The Cape of Good Hope: Africa's Metaphorical Southernmost Point

Stomping along Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve
  |  Gorp.com
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At the (southwestern) tip of Africa
(Hein Von Horsten, Courtesy South African Tourism)

When we reached the sizeable parking lot at the base of the hill below Cape Point, the skies looked truly ominous. Dense, dark gray clouds accumulated, providing a picturesque backdrop for the whitewashed Cape Point Lighthouse, but hardly ideal conditions to take in the view that everyone had been praising with near-religious fervor since I stepped off the plane in Johannesburg. Cape Argulhas may be the true southern end of Africa, its narrow tip marking the point where the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans meet, but its scenery is less than stellar: a lighthouse from 1848, a rocky beach with good fishing, a massive boat graveyard, but not much else. Cape Point, the southernmost point on the Cape Peninsula and technically the southwestern-most point of Africa, however, will perfectly frame every romantic notion that one has about reaching the end of the continent: remote and rugged, deserted beaches with unblemished sand and aquamarine waters, a wind-swept brushland populated with antelope, Cape mountain zebra, bontebok, eland, and plenty of those pesky baboons. Expect to be quickly overwhelmed, provided conditions don't look as storm-cloud gray as they did when we started climbing up the wood-plank steps to the Cape Point lighthouse.


The Cape of Good Hope, as seen from the Cape
Point Lighthouse, with Diaz Beach in between (Nathan Borchelt)

Happily, appearances can be deceiving. As we ascended, a strong wind swept away the dark clouds and, by the time we were halfway up, brilliant sunlight illuminated the world. The Cape Point Lighthouse itself is nothing to marvel at. While the 23-plus shipwrecks in the waters off the rocky Atlantic coast testify to its necessity, and while it is the brightest lighthouse in the world, like many of the world's landmarks, it's covered with graffiti and dried chewing gum. But the view from the lighthouse railing is infinitely more memorable. On a clear day, Cape Argulhas can be seen as you follow the rugged coastline westward with a pair of binoculars; to the east, the Cape of Good Hope juts into the cold waters of the Atlantic; between Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope lies a rugged stretch of land with a path lining the sheer cliff-face of the peninsula; at the base of the cliff, the white sands of Diaz Beach.

After exploring the side-trails that wrap around Cape Point, we clomped back down to the parking lot and started off on the 45-minute trail leading to the Cape of Good Hope. The sand-covered route cuts through a stretch of dense fynbos ("fine bush"—plants unique to South Africa) before reaching the edge of the cliff, where the trail follows a series of wooden planks to the rocks of the Cape. On Diaz Beach far below, a group of surfers congregated, but our schedule didn't allow us the time to descend the 253 steps to the small stretch of sand (or, more accurately, to climb back up to the main path).

A quick rock scramble took us to the very tip of the Cape of Good Hope, originally known as the Cape of Storms. Stand there as the winds try to whip you off your feet, and you'll understand why. The view, conversely, makes Good Hope seem, if anything, a touch modest. From this vantage point, the entirety of the African continent seems to stretch out from under your feet. Swivel around, squint, and it's as if you can see Antarctica to the south and the Americas to the west.

Published: 20 May 2003 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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