlanga Rocks Lighthouse went into unmanned service on the 25th October 1954, painted all white with a red top. The light flashes 3 times every 20 seconds, and it is unusual in that it is the only lighthouse where the custodian is a hotel; fault sensors trigger an alarm in the reception of the Oyster Box Hotel. The lighthouse also assisted in establishing the position of a small pleasure craft one cold and windy night because it couldn’t be seen. The 2 chaps had left Richards Bay harbour for a day trip down to Durban which they should have made with relative ease if it weren’t for an unexpected south-westerly wind that slowed them down greatly. They had no night lights and as evening fell, the National Sea Rescue Institute’s deep sea vessel, Urban Campbell was dispatched to bring them in. Their position had been reported as being off Umhlanga Rocks but when Campbell and her crew arrived, they could not find the small vessel despite going deeper out to sea to use the city lights to find their shadow. Campbell’s radio operator contacted the vessel and asked for a position relative to the lighthouse, but they couldn’t see it. Campbell steamed further north and eventually found the sailors just off of Ballito and towed them back to safe harbour.
Our Cooper Light is also somewhat unusual in that it is one of the few lighthouses to be named after a person as they are usually named for the island, point, cape, etc on which they stand. Cooper Light’s revolving electric light went into operation on 31 July 1953, flashing once every 10 seconds, with shielding on the inland side of the light so as to not disturb residents. The light at the top of the 23 metre tower can be seen for 26 sea miles, and the tower is painted all red with a white band at the centre.
Cooper Light also has the somewhat dubious honour of having a ship wreck named after it. The wreck lies approximately 2km off shore at a depth of about 30 metres, and is believed to be of British origins but she is yet to be identified.
“Reaching out to sea,
your guiding light is warning me,
of stormy waters and hidden reefs;
of danger in the night.”