A look at the tales and truths of the supposed Sea Point Tunnel and the history behind the blocked-off archway that still stands today.
By: Storm Simpson
A tunnel that is said to have run from a mansion opposite Graaff’s Pool in Sea Point, Cape Town, is the subject of local folklore. The blocked-off archway can still be seen today and many tales, which have been reshaped and retold over time, surround its origin.
GRAAFF’S POOL ORIGINS
The high, white concrete wall surrounding Graaf’s Pool was partially removed in June 2005. Alderman JP Smith, a Sea Point ward councillor at the time, led the charge for the wall’s destruction, saying it promoted “anti-social behaviour” by obscuring criminal activities, including prostitution and drug use, from public view.
News24 reported that Smith wanted to break the wall further down to the rock surface and restore the area to its original state.
The City of Cape Town said Graaff’s pool was built in 1870. In a media release about the demolition, the local government said the pool was named after Jacobus Graaff and commented on the tunnel’s legend. “Legend has it that it was originally built as a wading pool. There was a tunnel underneath the road and the grandmother used to be wheeled to bathe in the tidal pool.”
Much speculation surrounds the origin of the tunnel. One theory is the Graaf family constructed it to allow them to walk down to the beach and bathe in the sea without interacting with common folk. The pool was donated to the City Council in 1929, according to Cape Town Etc.
Another theory is that the tunnel was built by Mr Pieter Marais, a wealthy businessman with ties to the wine industry, in 1903 and named it Villa Bordeaux after the famous wine region in France.
Marais’ wife, who became known as the Lady of Bordeaux, fell ill after the death of her only child shortly after childbirth and was confined to a wheelchair.
Marais reportedly built the tunnel for his wife to access the beach while being hidden from the public due to the stigma and lack of understanding of disability at the time.
The Villa Bordeaux was sold to the Graaf family when Marais fell on hard times in the early 1900s, and the mansion was eventually demolished in 1959. Bordeaux Residential Apartments, one of the largest blocks of flats in Sea Point, now stands at the spot.
MANY TALES OF THE TUNNEL
The story of the lady in the wheelchair is perhaps the most famous tale attached to the apparent tunnel and is shared via local history pages on social media.
After the pool became a public amenity, its exclusivity remained. It became a male-only facility in the 1970s and was exclusively used by men who sunbathed in the nude. Women were only allowed to use the pool much later in 1994 when the “men only” signs were removed, according to the City
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Andre Malan’s architectural thesis, Below Bordeaux, Hidden Histories in Sea Point, deals with the lore surrounding the tunnel.
“Exactly how much is truth and how much fantasy is not as important as the existence of the story itself,” he wrote.
Malan wrote that the excluded were forced to imagine what happened behind the wall. “Projections of their forbidden desires overflowed into conversations, novels and newspapers.”
The thesis presents another “more plausible” account of the Sea Point tunnel, which denies that it ever reached the Villa Bordeaux.
In 1966, a Cape Argus journalist, John de Nobreaga, attempted to debunk the tunnel story and titled the article The Tunnel That Never Was.
In the article, De Nobreaga said the partially covered archway, which is visible today, is the remains of a subway for the old railway line that ended on the other side of the tracks.
In 2012, a short film inspired by Graaff’s Pool titled Behind the Wall was released. Its makers said the pool has become a landmark in folklore and local consciousness and has served various marginalised groups.
WATCH THE FILM BELOW: