Cape of Good Hope

Western Cape, Cape Area, South Africa

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

The Cape of Good Hope has had resonance for travellers for centuries, "rounding the Cape" – originally and aptly named the Cape of Storms - a key and risky landmark on the routes to India, Australia and the Far East. Diaz was the first to accomplish this in 1488, and died in a wreck here in 1500. Vasco da Gama rounded the cape in 1497. The treacherous coast is littered with wrecks, including the troopship The Birkenhead, which sank off the aptly named Danger Point in 1852 with 600 soldiers still on board, following the first recorded instruction for "women and children first". The Flying Dutchman is most frequently seen off Cape Point.

In popular imagination, The Cape is the southernmost point of Africa, but in fact this prize goes to a stretch of beautiful but landmark free coast some 150 km to the east. The Cape is, in contrast, unforgettable, the wild terminus of the 75 km Cape Peninsula which narrows from Cape Town and the extraordinary Table Mountain to the beautiful national park at its southern end. This is an extraordinary place, a triangular plateau which falls steeply on all sides to the ocean, which, despite its proximity in so many directions, is invisible from its centre.

The Cape area is home to the Cape Floral Kingdom, one of the world's six major botanical zones, and its richest one, harbouring an extraordinary diversity of plants in a relatively tiny area. With just 0.04% of the world's land area, it has equal status with zones such as the huge Boreal kingdom, which includes the whole of north America, northern Europe and north Asia. When one excludes the firs and tundra, or just plain ice, of much of that area, one perhaps achieves a fairer comparison, but even then the relative diversity of the Cape is amazing. On the Cape peninsula alone, there are said to be over (2,800 - BBC mag) species of plant, more than in the whole of the UK. Some species are so rare and so localized that they exist only in an area the size of a small garden. New species are still being found snuggled into some inaccessible cranny among the rocks.

Known as fynbos, this vegetation includes proteas, ericas (heathers) and reeds and is startlingly beautiful and vivid on a bright day.

There are numerous trails in the area, but the best route runs from Cape Point in the south along the western shore, then turns inland and threads through the fynbos vegetation to the park entrance in the far north, a long four hour's trek. While a road traverses the park the whole way down to Cape Point, and you will never be far from swarms of stodgies there or at a couple of seaside roadheads, the rest of the park is blissfully empty.

We began our walk at Cape Point, the spectacular rocky spine where the Cape peninsula peters out in the turbulent waters that result from the meeting, to the east, of the Indian Ocean's warm Agulhas current and the icy Benguela current of the southern Atlantic, said to be the world's most contrasting water masses. The cliffs here fall sheer to the surf, which, even on relatively calm days, lays indefatiguable, tumultuous siege to the rocks far (700 feet) below. On the sunless southern side, the spray-laden air is thick with the smell of pounded seaweed.

The views here are superb; the wild Atlantic to one side, the vast sweep of False Bay on the other, behind us the crags of the peninsula. The lucky may see a school of dolphins or a southern right whale far below. Ahead, there is nothing except stormy ocean until Antarctica, other than a couple of container ships heaving their way patiently round The Cape, one quite possibly, and rather peculiarly, carrying our possessions home to the UK from our years in Hong Kong. The waves crash over the rocks at the cliff base, leaving a final show of spray and boiling backwash after their thousands of miles of journey.

A lighthouse was built on the highest knobble of this dinosaur's spine, but it turned out to be too high, and all too often shrouded in mist. A vertiginous path leads along the razorback toward its lower and rather pedestrian replacement.

A path drops down past the unpleasant, swollen-arsed Chacma Baboons which prowl around the carpark at the base of Cape Point. These are (apparently) the only primates apart from mankind to eat seafood as an important part of their diet, mainly shellfish scavenged from the pools and beaches at low tide, although this is now being replaced by burger scraps, much to the consternation of the park administration. After an uncomfortable lone encounter with a pack of monkeys on a sacred mountain in China, I won't be sorry if it poisons them.

The path then winds through gorgeous fynbos to the real Cape; just as The Cape is not the southernmost place in Africa, so Cape Point is not, despite looking the part and being the place which most people visit, actually the Cape of Good Hope, which is a comparatively modest pile of boulders a kilometre or so to the south-west. The path winds around the cliffs above the perfect Diaz Beach, immaculate white sand and spectacular spray where the breakers hit the cliffs at each end of the cove. It is, of course, empty, as a climb of 200 feet or so is required to get there. We clamber up, past a slightly surprising ostrich silhouetted on the skyline, onto the scoured boulders of The Real Cape, where we sit and watch the breakers roll in over the flat rocks of the seashore.

The path slithers down the side of the cape to the inevitable car park at the bottom, where a magnificent curve of shingly beach begins its long sweep to the north-west, the plateau-edge cliffs where it terminates veiled in the spray from the relentless Atlantic breakers. Further along the shore, an ostrich browses at the edge of the beach, incongruously silhouetted against the surf. It contrives to be a wild and lonely feeling place, despite the track which runs a hundred yards behind the shoreline. After passing the small bay of Neptune's dairy and wonderful white sand dunes at Platboom, where a baby Dassie, an oversized and easily loved guinea pig lookalike, watches us inquisitively from the bush edge as we pass by.

Finally, at Gifkommetjie, we climb onto the plateau, and enter a different world. The spray does not dilute the sun's force here, and the fynbos is as vivid a range of greens as exists anywhere, with, when we were there, autumnal white flowers, fine grey boulders and an intense, clear, sky adding further contrast. The fynbos is wonderfully varied here, tall, broomy ericas, reedlike restios, buchus and the extraordinarily versatile – positively protean - protea family. In early evening, the sun brings out the contrasts and makes the colours almost painfully beautiful. The luminous haze of the Atlantic spray tints the western horizon. The wind precludes much in the way of trees here - just a few struggling away in sheltered gullies.

The path follows a road for a few minutes up into the middle of the plateau, then turns north along a good track through the bush, which is gradually shrinking to lower, drier scrub. There are antelope, a few bountebok and cape mountain zebras here, as well as Cape clawless otters, although we were not specially lucky when we were there, and only saw a small group of rather shy antelope in the distance. After a few flattish, beautiful but relatively uneventful miles, the track winds over a small rocky ridge and snakes down to the park entrance and the perhaps slightly anticlimactic end of the walk.

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