If you are new to Cape Town, you might be surprised when at exactly 12h00 a boom reverberates through the city. Perhaps even more surprising is that few local residents will even blink. This is because it happens every day except Sundays and public holidays.
The two noon guns — well, technically, they are cannons — were brought to Cape Town by the British when they invaded in 1795. The cannons, which are two of the oldest cannons in the world still in daily use, were used in combat in the Battle of Muizenberg and have been fired more than 62 000 times since 1902.
Since 1806, the cannons have been used to provide time signals for the ships anchored in the harbour. They were originally housed at the Imhoff Battery, but when it was demolished they were moved to the Castle of Good Hope. After residents in the area complained about the noise they were moved by ox-wagon to their current spot on Signal Hill.
Signal Hill, which is situated at the foot of Lion’s Head, is so named because it was originally used to communicate weather warnings and anchoring instructions via signal flags to ships docked in the harbour. The cannons were originally used to notify the public when a ship was in trouble, and later to accurately mark the time so that ships docked in the harbour could check the accuracy of their marine chronometers (timepieces accurate enough that they can be used to determine longitude and latitude, like fancy ship clocks before the days of technology).
These days, the guns are fired electronically from the South African Astronomical Observatory in the suburb of Observatory near central Cape Town. There are two guns because one of the guns acts as a back-up should the first one fail to fire. On 7 January 2005, both guns failed to fire owing to a technical difficulty — the first time in 200 years that the Noon Gun did not fire as scheduled!
The South African Navy does a daily presentation from 11h30 on the history of the firing of the Noon Gun at the Lion Battery. You can walk there from the centre of Cape Town, just look out for the Military Street signpost on Buitengracht Street. On your way up take in the spectacular views of the V&A Waterfront, the city and Robben Island, and don’t forget to cover your ears at noon!