Good Hope? Nope. Cape Agulhas is the genuine end of Africa

The writer's husband, Dilip Rajagopalan, makes his way on the trail up Table Mountain in Cape Town.
The writer's husband, Dilip Rajagopalan, makes his way on the trail up Table Mountain in Cape Town. (LINI S. KADABA)
Posted: March 31, 2014

AGULHAS, South Africa - Going to the ends of the Earth holds a certain magic, especially when it's off the beaten tourist track.

That was our goal. It would require more than 130 miles of driving from Cape Town to the tip of the continent; persistence, despite the local who insisted there was nothing worth seeing there; and a wee bit of courage.

Popular perception touts the Cape of Good Hope as the end of the world. It is a stunning location of craggy cliffs, crashing waves, and the occasional ostrich on the Atlantic Ocean. It is clearly where most tourists go, given the ample facilities.

But study a map, as my husband, Dilip, is inclined to do, and it's clear: That's the southwesternmost point but not the true end. The real end - that is, the southernmost tip of Africa - is many more miles down the road to Agulhas National Park and its Cape Agulhas, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans officially meet.

That was our destination.

We had already traveled 8,000 miles by plane from suburban Philadelphia to Johannesburg. After a nine-day safari with a family group of eight that took in Victoria Falls in Zambia and two private camps chock-full of wildlife in Botswana, four of us decided to continue our vacation in Cape Town and its environs over five days. Besides resting up from the crack-of-dawn safari tours, we wondered when we would ever get another chance to see the end of the world.

Rather than a traditional hotel, we took the advice of our travel agent and booked a serviced apartment. It was at the Waterfront Village, within walking distance of the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront and its abundance of touristy restaurants and high-end shops. Our unit was mod-lovely with views of Table Mountain. The condo also was on the sale board for nearly $1 million, a fact that somehow made the whole experience more luxe.

Within hours of arrival in Cape Town, all of us world travelers agreed that this was one of the most stunning places we'd ever seen. Gautam, my husband's cousin, immediately posted to Facebook: "I have to change my opinion that Rio has the best views!! Cape Town far exceeds!!!!"

It's all about location. Situated on the shore of Table Bay and in the shadow of Table Mountain, it easily earns its creds as one of the world's most loved cities. Pastel-colored rowhouses of the Malay Bo-Kaap neighborhood, reminiscent of Cinque Terre in Italy, line Signal Hill. The city center is a conglomeration of shiny glass high-rises. And the soccer stadium is a focal point, with its wavy bowl shape. Steps away is an abundance of natural beauty.

The best spot to take in the view is atop Table Mountain. Usually, a cable car takes visitors up in five minutes. It was out of service for maintenance when we arrived. Oh, joy! Plan B: Hike.

Before long, I was trailing badly on our strenuous trek up the Platteklip Gorge. My husband lingered with me while our son, Rohan, and Gautam forged ahead. I was nervous and therefore excruciatingly slow in my ascent. The gorge plummets just inches away and the path is made of time-polished, and therefore slippery, boulders. (For the record, though, dogs, senior citizens, and young children appeared to have no trouble, all clambering up and galloping down with ease.)

After two tense hours, we had to turn around - only two-thirds of the way up. The sun sets early, about 6 p.m., and we definitely did not want to risk a return in the dark. Rohan, who had already "summited" with Gautam close behind, was on his way back. He reported "stunning vistas of Cape Town" before expressing his thorough embarrassment as I more or less crawled my way down.

Even from our vantage point, the panorama was spectacular. The bowl-shaped harbor. The high-rises of the city center. The red-tiled buildings. The amphitheater of mountains. This landscape has been described as one of "the most epic views in Africa." I could see why.

The next day, we set out by rental car for the tourist magnet known as the Cape of Good Hope, famously rounded by Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias in 1488. It was an easy, leisurely drive along the peninsula on top-notch highways past countryside and farmland. On the way, we stopped near Simon's Town to see the African penguin colony that somehow seems out of place without glaciers. The cute creatures nest in the bushes that line a footpath, allowing for up-close views.

Once at the Cape, we encountered other, less cute wildlife - attacking baboons. OK, not us, but our car. The baboons jumped from road to hood to rooftop, making a horrendous racket.

Escaping, we took in the striking white monuments to Dias and Dom Vasco da Gama, who found the first all-sea route to India from Europe. A couple of ostriches welcomed us to the windy southwesternmost point, where waves crash against rocks and tourists (us included) pose for pictures behind a long sign that declares the location. A quick climb up a jagged hillock (this was more my speed than Table Mountain) offered a lovely lookout.

At nearby Cape Point, we lunched at the glass-enclosed and view-worthy Two Oceans Restaurant before taking the Flying Dutchman funicular to a promontory. It overlooks jagged cliffs and an endless horizon as well as the controversial meeting of the warm currents of the Indian Ocean and the cold currents of the Atlantic Ocean - controversial because the actual meeting fluctuates between here and the southern coast.

We returned to Cape Town via the scenic Chapman's Peak Drive, where the highway clings to the orange cliffs and overlooks the ocean.

Most tourists would check off a Cape of Good Hope visit as their arrival at the end of the continent. We had bigger plans.

The next day, the GPS was set for Agulhas National Park. On the way, we stopped at Hermanus, known for the whales that come tantalizingly close to shore. Gautam and I were torn between staying there to take in a whale-watching tour or continuing to Agulhas. But Dilip was determined to see the true tip of the continent. I'm glad he insisted - even if the proprietor of Pascal's, an eclectic lunch spot in Napier, dismissed our destination. "There's nothing there," he said. "It's just a bunch of rocks."

We drove on. Soon we spotted the stone sign: Welcome to L'Agulhas, it said, the southernmost town in Africa. We all grinned.

A pathway took us past a lighthouse, which is worth the dizzying climb to the top, and to an outcrop of rocks, above where waves roared and crashed. We scrambled bravely over the boulders and peered down into the foaming cauldron.

True, it was just rocks. No restaurant. No funicular. But that only added to the magic of this spot, this end of a massive continent.

A simple marker stated: Indian Ocean (an arrow pointing east) and Atlantic Ocean (an arrow pointing west).

Here was the official meeting of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.

We had finally reached the end.

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