South Africa – Going Southernmost
Teetering on the Tip of Africa
If you’re a lover of extremes and like to walk on the edge, Cape Agulhas is your happy place. The southernmost tip of Africa is more than a graveyard for ships and a playground for ghosts; it’s the proverbial last land stop before Antarctica – marked by a stout stone lighthouse and the meeting of two great oceans.
By Keri Harvey
Just imagine. A place where compass needles falter and massive 30-metre rogue waves roll in to shore through winter. Where there is such diversity and rare plant life that over 300 species of fynbos living here grow nowhere else on earth. And imagine the abundance created by two currents colliding, one warm and one cool. Not to mention shipwrecks like giant stepping stones in the sea. If you head due south to the very tip of Africa until you can go no further, this is what you’ll find.
Ancient Portuguese navigators called Cape Agulhas ‘Cabo das Agulhas’ or the Cape of Needles when they noticed that compasses indicated magnetic north and true north as the same direction, without deviation. Of course this played havoc with navigation, and over 120 ships now lie along this immediate stretch of coastline with less than a kilometre separating one wreck from the next. These are just the wrecks that have been identified – there are likely many more – and the Meisho Maru, which ran aground in 1982, is the only visual evidence of the maritime tragedies that played out along this stretch of Cape coastline. The rest are buried in the ocean, still a mystery.
It all lends an intriguing atmosphere to Cape Agulhas. There’s a stillness running through it and its mood is brooding, regardless of the weather. And weather changes quickly here too; the wind whips up and the sun disappears and then winks back teasingly all in a half hour. It’s difficult to imagine the harsh welcome visitors of old were given, before the small town of L’Agulhas was established or the iconic red-banded lighthouse of limestone. Vast herds of wildlife roamed here, including elephants and rhinos as their skulls have been unearthed in the sand as proof. There were hippo and quagga too, but now only small mammals live across the Agulhas plains.
The stubby lighthouse, on the hill overlooking the ocean, still fans its night light for 50km out to sea around the southern tip. The stories it knows of shipwrecks and disaster remain in the memory of its walls, built in 1848. Yet there is one story that locals know well, and to some it’s not a story but an undisputed fact. She’s the ghost with the beautiful hands, who frequents Spookdraai.
Agulhas resident and tourism officer at Cape Agulhas, Maureen Fourie, says the ghost is usually seen “on dark moon nights in winter at a sharp bend in the road. She’s believed to be a shipwreck survivor, and that’s about all we know about her. But it’s her beautiful hands that stand out. And she sometimes leaves handprints on the duvets at the local lodge too.” The short, self-guided Spookdraai Hiking Trail is a circular route that includes the sharp bend in the road where the lady ghost is sometimes seen.
Less mysterious is the Two Oceans Hiking Trail that threads through fynbos inside the Agulhas National Park. Fynbos was the reason the park was proclaimed in 1999, with the original park being a tiny 4 hectares big. Now it’s over 70km long and about 25km wide and protects some of the most endangered and prized fynbos in the Cape Floral Kingdom. This small area is the natural home of about 2 500 different plant species and hundreds of these are found nowhere else on earth. It’s a fynbos Eden – a literal ‘walk in the park’ if you hike here. Plus there are 230 bird species and over 60 small mammal species to see. Biodiversity is what this park is all about.
Perfect sunshine has suddenly turned grey, as we step up onto the boardwalk that snakes for 950m from in front of the lighthouse all the way west along the coast. Yes, it’s the southernmost boardwalk in Africa too, and a comfortable way to traverse the cobbled coastline. The wind is whipping and rain is in the air, but the cold breeze is invigorating and addictive; wild, coastal weather is balm for body and mind. We stop at the marker of the Atlantic and Indian oceans meeting place and ponder how this precise spot was decided upon. It was the International Hydrographic Organisation that drew the imaginary line in the water.
To the east is the warm Indian Ocean, flowing down from the tropics with the Mozambique current – its ocean habitat is a colourful garden and enormous diversity of life. The Atlantic Ocean to the west is cooled by the Benguela Current coming up from Antarctic. It’s the place of kelp forests and ice white sands. So the waters off Cape Agulhas have personality from both oceans together.
Passing the wreck of the Meisho Maru on the left, we continue on, wind combing our hair and the sun kissing our faces intermittently. It’s easy walking the boardwalk so anyone can savour this curving, cobbled coastline that still holds so many secrets. And there’s something deeply soulful and enigmatic about walking the edge of the southernmost tip of Africa. It’s akin to standing on the invisible line that is the equator, or stepping into the Arctic Circle. The line is quite ethereal but no less real. This one, a tiny tip protruding into the ocean, is a special meeting place – not just of oceans and lovers of wild beauty, but of those who are tantalized by extremes. Because more southernmost in Africa is impossible.
If you want to stand on the northern tip of Africa, head directly to Ras Ben Sakka, at Cap Blanc in Tunisia. The coastline is arid, the sea warm, and the sculpted rock formations dramatically beautiful.
Do things southernmost
- climb the 71 steps to the top of the southernmost lighthouse in Africa for an overview of the coastline
- pop into the Southernmost Café in Africa
- eat at the Zuidste Kaap Restaurant
- walk the southernmost boardwalk on the continent
Around Cape Agulhas
Kassiesbaai in Arniston/Waenhuiskrans – a traditional fishing village that appears as a living museum of picture perfect white cottages adorned with nets and floats.
Struisbaai fishing harbour – where local fishermen launch and land their colourful boats.
Shipwreck Museum in nearby Bredasdorp (34km) – preserves the marine legacy of the area in an impressive collection of maritime memorabilia.
Lighthouse Museum – it’s completely unique and housed in the Cape Agulhas lighthouse.
See the Meisho Maru wreck, which is slowly crumbling with rust on the rocks in front of Cape Agulhas lighthouse. It’s the only visible wreck from 120 identified wrecks under the Agulhas light.
Hike the 4 km circular Spookdraai Trail outside the national park – two thirds is through fynbos along the coast and inland, and the rest follows the main street of Cape Agulhas.
Do the Two Oceans Hiking Trail in the national park. It takes in coast and fynbos and there are three routes to choose from: 3km; 4.5km and 10.5km.
Stand with one foot in each ‘ocean’ at the official meeting place of the Indian and Atlantic oceans.
Whale watch from August to November. Southern rights are often seen during whale season.
Visit the wine farms and wine boutique near Elim.
Go birding on the Agulhas Plains and wetland area.
Rent a bicycle or kayak and explore the area independently.