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Cape Point, nature’s cathedral

Cape Point, in the Cape of Good Hope nature reserve within Table Mountain National Park, is one of nature’s finest cathedrals, a peak of natural glory in the most heavenly of surroundings. Attracting tens of thousands of tourists today, the ‘Point’ was treated with fear and respect by sailors for centuries. 

Originally named the ‘Cape of Storms’ by Bartolomeu Dias in 1488, by night and in fog it was a menace of dangerous rocks and violent storms that left the coast littered with shipwrecks.

Dias, a Portuguese sailor had been searching for the southern tip of Africa when he became the first European to lay eyes on Cape Point. He named the region the Cape of Storms because of the tumultuous weather and treacherous waters. The name was later changed to the Cape of Good Hope after a suggestion by King John II of Portugal.

The first lighthouse, completed in 1859, was built at 238m above sea-level on the highest section of the peak. Today, it is the centralised monitoring point for all the lighthouses on the coast of South Africa and a popular tourist attraction, but it no longer functions as a nautical guide as it sits too high above the ocean and is often covered by cloud. 

In fact, ships approaching from the east could see the light easily, often causing them to approach too closely. They often wrecked on the rocks before rounding the peninsula. It was the wreck of the Lusitania, on Bellows Rock below the lighthouse in 1911, which prompted the construction of a new, more effective structure.

The new lighthouse at Cape Point is one of the most powerful on the South African coast. Its lights have a range of 60km and each flash has an intensity of 10 million candelas.

Access to the old lighthouse is by an exhilarating three-minute ride in the Flying Dutchman funicular from the lower station at 127m above sea-level, to the upper station.

Natural splendour

Cape Point forms part of the Cape Floral Region, a World Heritage Site that includes the majestic Table Mountain chain stretching from Signal Hill to Cape Point, and the coastlines of the Cape Peninsula. This narrow stretch of land, dotted with beautiful valleys, bays and beaches, contains a mix of extraordinarily diverse and unique fauna and flora.

The Cape Point section of Table Mountain National Park covers approximately 20% of the national park, and on a clear day you can see Table Mountain from various vantage points.

The Cape Peninsula’s rich and diverse plant life has earned it eight World Heritage Site accolades from Unesco. 

The Cape Floral Region makes up just 0.5% of Africa but is home to more than 20% of the continent’s plants. Recent estimates suggest that there are more than 1,000 species of plants in the Cape Point region, of which at least 14 are endemic.

Fun fact: There are more floral species in the Table Mountain National Park region than in all of the United Kingdom.

Breathe deeply!

The air at Cape Point is among the purest in the world, and thus it is home to an important atmospheric research station run by Global Research Watch, a network established by the World Meteorological Organisation to monitor trends and changes in the Earth’s atmosphere.

While most reported “sightings” of icebergs at Cape Point are a case of mistaken identity, the British Navy officially recorded an iceberg sighting off the coast of Cape Point in the 1800s. It was just 60 nautical miles away from the peninsula, which is at least 6,000km from from Antarctica.

Twitchers’ paradise

Somewhat more reliable sightings come from twitchers who, according to Africa Geographic, have recorded more than 270 bird species in the region, ranging from tiny sunbirds to ostriches. It is common to see an array of seabirds, and the coastal plant life at Cape Point supports warblers, canaries and shrikes. The very lucky might spot a Verraux’s eagle, or the rare Western reef heron and Baird’s sandpiper, both of which have been spotted at Cape Point, but not seen before in South Africa.

The Portuguese government erected two prominent crosses at Cape Point as a navigational aid. When lined up, the crosses point to Whittle Rock, which was a major shipping hazard in False Bay. There are two other beacons in nearby Simon’s Town that provide the intersection point.

World War II radar listening stations

With shipping losses on the increase in 1942, the South African military erected two small aerials that projected a narrow radar beam capable of detecting German U-Boats rounding the peninsula. Remnants of these and other military structures – including a canon on Kanonkop used to warn Simon’s Town of approaching vessels – are still visible.

Haunted by the Flying Dutchman

Legend has it that a ghost ship, the Flying Dutchman, haunts the oceans surrounding Cape Point as it was unable to make port and is doomed to sail the turbulent seas for eternity. One of the earliest reported sightings came from King George V in 1881, but several Simon’s Town residents claim to have seen the ship in more recent years. 

While the myth likely has its roots in 17th-century nautical folklore, these days you can sail to the foot of the old lighthouse in the funicular of the same name.

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