Cape Town Tunnel Tours: An Unusual Experience of the City's History

by - January 05, 2022

Normally adventure tours and educational history tours are not the same tours but I recently discovered that they can be! If you’re looking for an unusual way to explore the city of Cape Town and its history, you should consider journeying underneath it on a secret underground tunnel tour.


When I first moved to Cape Town I was working for a company that wanted me to compile a travel guide to the city for visitors from China. Of course, the pandemic ruined that dream job but before it did, it inspired me to compile a long and exciting Cape Town bucket list (that I will get around to publishing one day soon: Watch this space!). Since the beginning of 2020, one of the top items on my list has been to do an underground tunnel tour. 

Recently, Good Hope Adventures gave me my chance. 

Silhouette in underground tunnel

*I was a guest of Good Hope Adventures but all thoughts and opinions are my own.


The Castle Dungeon and Tunnel Tour 

Good Hope Adventures is a tour company run by the passionate and extremely knowledgable Matt Weisse. While they offer a number of different tours, I joined them for the one known as the Castle Dungeon and Tunnel Tour. The tour gives participants the opportunity to venture into the almost forgotten underground canals underneath the city of Cape Town, some of which date as far back as 1652. 

The tour took place on the grounds of another building on my Cape Town bucket list: the Castle of Good Hope, which dates back to 1666, in fact, it’s known as the oldest surviving building in South Africa. 


Castle of Good Hope - exterior view



Why I wanted to do it:

Honestly, I just thought it would be fun to be able to say I went journeying through these dark mysterious underground tunnels, tunnels built between the 17th and 19th centuries and possibly haunted. (Fun fact: Anything old enough to be considered a heritage site is also automatically old enough to be presumed haunted.) 

I wanted to be able to check off another adventure-filled item from my Cape Town bucket list. I wasn’t really thinking about increasing my knowledge of our country’s rich and complex history. 

As a bonus, I was hoping to get a pic of Rodrigo with the Castle of Good Hope to add to his landmark photo bucket list (another blog I will one day post). 

Travel mascot at Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town

What I was concerned about:

  • The feeling of claustrophobia: After I proudly announced my plans to a friend she complimented me on my bravery, adding that she couldn’t imagine being in an underground tunnel or having to negotiate dark crawl spaces.
    “Crawl spaces?” I hadn’t thought about that! 
  • My fitness levels: I was concerned that I wasn’t physically fit enough. I am always the one slowing down the group whenever I go on a hike with my friends. Climbing down into the tunnel and not landing on my behind while everyone was watching was the part that concerned me the most.
  • The dark: Yes, I'm in my thirties, don't judge me!
  • COVID: At the time of the tour, Omnicron seemed to be everywhere. I was a bit concerned that I would be in close proximity to people who may not take COVID protocols as seriously as I do.   
  • Sewerage: Aware that there is water running through these tunnels, I was a bit concerned that the tunnel would feel - and smell - less like a tunnel and more like a sewer. 
  • And finally, bugs! Yes, by far my greatest concern about doing this tour was the bugs. I’m not a fan of rodents either but I saw some YouTube footage that included some albino cockroaches (they don’t need pigmentation if they never see the light of day) gathering in groups (probably to plan how they would run above the heads of tourists and drop down onto them).  Cockroaches can be real jerks!

My Experience: 

At the start of the tour, we were given an introduction to the history of Cape Town, the construction of the canals and how they came to be enclosed, as well as the history of the Castle. 

Artefact: coin embedded in rock
An artefact recovered from the tunnels

We then proceeded inside where we were shown other water-related facilities in the castle.

Tour group enters Castle of Good Hope

Water well at Castle of Good Hope

We also saw dungeons and jails engraved with fascinating messages from the prisoners who were held there:

Graffiti created by former prisoner at Castle of Good Hope
"In the 61 Regt there is a man
Who robs poor prisoners whene'er he can
Paul Spencer's his name, can't mark it fuller
I know him well, he robbed me of a dollar
"


Once the scene was set, we went around the back of the castle where Matt descended into the tunnel to test the air quality and we were given a clear explanation of the safety protocols. 

Good Hope Adventures -  Tunnel Tours entrance

Man explains safety protocol prior to tunnel tour


We then climbed in one by one, under the direction of the guides. Once we were all at the bottom we began exploring the tunnels. 

We wandered upstream and then downstream again, experiencing intersections where tunnels diverged. 

Along the way, the guides pointed out where the brickwork changed indicating the locations of bridges that once crossed over the cannals. 

Underground tunnel selfie

Tourists on underground tunnel tour in Cape Town


At one point, we were asked to turn off our torches and experience pitch darkness to imagine what slaves escaping the castle through these tunnels may once have been through. No ghosts or cockroaches used this opportunity to make their presence known and I actually really enjoyed the experience of raising my hand in front of my face and not being able to see it. Win, win!

Did we find any valuable treasures from former centuries like the ones Matt showed us before the tour? No, but at least we didn't have to exit through this manhole:

Unused manhole in underground tunnel


Eventually, we ended up at a wooden exit door where the beach had once been before the land was reclaimed from the sea in the 1940s for the construction of our current port area.

Exit of Cape Town underground tunnel tours


And what about my concerns?

  • The feeling of claustrophobia: There were absolutely no crawl spaces like the ones I was concerned about, in fact, these tunnels were big, approximately two meters in diameter, so big that you can’t touch both sides at the same time. 
  • My fitness levels:  The part when you climb down into the tunnel was a bit daunting. It is quite a way down if you were to fall. Fortunately, between a guide at the top and another at the bottom (both of whom definitely remembered their patience pills that day), I was skillfully directed into the tunnel. 
  • The dark: While my headlamp thingy definitely wasn't the brightest, I managed to position myself in the middle of the group so there was always light (from other people’s head torches) behind me and in front of me. And the part where we turned off our torches was more fun than scary.
Headlamps illuminate tunnel on underground tour in Cape Town


  • COVID: Matt and his team were quite strict about their COVID protocol and I really appreciated that. Masks were worn the entire time we were in the tunnel and we were offered hand sanitiser a number of times throughout the tour.
  • Sewerage: The water was actually surprisingly clear and apart from a bit of a musty smell, it was very pleasant. So if you were hoping to spot a ninja turtle, this is not the tour for you! 
  • The bugs: While I spotted quite a few cockroaches down there (of an impressive size too), they had conventional cockroach pigmentation and they were very, very respectful of my personal space. They were woke roaches! 

Underground tunnel tour selfie with COVID mask


What surprised me about the tour:

  • I didn’t realise that the tour would take us into the fort itself, I assumed that we would just be in the vicinity of it. (I probably didn't read the description correctly.) I didn’t expect to be able to kill two Cape Town bucket list birds with one tour stone.  If you're thinking of visiting the Castle of Good Hope, this is definitely the best way to do it!
  • If you are well-travelled internationally, forts can get a little redundant.  Having seen a lot of forts throughout Europe and the Caribbean, I secretly suspected that this fort would not be as interesting as the ones I had seen overseas.  I know that South Africa didn’t just build this one because Europe was doing it but we do frequently try to recreate the same things we’ve experienced overseas (like artisanal food markets) and somehow ours are never as good. This fort was very impressive. Having a guide to show us around made it even more so.
  • More than anything else, I expected it to be only an adventure tour that leaves you with bragging rights but it was definitely a history lesson as well. -And not a boring one from a teacher who failed to achieve their dream career and had to settle for this job instead (like the one’s I had in high school). No, Matt and his team were so knowledgeable and passionate about the history of the area that it was as infectious as the Omnicron variant that forced some of the other participants to cancel! I was surprised by how much I learnt and how much I could enjoy something so educational. 
Travel mascot on castle rampart at the Castle of Good Hope


The history of Cape Town's tunnels

I can’t quite explain it as well as Matt and his team but parts of the underground canals and rivers are said to date back to 1652.  When the Cape was under Dutch rule, the streams running from Table Mountain to the sea were formalized into canals or ‘grachte’ and Cape Town came to be known as ‘Little Amsterdam’. 

While these canals started off being used for both travel and to convey freshwater through the settlement and on to passing ships, it wasn’t long before they became polluted and disease began to spread. As a result, by 1838 they began enclosing the canals and replacing them with brick sewers. By the time the Bubonic Plague broke out in Cape Town in 1901, the last open water course in District Six was closed. 

Girl searches for light at the end of the tunnel


The History of the Castle of Good Hope

The Castle of Good Hope is a pentagonal fort built between 1666 and 1679 and is the oldest existing building in South Africa. It was built by the Dutch East India Company to replace an older fort built by Jan Van Riebeeck on what was then the beachfront (before land reclamation pushed the waters further out). It is considered the best-preserved example of a Dutch East India Company fort.

Some of the castle's highlights include:

  • The Dolphin Pool - No, it was not built to house live dolphins, it got its name from the fountain in the middle, silly!

Dolphin pool at the Castle of Good Hope


  • De Kat is the name of the building that runs through the centre. It once housed the residence of the governor and second-in-command, as well as a large council hall that now houses the Iziko Wiliam Fehr Collection of historical colonial artwork and antique furniture. And of course, the occasional contemporary art installation (at least I think that's what's on this table): 

Meeting hall at the Kat at the Castle of Good Hope


  • The building's balcony was used for announcements and judicial sentences:

The balcony at the Kat at the Castle of Good Hope


  • The castle's bell tower was completed in 1683 and houses a bell cast in Amsterdam in 1697:

Bell tower at the Castle of Good Hope

To answer some of the questions I had before the tour:

How much does a Cape Town tunnel tour cost?
R750 per person (Correct at the time of posting)

How physically fit do you need to be?
  • Fit enough to climb through a smallish manhole and down some very tiny rungs protruding out of the tunnel wall. 
  • You then wade through water that may be somewhat slippery for quite a while (I’m not very good at judging distances). We were told we could straddle the stream but would be less likely to slip if we just walked in it which is what we all did. The ground is uneven with some deeper pits along the way. The walls are too far apart to be used as support. 
  • It is not suitable for children or anyone with mobility challenges. 

How dark are the tunnels on the tunnel tour?
It really depends on the brightness of the group's torches, or “flashlights” (for my North American readers). Mine wasn’t bright enough which forced me to go a bit slower as I could not see the ground in front of me. 

Darkness of the tunnel on underground tunnel tour


Are there any crawl spaces in this tunnel tour?
No. The smallest space you would need to fit through is the manhole to get into the tunnel. 

When do the tunnel tours run?
The Cape Town tunnel tours usually run on select weekends during the summer months. The tours are subject to weather conditions and other factors.

How safe are tunnel tours?

  • Oxygen: Before we entered the tunnel, our guide checked the oxygen levels to make sure that they were within a normal range and there were no toxic gases in the tunnels. 
  • COVID: The numbers of the group were are limited, mask-wearing was enforced and hand sanitiser was provided. 
  • Physical safety: The guides helped guide us into and out of the tunnels as safely as possible. The tunnels are slippery with uneven ground.  
  • Water levels and weather conditions: This tour does not operate in winter, the rainy season. We were also forewarned that it could be cancelled at short notice if there was any rain. A member of the team remained above ground to monitor the situation throughout the tour. 

How long is the underground tunnel tour?
Approximately 1.5 - 2 hours. 
I suggest giving yourself some additional time to explore the castle afterwards. 

Where does the tour start?
When you sign up for the tour you are given instructions to meet the group in the castle’s parking lot at 90 Darling street.

I followed this map and it is accurate:



I don’t know why but I just assumed that when they built this fort in the 17th century they weren’t accounting for a parking area for motor vehicles that hadn’t yet been invented. I presumed that, as even modern constructions in Cape Town usually have very limited parking, I would have to find a parking lot nearby. This was not the case. There is parking available on the grounds itself. You even get to drive your car over the moat! Seriously, even that part was fun! 

Castle of Good Hope entrance


What to wear on an underground tunnel tour:

  • Old non-slip trainers. (In retrospect I believe water shoes would have had better grip). Gumboots or wellies could work too. Either way, you will be walking through water and you will need to wash them afterwards. I wouldn’t wear anything I really like a lot. (And bring a change of shoes for the drive home.)
  • Shorts - Unless you enjoy having wet pant legs clinging to your calves, I would say wear shorts. The tunnels are also quite warm so your legs won’t get cold. Old clothes are advised.
  • A really good headlamp. I slowed the group down because I couldn’t see in front of me.
  • If you want to take pictures I would suggest a waterproof casing for your phone or camera in case you drop it. A moon bag, or 'fanny pack' (again, for my North American readers), may be useful to keep your phone or camera within arm's reach while also freeing up your hands.
  • Sunscreen - What? You probably thought this may be the one time when I don’t recommend sunscreen but it’s helpful for when you explore the castle afterwards. 

Legs of underground tunnel tour group

Things to do nearby:

The Castle of Good Hope is in close proximity to a number of other historical landmarks, including:
  • The Greenmarket Square
  • The Company's Garden (Also established by the Dutch East India Company)
  • The City Hall (Where Nelson Mandela gave his first speech after being released from prison.)
  • The Grand Parade
  • The District 6 Museum
  • The South African Museum 
  • St. Georges Cathedral
  • The Cape Gallery
  • The Iziko Slave Lodge 
  • You could even catch Cape Town's hop-on hop-off bus and explore more of the city above ground.
Historical walking tours are also available of the city centre. 


New Tour Coming in 2022: Top Secret War Tunnel & Bunker Tour

Starting in January 2022, Good Hope Adventures is offering a new type of tunnel tour. This one is taking visitors into the fascinating history of World War II and Cape Town's involvement in it. Discover the hidden secrets of an abandoned World War II military base, including underground operation rooms, SSS Radar Stations and ammunition magazines in use from 1942 to defend the Cape from attack by German U boats. 

This tour is a lot drier than the tunnel tour I went on so water shoes are not necessary but don't forget your braai torch/headlamp.

For bookings, more information or to take advantage of the Top Secret War Tunnel & Bunker Tour opening special (R295 per person valid for tour on 29 January) contact mattweisse@mweb.co.za or see www.goodhopeadventures.com

Alternatively, win two tickets for any of Good Hop Adventures' War Tunnel and Bunker Tours in 2022 on Instagram: 



Pin: Cape Town Tunnel Tours: The Ultimate Combination of History and Adventure

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