Looking back at fabulous Fish Hoek

The coloured benches on the Fish Hoek Beach catwalk.

When Gillian Brooke spent her first Cape Town holiday in Fish Hoek in 1988 she could never have imagined that she would move there and become part of one of the town’s biggest tourist initiatives later known as Fabulous Fish Hoek.

Ms Brooke admits that she had some misgivings about their first holiday while she, her husband, Simon, and their two children, Amy and Adam, were driving there from Johannesburg.

She said they knew nothing about Fish Hoek except that it had a beach

“And like all Vaalies, the only holiday of worth was on a beach,” she said.

Their holiday accommodation was at 39 Hillside Road. “A bank of steps took us up to the front door of this double-storey house, and before we opened it we all turned to look at the beach below: ‘This is fabulous’ we chorused, and fell instantly in love with the place.”

So fabulous Fish Hoek, as the Brookes used to call, it became their default Christmas destination for the next six years.

The couple then bought a property on the hillside and it took another six years before they could finally move to Fish Hoek in December 2000.

They had sold their PR and advertising agency and were looking forward to relaxing and sitting in the sunshine on the catwalk.

Having spent eleven Decembers in Fish Hoek, as well as popping down for long weekends, the family felt very much at home there.

Ms Brooke also started writing a weekly column, The Catwalk
Talk, about the goings on in Fish Hoek for one of the local newspapers.

However, it wasn’t long before she was looking for a project to “sink her teeth in” and thought what better place to start than the beach.

Ms Brooke said the grey benches along the catwalk distressed her and she wanted to restore them but needed a budget.

She approached then ward councillor Felicity Purchase to run an idea past her which Ms Brooke had seen in British Columbia, Canada, where the verges of the roads are kept manicured and litter free by having local businesses adopt a verge.

Ms Purchase shared her enthusiasm and mentioned that in days gone by the benches had been painted red, green, blue and yellow.

Ms Brooke said it sparked her imagination and she asked their home accountant to calculate the cost of maintaining a bench for a year. It worked out to R180.

The next step was to invite local companies, regular beachgoers, and residents, to pay an annual subscription for the maintenance of a bench which would then bear a plaque identifying the person who adopted it.

Ms Brooke’s first stop was at the hardware store in Main Road which is not there anymore.

The owner agreed to donate some paint in exchange for a plaque on one of the benches. Ms Brooke said Fish Hoek Middle School, as it was then known, was her next port of call and so she went from business to business.

However, not everyone shared her enthusiasm and there were many complaints that the
catwalk had been turned into a children’s playground with the bright colours.

Ms Brooke said she found it strange as the iconic Muizenberg Beach huts are painted in the same colours.

But the criticism did not stop her from beautifying the beach.

“I used to walk up and down the catwalk every day with a pen and pad in my hand, talking to everyone sitting on benches, asking them to adopt one. I got very few refusals, and many visitors from all over the world bought into the scheme,” she said.

Ms Purchase, who is now mayoral committee member for transport and public works, said she remembered the day Ms Brooke had contacted her with the idea.

“At the time the benches were rather unattractive, and I suggested the primary colours so that it would match the theme of the bathing boxes and so that it will brighten up the catwalk,” she said.

Since then, Ms Purchase said, the older council benches that required ongoing maintenance were replaced by dressed stone benches which can be seen in between the painted cement benches along the catwalk.

Rob Downey, owner of Cape Coastal Property Group, adopted a bench back then and still maintains it to this day, and he said he would continue to do so.

He said the beach was in need of a make-over, and a group of people had been ready to do
some maintenance before lockdown but then the beaches had been closed.

He said the community and businesses were very passionate about the beach as it was the town’s pride and joy.