Bartolomeu Dias called this “The Cape of Storms”. King John II of Portugal renamed it the “Cape of Good Hope”. Sir Frances Drake described it as “The fairest Cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth”. All of which are pretty apt, but for me, the Khoikhoi name “Hoerikwaggo”, which means Mountain in the Sea, says it all. There’s a steep climb to the top, but for those who are not fit or for the elderly, the funicular train that runs up and down is great fun.
If you’re lucky you might catch sight of one or more Chacma baboons on your way up the hill. These are the only protected baboons in Africa; they’re unusual in that they forage for shellfish as well as the usual baboon diet of insects and seeds. Please don’t ever feed them – baboons used to handouts can become aggressive, and sometimes have to be euthanased. So whatever you do, don’t hand over your sandwich.
Cape Point is part of the Table Mountain Nation Park, and the administration here is a complex operation that is almost invisible to visitors. For instance, who would believe that under the parking lot is a water reservoir? Minimal visual impact on the surroundings played a large part in the decision to place it here, and there are many of these behind-the-scenes management plans in this gorgeous place.
Diaz Beach down to the right is secluded and fairly sheltered from the famous Cape Doctor - the south easter. The beach is named after the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias, who in 1488 was on a quest to round the tip of Africa to find a spice route to the East. Vasco da Gama followed him on this route, and after Da Gama came a trail of adventurers and explorers, including Sir Francis Drake. They weren’t the first people here, though. Middens and stone implements have been found over the years – clear evidence of Stone Age man living here as long as 600,000 years ago, and San and Strandlopers since then.
Explorers approached the Cape’s waters with trepidation, and with good reason. The coastline around the peninsula is littered with shipwrecks. The need for a lighthouse became paramount, and the one at the top was built in 1859. When you’re up at the top, wandering around, look out for a signpost showing distances to major capitals of the world – it’s quite a thought that the nearest land mass to where you are now is Antarctica!
“According to legend, the ship encountered a terrible storm off this coast. The crew saw it as a sign from God that they should find shelter, but the captain pressed on. It was to be his last decision: the ship foundered and sank with everyone on board.”
Talking about shipwrecks, if the weather is bad, keep a beady eye out – you might see the ghostly silhouette of the Flying Dutchman, a merchant ship that met its end here in 1680. According to legend, the ship encountered a terrible storm off this coast. The crew saw it as a sign from God that they should find shelter, but the captain pressed on. It was to be his last decision: the ship foundered and sank with everyone on board. The ship was doomed to sail the seas for all eternity, and many people claim to have seen the ghostly vessel sailing through a storm. I don’t really believe in ghosts, but the thought of those sailors emerging from the mist gives me shivers.
The flora on this promontory are known as fynbos, which means “fine bush” in Dutch. The Cape Floral Kingdom contains more than 8 500 species, around 6 000 of which are found nowhere else in the world. In spring the flowers of the pincushion protea are a sight to behold. Everything depends on everything else up here – proteas and other fynbos flowers attract butterflies, sunbirds and sugarbirds, who reciprocate the gift of nectar by pollinating the plants. Look out for rock hyraxes, which look like large guinea pigs, chomping on the lower vegetation.
Looking out from the top on a clear day, I think False Bay is right up there with the most beautiful bays in the world. Every time I see this expanse of blue from up here, I end up with the song “Blue Heaven is a Place on Earth” in my mind.
On your way down, behind the visitors’ centre you’ll see a trail leading off to the lower lighthouse, built because fog and bad weather meant that the warning light from the upper lighthouse wasn’t reaching ships out to sea. If you’re still energetic, and the weather is good, you’ll be ecstatic that you decided to walk this trail. Do not do it in heavy wind, though, it’s narrow and could be dangerous.
There are historical blockhouses along here, used in the world wars. There’s a 249 metre cliff face – geologists tell us that three layers of stone were laid down here over millions of years. The base layer is granite, thrown up by undersea convulsions millennia ago, and sandstone and granite alternate higher up. And, of course, the lower lighthouse, now at a height that allows light to warn ships way across the seas. In 1911 the wreck of the Lusitania confirmed that the top lighthouse was too far up to servce its purpose - fog and bad weather meant that the light was often not seen from out to sea. So a new lighthouse was commissioned lower down, and switched on in 1919. Try to imagine what building that tower must have been like, perched as it is on a pile or rocks. The mind boggles.
Between May and November, this trail is a perfect spot from which to see whales. These gentle giants make the long trek from the freezing Antarctic to calve in our warmer waters in July and August. Mostly they are Southern Rights, so named because they were considered the right whales to hunt and kill, which makes me heart-sore every time I hear it. Brydes, humpbacks and a few Orcas come too, and if you can differentiate between their spouts, and can see them clearly, you'll know which is which. If you've ever sees a 15 metre, 60 ton heavyweight launch itself out of the water and land back with a loud “smack”, you won’t forget it in a hurry. Whales are protected now; they know that it’s safe to nurse their calves here, often just a few metres from the shore. If you see a white calf, it’s a male – they’re born white and darken as they grow older.
Once you’ve reached the top again, take the little funicular down – your legs will probably insist. The first time I used it, I wondered how the cars going up and those coming back down would miss one another. It’s fun to see how they pass on a rail loop in the middle.
The system is named after the Flying Dutchman ghost ship mentioned earlier. It’s wheelchair friendly, kids love it, and it’s a boon for the elderly and the less fit. The two cars are named Nolloth and Thomas T Tucker, a special commemoration of two of the ships that lie on the seabed off this rugged shore.
Do pop in at the Visitors' Centre near the gate to the park - it's beautifully laid out with some very interesting artefacts, maps and information. And while you're there, keep an eye out for the cedar trees planted in commemoration of those lost in World War II. Poignant and fitting, in this rugged place.