The colonies of cockroaches were disturbed when a group of us disappeared below the surface of Cape Town to discover the tunnel in upper Oranjezicht below Platteklip on Table Mountain an area called Camissa, the place of sweet water, as Khoi herders once called the City Bowl.
We entered the storm water system through a manhole in upper Oranjezicht and climbed fugitive-like from a manhole within the grounds of the Castle of Good Hope two wet kilometres later. Despite the waivers that were signed, nervousness set in when it was explained that guides had numbered list of manholes we could use as emergency exist in the event of panic attacks.
Crouched in the concrete storm water pipe while waiting for the rest of the team to descend, boots already filled with water, the precariousness of our position hit home and anxiety threatened to end the excursion before it begin. But fear of later taunts trumped immediate anxiety and we set off, happily unprepared flashlight-wise, down the system. Armchair philosophy abounded as we made our way, crouching low and slipping, through racing waters, and losing my camera in the process.
About a third of the way down the mountain the subterranean scenery changed. We could now walk upright, and were surrounded no longer by a concrete structure but by a face brick, built canal. Stalactites started to make their appearance, as did the first cockroach, whose plentiful friends would only be encountered further down the line. There would be no rats; we were thankfully, and truthfully, assured. Throughout the walk, we silently thanked the designers of storm water system as the occasional pool of light and air found its way down into the dark.
The sounds of the dense city traffic several metres overhead was audible, but occasionally team leader Dwain Esterhuizen of FO8 would relay our real-world orientation. That’s how we knew when we were under the Gardens shopping centre, or Harrington Street, or Roeland Street. Rumour had it that the manhole covers in Roeland Street outside Parliament had been welded shut. Some said it was done for former US president Bill Clinton’s visit; someone else reckoned it had been the doing of apartheid head of state P W Botha.
Not much further down the line, things started getting a bit smelly, and old. We entered the third and last leg of the journey, where the same stone that had been used to build the castle replaced the face brick. The tunnel changed shape from its earlier perfect roundness to a more squished oval shape, built by hand during the earliest days of the Cape Colony. History enveloped the awed walkers, whose heads had been gently brushed by cobwebs throughout.
At manhole number 14, sunlight through the end of the tunnel beckoned. Clambering clumsily from the manhole on the grass side of the castle watched by several soldiers, we took a while for the disorientation to register the cars racing down Darling Street. There in the distance was Table Mountain, from were we had earlier surveyed the route we would travel. Reality slowly returned, and we were back in the present