We arrive at Cape Point, a natural world heritage site with rugged rocks and sheer cliffs that sits at the tip of the Cape Peninsula. Around 60 kilometres south-west of Cape Town, the Point forms part of the Table Mountain National Park and encompasses 7,750 hectares.
We have decided to visit the old lighthouse and we have two options; we can either take the Flying Dutchman funicular or walk up the path that runs alongside the tracks. We decide to walk so that we can enjoy the ocean views as we make our way to the top. At the beginning of the path is a signpost that tells us exactly where we are – 34º 21′ 24” South Latitude, 18º 29′ 51” East Longitude.
Soon we arrive at the first view point and stop to take in the breathtaking scenery. As we make our climb to the top we find ourselves stopping every few minutes to take more photographs. Finally we arrive at the end of the path and at the foot of 199 steps that will lead us to the lighthouse.
It is only when we reach the top that we realise the true size of the lighthouse, as well as the height of the cliffs on which it sits. This lighthouse sits 249 metres above sea level and, when it was built, its light could be seen by ships around 16 kilometres out to sea. Despite this, the lighthouse proved to be ineffective, as it was often covered by cloud, fog and mist. For an average of 900 hours per year, its light was invisible to ships.
After the Portuguese liner ‘Lusitania’ ran aground in 1911, a new lighthouse was built on Dias Point, 87 metres above sea level. The new lighthouse is the most powerful on the South African coast. It emits three flashes of 10 million candlepower each, every 30 seconds and can be seen approximately 60 kilometres out to sea. The old lighthouse is now used as a centralised monitoring point for all lighthouses on the coast of South Africa.
The Lusitania was a steel twin-screw port steamer that was due to berth in Cape Town en route to Lourenço Marques in the Gulf of Guinea. She was carrying 678 passengers and 122 crew. On the night of April the 11th 1911 the lighthouse was sighted but a land mist developed. An hour later the mist suddenly lifted and the captain was shocked by how close they were to the lighthouse and turned to head for the open sea. Ten minutes later she struck Bellows Rock. The lighthouse keeper ran to the cliff edge and waved a lamp to warn the lifeboats against coming to through the surf. In the confusion, two boats headed for the shore and one capsized, drowning four of its occupants. The remaining passengers of the lifeboat struggles ashore and the rest of the passengers were rescued by local vessels. In fact, as early as 1872 the lighthouse commission had recommended a lower site for the lighthouse, but their advice was ignored.
From the base of the lighthouse the views are spectacular. We can see the cliffs below and the open waters known as the maritime graveyard. To avoid the violent weather found below the 40º latitude, known as the roaring 40s, and to keep their journeys to a minimum, sailors were forced to sail close to the coastline of southern Africa. This accounted for the remarkably high number of shipwrecks found in this area. The remains of some of these boats can be seen from the shore.
After spending a while admiring the view we decide to take the Flying Dutchman funicular back to the bottom of the hill. The vehicle gains its name from the legend of the Flying Dutchman, one of the most famous phantom vessels that supposedly haunts the waters off the Cape of Good Hope.
According to greek mythology, gods and giants once ruled the world and both wanted absolute control. A battle raged and soon the giants were crushed until only the strongest and angriest remained – Adamastor. He was turned to stone at the end of a great landmass where the earth met the sea, the place known as the Cape of Storms. Adamastor slept and all was peaceful until a ship tried to sail by. The ship was the Flying Dutchman and it woke Adamastor from his slumber. “How dare sailors sail by so freely when I remain a prisoner forever” he roared. With Captain Van der Decken at the helm, the finest ship from Amsterdam tried to round the point of the Cape. Fierce winds, gigantic waves and terrible lightening threatened to sink the ship. The giant roared “I am Adamastor, the Cape of Storms, and whilst I am awake no ship shall pass my shores.” With his ship floundering, Van der Decken replied “I am too good a seaman and I will sail around the Cape even if it takes me until the end of time”. This brought a curse upon the captain, his crew and the ship and from that moment forth they were forced to roam the mighty seas for all eternity as a ghost ship.
When we reach the bottom of the hill we have a quick lunch in the cafeteria before boarding the minibus to travel on to the Cape of Good Hope.
We travel down the winding road from Cape Point to the rocky promontory below. Soon the minibus slows to a stop and we seem to be stuck is some sort of traffic jam. After a few minutes a congress of baboons strolls past us and we realise why the cars have stopped. The alpha male of the troop is carrying a bone in his mouth as he wanders in front of the cars, pausing now and then to eye the passengers inside the vehicles. These baboons have been know to cause trouble on occasions and signs along the road warn visitors to ‘beware’. Just now they seem uninterested and, content with his bone, the male wanders by.
A little further on we spot a family of ostriches. The long, thin necks and head can only just be seen, poking out from behind the bushes that line the beach. They are extremely well camouflaged and we stop to take some photographs before continuing along the beautiful coast.
We reach the Cape of Good Hope, the tip of the Cape peninsula. This point was originally named ‘Cabo Tormentoso’, meaning ‘Cape of Storms’ by the Portuguese seafarer Bartholomeu Dias, when he sailed around it in 1488. Although by day it was a navigational landmark, by night, and in fog, it was a menace plagued by violent storms. Later, King John of Portugal gave it the name ‘Cabo da Boa Esperança’, meaning ‘Cape of Good Hope’ because of the great optimism that was aroused by the opening of this new sea route to India and the East. Ten years after Dias, Vasco de Gama ventured eastwards from the cape with four ships under the orders of the king to “discover new territories and to search for spices”. Why de Gama, an unknown sailor who was not even thirty years old was chosen is a mystery but he accomplished his mission and reached Calicut where he eventually received the offer to set up trade in spices. He returned to Portugal in September 1499 and Europe’s first commercial maritime empire was founded.
It was previously believed that this point marked the most southern point of the African continent and the meeting point of the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean. It is now known that the most southern point of Africa is Cape Agulhas, an inconspicuous rocky headland around 150 kilometres further south. The Cape of Good Hope is now officially the most south-western point of the African continent.
The real point of the meeting of the two oceans has been the topic of debate for many South Africans. Marine biologists state that the meeting point can be established by observing differences in marine life, brought about by changes in temperature along the coast. This theory supports the argument that the dividing line between the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and the cold waters of the Atlantic is more often at Cape Agulhas than anywhere else.
It is very windy but the view is beautiful and we spend some time watching the white horses of the waves crashing on the rocks below the mighty cliffs before we return to the city.