Dry Dock Concert at the SA Navy Festival 2010

Last Friday night, two friends and I attended the Dry Dock Concert at the naval yard in Simon’s Town. This performance by the superlative SA Navy Band was one of the highlights of the Navy Festival, which took place this weekend (05-07 March 2010).

We arrived shortly after 19h00, with the concert itself due to start at 20h00. Although I’d seen the dry dock before, peering very cautiously down from the railing above, I had never climbed all the way down.

The Selbourne dry dock in the East Dockyard is HUMUNGOUS.(*1) And standing right at the bottom is awe-inspiring.

View of the Selborne Dry Dock from the top

In the background of the photo above you can see the SAS Drakensberg (A301), which is a fleet replenishment ship – or combat support ship. This also happened to be the valiant ship, which saved Cape Town from further electricity outages in 2006! (*2) All around the top of the dock are the colourful badges of the ships that have been repaired or serviced here; some of them look very old and faded, and a few seem brand new.

The gang planks down into the dock

We cautiously climbed down the steep, narrow and slightly wet steps, within the outer walls of the dock. A red chain of lights had been strung all along the railings. A friendly sailor saw me struggling a bit with the last steep and slippery steps, and politely reached out his hand to guide me down the last section. Thank you, kind gentleman!

Two gang planks, one lit up in red, the other in green, descended from the wall on either side, down to the floor of the dock. People were scurrying hither and thither, waving at friends, and loudly greeting each other. Children were running around excitedly, people with picnic paraphernalia were trying to find a place to sit, and others were just standing in a daze, staring around open-mouthed.

The rear half of the dock

The musicians’ chairs and instruments had been arranged on the slightly elevated stage in front of the large flooding doors. Rows and rows of chairs had been placed all over the front half of the dry dock. Most of these were already occupied by the time we arrived, and people were starting to climb up the walls. I mean that quite literally. πŸ™‚

The walls aren’t straight vertical, but have altars or landings, which become steeper and narrower, the higher you climb. Unfortunately, many of the landings were wet and a little slippery, with puddles in inconvenient places, and we didn’t particularly fancy getting our rear ends wet.

We realised that there wasn’t much space left on the front landings, and so we found ourselves a dry section behind the gang ways, right next to the toilets. V and L, who hadn’t eaten all day, decided to brave the queues for the boerewors and cooldrink stands, while I guarded our seats. While we waited for the show to start, more and more chairs were ferried down the gang planks, until almost the entire front section was packed.

Meanwhile, I read through the safety notice that had been handed to us by one of the sailors on duty. It declared, sternly:

“Please be advised that the East Dockyard and the dry dock are industrial ship repair facilities and an extremely hazardous environment.”



It went on:

“The dry dock caisson and penstocks (flooding doors) have been inspected by both dockyard technicians as well as SA navy divers and pronounced safe for this evening’s event.”


Gang plank descending near our seats

It suddenly struck me that the dry dock was not always a dry dock. I know, I know, it’s kind of obvious, and there were after all puddles everywhere…

But I had been so caught up in the excitement of going to see the Navy Band and the thrill of actually visiting the Navy Yard, which is always such a highlight of the year, that I had somehow not given this much thought. Now that I was thinking about it, however…

All that separated all of us, right down in the bottom of the dock, from a very, very large volume of seawater, no doubt pushing against the flooding doors right now, was that set of doors. They sure were large doors… but…


Naturally, I had to share this little snippet of information with my friends, who had just returned to their seats, bearing boerewors rolls and cooldrinks. When I asked V whether he could identify a fast exit route for us, he said bluntly that we wouldn’t have time to escape.

“Just take a deep breath and tread water. And try to get close to the steps on the side. There’s steps going up behind us.”

That’s if we didn’t drown first. Weighed down by our wet clothes.


Thanks, V. πŸ™‚

As it was, nothing bad happened. The doors held, and no one got swept away. Not by water anyhow. By music, yes, oh yes, we definitely got swept away by the music.

Just before 20h00, the Navy Band walked onto the stage and took their seats. As they started their first piece, a powerful, heart-swelling rendition of Vangelis’ “1492 – The Conquest of Paradise” (YouTube clip of the song), accompanied by a choir wearing life-vests with a flashing beacon, it was clear that this would be a fantastic show.

1492 Conquest of Paradise

And was it ever.

Unfortunately, there weren’t any programmes to buy before the show, so I don’t know the names of all the pieces. But I do remember some of them.Β  (I apologise for the fact that the photos are quite small and a bit blurry – they were screen captures from the video clips I took.)

An energetic Zulu dancer performs on stage

For instance, a crowd-pleasing favourite was a compilation of Johnny Clegg songs, including (I think) Asimbonanga, A Great Heart, and one of the most beautiful and emotional pieces he’s written – The Crossing – Osiyeza. One of the band members, dressed up as a Zulu, moved into the crowd, picking a few people to dance with him, and the conductor, Commander Kenny Leibbrandt, got the audience to sway back and forth to the chorus of Osiyeza.

The crowd sways to the beautiful chorus of Osiyeza

It was frustrating to sit so far away from the stage, and the zoom on my camera was not able to get close enough, so we took turns standing up and walking around, trying to get a bit closer to the action. The people towards the back were surprisingly noisy and chatty, while the music was going on, which I thought was quite rude. I was quite tempted to shush them.

A young woman with a strong voice sang “The wind beneath my wings”.

Singing ‘The wind beneath my wings’

This was followed by a military march, with a couple of drummers marching onto the stage. I always like the military marches! There is something so exciting and majestic about them. πŸ™‚

Drummers on stage

Then came a performance by two virtuoso xylophone players, who demonstrated astonishing skill, speed and dexterity in wielding the little hammers of their xylophones.

Xylophone players

When they finished, in a breathtaking finale where the conductor had made them play faster and faster, competing against each other, the audience cheered and clapped loudly.

Two xylophone players competing with each other

Then came a couple of speeches, where various individuals and groups were thanked for their role in the evening’s festivities. The acoustics weren’t that great at the back, but one of the things that really touched me was when a group of school children were given musical instruments, apparently donated by the visiting German Navy. They looked ecstatic.

The German Navy has donated instruments to these children

V and I had been standing behind the last row of chairs in order to get a better view of the stage. The men and women from the Cape Field Artillery Pipes and Drums had lined up in the centre aisle, right next to us, waiting for their moment to march to the front and onto the stage. Finally, their moment came.

The Cape Field Artillery Pipes and Drums marching up to the stage

As I found during the Cape Town military tattoo of 2008 and again in 2009, there are few things more soul-stirring and patriotism-invoking than hearing bagpipes and drums! There’s something mysterious about the sound that makes me want to leap up, throw on a kilt, grab a weapon and charge off into battle!

I realise that’s probably rather odd… Please tell me if you feel the same? πŸ™‚

Pipes and drums on stage

The Isivunguvungu choir filed onto the stage to sing “Amazing Grace”, to the accompaniment of the pipes and drums.

Wow. It was lump-in-the-throat music. Especially when the entire band, plus the choir, plus the pipes and drums joined in at the end. Very emotive.

Singing ‘Amazing Grace’

Finally, they performed the piece I’d been hoping they would do: the glorious Highland Cathedral.

‘Highland Cathedral’

It always starts so gently and ponderously, with more and more instruments joining in, as the music progresses, until it reaches a crescendo at the end. I’d also never heard it with a choir before – it was utterly magical.

‘Highland Cathedral’

Yep, it had been a spectacular evening. As we made our way out of the dry dock with the crowds, we promised ourselves that we would have to do this again.


*1: The Simon’s Town dockyard dates back to somewhere in the 19th century (Simon’s Town website), and construction on the dry dock finished in November 1910. It is named after the Earl of Selborne, who laid the foundation stone in November 1906 (1911 encyclopedia). The dry dock is 231 m long, 36.58 m wide, and 13.7 m deep, and can hold up to 99 million litres of water (Ports and Ships: article about 2008 navy festival). It can be subdivided into two sections by an intermediate caisson.

In November 2010, the Selborne dry dock will be 100 years old, and special events are planned around the centenary celebrations. For instance, the Naval Heritage Trust, together with Simon’s Town Historical Society is planning to bring out a book on the history of the Selborne dry dock.

*2: Do you remember the story of the loose bolt at Koeberg nuclear power station, which damaged the rotor unit of generator 1, threatening to put the generator out of action for 3 to 9 months?

As it turned out, it wasn’t a loose bolt after all, but loose magnetic material, which “damaged the generator’s insulation, which in turn damaged the rotor and stator rods”, according to a report by Eskom. In March/April of 2006, the SAS Drakensberg transported the replacement 200-ton rotor from France to Cape Town (see here and here).

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