Since I arrived in Cape Town last November, I have stayed quite close to the city. This weekend, though, I took a day trip that allowed me to glimpse the interior en route to Cape Agulhas, the most southern point of Africa. Cape Agulhas is a half degree higher latitude than is the Cape of Good Hope. Visiting it from Cape Town, though, requires a car and a pretty long drive!
Visiting scientist Jill Winter inspired me to take this trip. Despite encountering a thief at an ATM the night before, she was still determined to go. We met at 8:00 AM at the Tyger Valley Centre, and soon we were off! Our route took us south on the R300 (the Cape Flats Freeway) to the N2 National Road. I was quite surprised when the N2 freeway suddenly became a highway with traffic lights in Somerset West, but as we left the metropolitan area, it calmed down to look like any other rural highway. The road climbed into the mountains for Sir Lowry’s Pass (920m); I felt I was missing quite a view behind us, with the outskirts of Cape Town far below, but then we were over the pass. For a moment it seemed like we were in Oregon! We encountered the Houwhoek Pass (340m), and then we rolled into an area that seemed like the interior of California. By the time we reached Caledon (pop 13,000), the Cape seemed a million miles away. Caledon was a good place to stop for brunch; we would stop here again for dinner on our way back to Cape Town. The town featured a really lovely church that seemed over-sized for the town. We left the N2 behind and cut southeast on the R316. I was not sure what to expect of the smaller highway, but in fact it was in perfectly good condition (except for a couple of places where construction forced us down to a single lane). We marveled at the very yellow church and office buildings of Napier, a small town on the route.
Around noon, we reached our first destination. Bredasdorp (pop: 15,500) is home to the Shipwreck Museum. Cape Agulhas has been notorious for years as a hazard to shipping. Mariners who mistook a brush fire for its lighthouse were in for unpleasant adventures. The museum occupies a former church building (built in 1868) that has served as a cinema, a skating rink, and a bazaar. The display area is crowded with signal guns, several figureheads, model boats, and paraphernalia from the ships whose stories are told there. I was struck by the wide spread of time spanned by these shipwrecks, with significant wrecks recorded from the 1600s to 1994.
Besides the large display room, the building also houses a room of taxidermy animals and every bottle type one can imagine (blue bottles for milk of magnesia can apparently be found in plenty of wrecks). The grounds of the museum also include a couple of outbuildings with musical instruments, sewing machines, and period clothing from wrecks, but these smelled strongly of organic solvents, so we did not linger there. An impressive tree with hanging roots was surrounded by anchors recovered from wrecks from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries.
We spent an enjoyable hour at the Shipwreck Museum, and we continued to explore Bredasdorp for a little longer as we visited a curio shop (sampling some much-needed ginger beers) and photographing the town’s beautiful white church. We also visited the Du Preez Building at the center of town, which features some gardens and an obelisk. The town did not have a lot of tourists, but among the shipwreck museum, historic buildings, and pretty hills near town, it was a lovely place to visit.
We continued down the R316 to our next destination. Most of the towns we had passed through on our route had clearly organized themselves around a square, but Struisbaai (pop 4000) and L’Agulhas (pop 550) are clearly oriented on the ocean. Cape Agulhas is the demarcation point for separating the Atlantic Ocean (to the west) from the Indian Ocean (to the east). One of the reasons the sailing can be treacherous in these waters is that these oceans have rather different currents. The beach at Cape Town, for example, is home to the frigid waters of the Atlantic, while Durban on the east coast has lovely warm waters from the Indian Ocean. The settlements of Cape Agulhas are exposed to Indian Ocean.
We stopped at a dirt parking space at the beach to feel the waters and snap some photos. The waves were remarkable, pounding in with regularity. It looked like a great place to surf, actually. We were still close to mid-day, and the evaporation of the waters produced a fog hanging low over the beach and nearby homes. While plenty of sand could be found, much of the shoreline was quite rocky. I regret to note that we missed the opportunity to visit with Parrie, a domesticated stingray accustomed to food from the fishing boats at Struisbaai.
With just a few more minutes of driving, we had reached the Cape Agulhas lighthouse. We set out on foot to follow the wooden walkway to the Cape itself. We were not really sure how far we would need to walk, and we lingered in some of the beautiful, rocky tide pools along the way. The March sunlight was pretty intense, and we both lamented that we hadn’t brought sunscreen (I was quite red by nightfall). At last we reached the monument marking the southernmost point in Africa!
I was happy that we could spend another few minutes exploring the area south of the monument. We rested for a moment against a slanted ledge of rock, watching the waves pound the shore. Soon, though, it was time to head back out. We began trudging back to the car, probably a distance of a kilometer and a half. The sun made it a bit more challenging.
Jill’s jet lag was fairly acute by the time we returned, but she was still up for seeing the view from the lighthouse and visiting the museum inside. After we climbed several ladders to get to the top of the lighthouse, we ascended one last metal stair to reach a narrow metal walkway around the light itself. I probably should have realized this was not an ideal posture for someone who has ever experienced vertigo. Just the same, we took in the amazing view and looked at the powerful lenses surrounding the light. We descended to take in the museum (it was limited to a couple of rooms, mostly featuring posters showing the locations of lighthouses and known shipwrecks around the coast of South Africa). We were both pretty exhausted, and we started the drive back to the northwest along the route we had come.
Hunger, of course, is a sensation that can trump sleepiness. We celebrated our return to Caledon (on the N2 national highway) by eating a very tasty vegetarian pizza from Pizza World at J.J.’s Grill on the R316 (the two restaurants have the same owner). It was distinctive in that it was the first pizza I’ve ever eaten that featured bananas! I felt uncertain at first, but that vanished at the first bite.
Rather than subject her to a taxi, I decided to drive Jill directly to downtown. I was sleepy, the roads were hectic, it was dark, and my gasoline was running low. It wasn’t a great recipe. As we approached the Cape Town airport on the N2, traffic bogged down to a halt. Eventually, cars began moving again, and when we reached the accident that had caused the delay, we saw a blue sedan lying on its roof in the middle of the left lane. A woman was lying on the pavement, with attendants checking her for a pulse. We were reminded of the dangers of the roadways here. I dropped Jill at a hotel near her rented apartment, and I headed for the northern suburbs to find a gas station with urgency (my fuel light had pinged not long after I left downtown). Our adventure had come to an end.