Exploring Cape Agulhas
Southern Signs

The southernmost tip of the African continent is a place of long deserted beaches and a windswept coast. Jeremy Jowell explores Cape Agulhas.

No journey through South Africa is complete without a visit to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost region on the continent. Stretching from Gansbaai in the west, through L'Agulhas and Arniston to the mouth of the Breede River, Cape Agulhas forms part of the Overberg district.This area is a nature lover's paradise.

The interior is characterised by panoramic vistas of undulating wheat fields while the pristine coastline is blessed with beautiful beaches, sweeping sand dunes, breathtaking nature reserves and an unusual diversity of plant and animal life.A light rain is falling as I leave Cape Town just after sunrise. Driving up Sir Lowry's Pass, the mist is so thick I can barely see metres in front of the car.

As I enter the Overberg, the clouds break up and sunbeams illuminate the yellow wheat fields.At Caledon I turn onto the R316 towards Bredasdorp before heading along a gravel road to De Hoop Nature Reserve. With hiking trails, mountain bike routes, excellent whale watching and 34 000 ha of unspoilt Cape fynbos, De Hoop is a great place to spend a few days. It's home to the endangered Cape mountain zebra, rare Cape vultures, ostrich, bontebok and is well known among keen birders and ornithologists.

The popular five day Whale Trail is usually booked out a year in advance.My time here is limited so after a circular drive where I almost run over a metre long puffadder, I head for Koppie Alleen, limestone cliffs that offer sweeping views out to sea.

It's low tide so I walk to nearby rock pools where a family of German tourists are admiring the small sea life."Just look at that beautiful starfish and all these colourful sea anemones," exclaims one woman. "We've also seen so many whales.

This place is pure paradise, it's a whole new world." The sun comes out and I walk across to a deserted beach where I strip off for a skinny dip swim. Just beyond the breakers, two Southern Right whales tease me with their tails.

Next stop is Arniston, a small fishing town 25 km south east of Bredasdorp, named after an East Indiaman boat that sank nearby in 1815 with a loss of 372 lives. Arniston is best known for its whitewashed thatch cottages that make up the fishing village of Kassiesbaai.

These homes are over 200 years old and the entire village has been declared a national monument.It's almost sunset and after checking into Die Herberg Hotel, I head down to the harbour where the colourful fishing boats are bathed in a golden light. I walk among the picturesque cottages of Kassiesbaai and get chatting to two young boys, Duncan and Elridge Felix."It's lekker living here," they both agree. "Arniston is so peaceful and each day after school we can walk in the sand dunes, go fishing or swim in the sea. We wouldn't want to live in a big city.

The next morning I'm awake before dawn. The dark sky slowly lightens to reveal a cloudy day and smooth silvery sea. When visiting Arniston, the other main attraction is the impressive sea cave called Waenhuiskrans.Situated at the waters edge on a rocky point, this cave and its pretty pools are only accessible at low tide. I hike along a sandy path overlooking the rugged cliffs.

Then clamber carefully over the jagged and slippery rocks where pink and purple sea anemones are clearly visible in the exposed pools. Inside the main cave it's an awesome sight as waves crash in onto the smooth green rocks. A group of perlemoen poachers arrive at the entrance and watch me warily as I walk around taking photographs. Then they put on their mask and flippers and quickly slip into the sea.

Established in 1838, Bredasdorp is the economic hub of the Cape Agulhas region. It's an attractive town and has plenty to interest visitors, all of whom pass through here en route to Arniston and L'Agulhas. Of particular interest is the Shipwreck Museum that has furniture and artefacts salvaged from some of the ships that met their fate along the Agulhas coast. For birders and nature lovers, nearby is Heuningsberg Nature Reserve.

From Bredasdorp, it's just 30 km to the popular holiday resort of Struisbaai and a further six km to L'Agulhas, the southernmost town in Africa. I'm spending the night at Harbour Lights, a luxurious guesthouse overlooking the fishing harbour at Struisbaai. There's a strong northwesterly wind blowing and I stroll along the boardwalk with views down the 14-kilometre stretch of uninterrupted beach.

Over at the harbour, the fishermen can count themselves fortunate. Their tractor is fully operational and helps launch five boats in less time than it took their weather-beaten counterparts in Arniston to get one afloat. After a delicious dinner of creamy butternut soup followed by grilled Red Roman served with fresh vegetables and fluffy mashed potato, I retire for an early night. There are several enjoyable day trips to take in the area.

One of these is a visit to De Mond Nature Reserve that offers scenic hikes along coastal sand dunes. Situated at the mouth of the Heuningnes River, De Mond has a rich bird life, including rare species like the Damara tern and the African black oystercatcher.

Another pleasant excursion from Struisbaai is a journey inland through the wheat fields to Elim, a small Moravian mission settlement established in 1824. The town, which has been declared a national monument, has changed little over the years and the thatched cottages, Moravian church and old water mill are well worth a visit. But the main attraction in this part of the world is L'Agulhas, the southernmost town in Africa and the place where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet.

Another point of interest is the Cape Agulhas lighthouse, South Africa's second oldest working example, which houses the only lighthouse museum in the country. For my last night, I check into Agulhas Country Lodge, an upmarket three-storey stone guesthouse with beautifully finished rooms and panoramic views across the bay.

The restaurant serves gourmet local cuisine and dinner is a five star feast. I start with a Thai calamari cocktail followed by smoked salmon salad with a cauliflower mousse. The main course is duck breast pan-fried rare, served with an orange sauce and steamed vegetables on mash. Dessert is a chocolate marquise with macerated strawberries that literally leaves me speechless. I cannot recall ever eating more tasty or beautifully prepared food.

The next morning dawns stormy with a wild wind whipping up the foam-flecked sea. I've got an action-packed day of adventure ahead, starting with a quad bike excursion at sunrise into Agulhas National Park.It's freezing outside so I don layers of clothing before venturing out to meet Henry and Annemarie Steyn of Eco Quad. "Our trips are not aimed at those looking for an adrenalin rush bur rather for people who want a great nature experience," says Steyn. "It's suitable for the whole family and we take our time to stop and appreciate the flora and fauna along the way." After the obligatory photo stop at the most southerly point, we zip along a rocky track and motor up to a viewpoint overlooking the bay.

Despite the windbreakers, helmet and gloves, it's still chilly on the breezy bikes so coffee is a welcome treat. The sun battles bravely through the clouds and it's a beautiful sight as a rainbow appears off Africa's southerly tip.After a hearty breakfast, Riaan Pienaar of Coastal Tours fetches me for a 4x4 journey down the beach. A registered tour guide, Pienaar has permission from the authorities to run these trips and works closely with the South African National Parks Board.

We stop to see the wreck of the Meisho Maru, a Japanese fishing trawler wrecked close to shore in 1982. Our route then follows the coast that was home to the Khoi Khoi about 300 years ago. Pienaar points out their ancient fish traps made of rocks and also the middens, huge mounds of shells discarded after their meals.

A heavy surf pounds the rocky shore and we continue past kelp forests to a large sand dune. The bird life here is prolific and we watch a breeding pair of oystercatchers taking turns to eat some redbait. A few years ago, a controversy erupted over the actual meeting point of the Indian and Atlantic oceans.

Western Cape tourism bodies inaccurately marketed Cape Point in Cape Town as that important landmark. But Pienaar was instrumental in setting the record straight."Tourists were getting the wrong impression and this was having a negative impact on tourism to our area.

So I prepared a memorandum on behalf of Cape Agulhas Tourism and submitted it to the officials and also to Minister of Tourism, Valli Moosa. I stated that according to the International Hydrographic Organisation, of which South Africa is a member, the true meeting point is right here in Cape Agulhas.

The tourism bodies have now changed their marketing campaigns but other illusions, such as Cape Town's Two Oceans Marathon, still remain." It's late afternoon and I set off to watch the sun set off the edge of Africa.

I drive past the lighthouse and continue on to the rocky point where a simple stone cairn marks the most southerly tip. The wind-scattered clouds are strung out across the sky and their colours quickly change into a kaleidoscope of crimson, purple and pink.In the howling gale I sit alone, a very small speck at the end of the great continent. Despite the wind and waves crashing on the rocks, everything seems serene and I'm content as I admire nature's ferocity and the fiery spectacle in the sky. Another day in Africa comes to an end.

Copyright © 2004 Jeremy Jowell

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