Travel/South Africa: The bottom of a continent

Travel/South Africa: The bottom of a continent

By VIVIENNE MACKIE

Cape Point Agulhas on the Overberg Peninsula, about a three-hour drive southeast of Cape Town in South Africa, has many lovely places to visit. But, the highlight has got to be the actual southernmost tip of Africa.

L'Agulhas is a small town, the southernmost town in the whole continent of Africa, stretched along the rocky coast before the famous lighthouse — a very distinctive landmark. Many people mistakenly believe that Cape Point, a short drive south from Cape Town, is the most southerly point in Africa. Not so.

Early Portuguese seafarers rounding the dangerous cape christened this point Golfo de Agulhas (Gulf of Needles). Later, due to French influence, it became know as L'Agulhas. This refers to the jagged rocks of the coastline and to the fact that, in the 1400s, a compass needle showed very little deviation (6 degrees) at the spot between true north and magnetic north.

Agulhas National Park is part of the windswept, ruggedly beautiful plain of Agulhas, which has thousands of indigenous plants, including about 100 that are only found here. So, it's an important part of the Cape Floral Kingdom (the smallest and richest of the world's six plant kingdoms).

The coastline supports a rich marine and intertidal life, with some rare birds like the African Black Oystercatcher. In the right season (June-November), you can usually see Southern Right whales from the shoreline. The waters are generally quite shallow, and this area is known as a good fishing ground in South Africa. The catch of the day was Yellowtail when we were there — delicious.

The Cape Agulhas lighthouse is South Africa's third oldest, built in 1848, and the second oldest working lighthouse (after Green Point). Completed in December 1848, the light was first lit on March 1, 1849. We learned interesting snippets, such as that originally it was fueled by tail-fat of sheep, but in 1905, an oil-burning lantern was installed. Later this was replaced by a petroleum vapor burner, and then in 1936 by an electric lamp powered by a diesel generator.

In 1968, the lighthouse was taken out of service due to crumbling walls and was condemned for demolition. However, many groups came together to save it, and it was declared a national monument in 1973. The Bredasdorp Shipwreck Museum (in the nearby town of Bredasdorp) and local council did the restoration, and it was recommissioned in 1988. More restorations are ongoing. It is part of the Cape Agulhas National Park.

The lighthouse has a round tower, 88 feet high, painted with red and white bands, indicating that it is a land-based lighthouse. The range of the light is 30 nautical miles (35 miles). It rotates, giving off one white flash every five seconds.

Visitors can go up the lighthouse (for a charge), although we feel that the park organizers should not allow small children to go up. It's interesting with a great view but not easy to get up, with narrow stairs and steep ladders at some points and definitely not suitable for small kids (or adults with vertigo).

From the lighthouse, you can walk a bit (about 0.6 mile) to the southernmost tip of Africa, where there is a small monument with a metal plaque set in stones that straddles the point where the Indian Ocean and Atlantic Ocean meet. But otherwise, there is no great fanfare, which we found rather pleasant. How awesome to stand on a spot that's the most southerly tip of the continent. Next stop, Antartica.

It's also amazing to stand at the point of the meeting of two great oceans. It's a very sensory experience at the point: The waves crash onto the rocks around, seagulls wheel and cry and the sun beats down (in the summer). There's sparse vegetation, but some gorgeous bright flowers grow bravely in between the stones. If you walk around a bit, you'll find pebble bays and rock pools.

The meeting point of the two oceans was officially mapped in 1921 by the International Hydrographic Organization. But, the meeting point of the two major sea currents can sometimes vary, depending on wind and other factors. In general, the warm Mozambique/Agulhas Current brings warm water from the tropics down the east coast of Africa. Parts of it can drift even as far as Cape Point. The cool Benguela Current in the Atlantic comes up from Antartica and brushes the west coast of Africa below the equator. The two currents meet and mingle to the south of Cape Agulhas and Cape Point, which often causes wild waters and fierce cross currents.

A short drive a little further on the dirt road takes you to the shipwreck of the Meisho Maru in 1982 — one of the stark reminders of how treacherous this coast can be. This coastline is notorious for shipwrecks and is dotted with hundreds of shipwrecks. Some people even go on a shipwreck tour, and Bredasdorp has an excellent Shipwreck Museum.

One could do this as a long day trip from Cape Town, but we feel it's far nicer to spend the night somewhere near Agulhas Point. There are a number of restaurants in the town and a bigger selection of places in Bredasdorp.

Vivienne Mackie, an ESL teacher and travel writer, comes from southern Africa. She and her family like to travel back there whenever they can. See her blog at https://viviennemackie.wordpress.com.

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