Cape Point Nature Reserve on the Cape Peninsula, South Africa’s most south-western tip, is a region famed for its rugged beauty. It is also romantically, although mistakenly, thought of as the meeting point between the cold Atlantic and warm Indian Oceans that wash South Africa’s coastlines. Regardless, it has plenty in the way of scenic beauty and secluded beaches to offer its visitors, not to mention it has special significance in the world’s maritime history.
What to expect from Cape Point
Cape Point is at the tip of the Cape Peninsula, a rocky promontory that extends some 52 km from Mouille Point in the north to Cape Point in the south. Its dramatic landscape of rocky cliff faces and large, pounding surf befits it’s position as the most south-western point of South Africa, facing nothing but the wild, open ocean. Visitors can climb or take a funicular to a viewing platform high on the Cape Point lighthouse, built in 1859 and standing at 238 m above sea level, to take in the breathtaking views out to sea and of the peninsula stretching back towards the mainland.
But that is just one of the activities in the Cape Point Nature Reserve, which falls within the southern section of the Table Mountain National Park. The Cape Peninsula is a treasure trove of secluded beaches, rocky points and sheltered bays. A favorite among bird-watchers, nature enthusiasts, surfers and beach-goers alike, and with plenty of hiking trails and scenic driving routes, Cape Point is a full day’s outing from Cape Town. It is also home to wildlife including the Cape mountain zebra, baboons and a variety of buck species, as well as 250 species of birds.
The plants that grow here are as much of an attraction as the animals or views. Cape Point falls within the Cape Floral Region, the smallest of the world’s six floral regions but its most diverse. It is home to a staggering 9500 species of plants, 70% of which are endemic (only occur here and nowhere else)! The Cape Floral region has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its incredible biodiversity. Although a visit to Cape Town’s Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is a fantastic way to get a taste of this region’s plant diversity, the Cape Point Nature Reserve is an excellent place to view the beauty and seasonally-changing face of this floral kingdom in a natural setting.
Cape Point’s maritime history
Close to Cape Point on the tip of the Cape Peninsula is the Cape of Good Hope. For a rocky promontory that is almost continually battered by high seas and strong winds, a name like the “Cape of Storms” seems vastly more fitting. So how did it come to be known by its current name “Cape of Good Hope”? One has only to look at the region’s rich maritime history for an explanation.
In the fifteenth century, Portugal was searching for a sea route that would open up trade with India and the East, and avoid the middlemen of the existing Euro-Asian overland route. In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias became the first European known to have crossed around South Africa, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean on a cruise that went as far up South Africa’s east coast as the Bushman’s River Mouth in the Eastern Cape province. He named the point the “Cape of Storms” (Cabo das Tormentas), and returned to Portugal 16 months and 17 days after first setting off.
A decade later Vasco da Gama repeated his voyage and navigated the length of Africa’s coastline, thus successfully establishing a trade route between Europe and the Far East. Buoyed up by the new trade possibilities this would open up, the Portuguese King John II renamed the Cape of Storms “The Cape of Good Hope” (Cabo da Boa Esperanças).
As well as its significance in the history of world oceanic trade, no maritime history would be complete without tales of shipwrecks and mystery. With a treacherous, rocky coastline and bad weather that blows up notoriously quickly, the coastline around Cape Point has no shortage of shipwrecks. Legend has it too that this area is frequented by the ghostly Flying Dutchman, a Dutch vessel that was lost in stormy seas off the Cape of Good Hope. Every soul aboard perished. As the legend goes, the Flying Dutchman and her ghostly crew have been haunting the waters ever since, her sighting spelling doom for any mariner unfortunate to see it.
Cape Point: Where two oceans meet?
A common misconception is that Cape Point is the dividing point between South Africa’s two oceans; the west coast’s cold Atlantic and east coast’s warm Indian Ocean. The measurable meeting point of these two is the point at which the Indian Ocean’s warm Agulhas Current meets the Atlantic’s cold Benguela Current. Because these currents are dynamic, this exact point fluctuates between Cape Agulhas, South Africa’s southernmost tip, and Cape Point.
Nevertheless the idea of the distinctive Cape Point being such a definable marker for the boundary between two oceans is quite a romantic one. Even knowing better, I have found myself climbing the steps to the Cape Point lighthouse and, looking out, have drawn an imaginary line out from the point and convinced myself of differences in the water on either side… Whilst keeping a sharp eye out for the Flying Dutchman too of course!
Our visit to Cape Point Nature Reserve
Bevan and I have been frequent visitors to the Cape Point Nature Reserve. With our cameras always close at hand, our progress through the reserve is usually slow with frequent stops! Some of our favourite highlights include watching baboons forage through the kelp wrack strewn along the high tide mark, and coming upon a family of ostriches sheltering from the wind behind low coastal bush close to the road. Not to forget the brazen baboons that seize every opportunity to forage from tourists’ cars in the lighthouse parking lot! A good reminder to keep your windows closed…
Visiting the Cape Point lighthouse and signboard that demarcates the south-western most point of Africa are popular tourist activities and these two stops are often relatively busy. Apart from that however, it is easy to lose the crowds in the wild expanse of the reserve, and there are plenty of spots to relax and enjoy uninterrupted views of the coastline.
The Cape Point Nature Reserve is a great place to get out of the city of Cape Town and explore some more of the beautiful coastline this corner of the country has to offer. Our recommendation? Combine a trip to Cape Point with a slow drive along Cape Town’s False Bay coastline via the naval village of Simon’s Town, and then a meander back to the city on the Atlantic side stopping to check out incredibly scenic beaches like Scarborough, Kommetjie and Noordhoek along the way.
Map of Cape Point Nature Reserve
Cape Point is within the Cape Point Nature Reserve, in the southern section of the Table Mountain National Park. Park fees and gate opening times apply. Check the website for current information, as it changes seasonally.
There is a restaurant inside the Cape Point Nature Reserve. With so many beautiful beaches and cliff viewpoints within the reserve however, we’d strongly recommend packing a picnic and making the most of the reserve’s beautiful natural settings.
Directions to Cape Point (from Cape Town):
Coming from Cape Town via the Atlantic side:
Follow the directions to Sea Point, then follow the coastal road along Camps Bay and Llandudno to arrive in Hout Bay (via M6).
From there, take Chapman’s Peak Drive, which will take you to Noordhoek.
Turn right to follow the magnificent coastline to Kommetjie, Soetwater, Witsand, Misty Cliffs and Scarborough, where you then drive inland for a few kilometres.
Table Mountain National Park’s entrance will be on your right.
Coming from Cape Town via the False Bay side:
Take the Eastern Boulevard out of town and follow the directions from the M3 to Claremont. Continue on the M3 until you reach the end of the highway, then turn left towards Muizenberg and Fish Hoek.
Drive along the coast to the historic naval village of Simon’s Town.
Continue along the coastal road to Table Mountain National Park entrance on your left.