Cape Agulhas—As Far South As You Can Go In South Africa

 The famous Cape Agulhas lighthouse

The famous Cape Agulhas lighthouse

Cape Point Agulhas on the Overberg Peninsula, about a 3-hour drive SE of Cape Town, 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 Africa, stretched along the rocky coast before the famous lighthouse—a very distinctive landmark. Early Portuguese seafarers rounding the dangerous cape christened it 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 inter-tidal 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 shore line. 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 learn 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 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 author and her husband at the plaque where two oceans meet

The author & her husband at the plaque where two oceans meet

The lighthouse has a round tower, 88 ft (27 m) 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, 56 km). It rotates, giving off one white flash every 5 seconds.

Visitors can go up the lighthouse (R10 per person), 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 1km) to the southernmost tip of Africa, where there is a small monument with a plaque 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 Meisho Maru shipwreck

The Meisho Maru shipwreck

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 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 coast line is notorious for shipwrecks and is dotted with hundreds of shipwrecks.

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