South African hikes

Walking the southernmost tip of the Cape Peninsula.


Cape Point Nature Reserve


Tuesday 8th - Wednesday 9th January 2008


Situated at the junction of two of earth's most contrasting water masses - the cold Benguela current on the West Coast and the warm Agulhas current on the East Coast , the Cape of Good Hope is popularly perceived as the meeting point of the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans. Geographically, however, the Indian Ocean joins the Atlantic Ocean at Cape Agulhas. The local authority proclaimed the area a nature reserve in 1938 and it was incorporated into the Table Mountain National Park in 1998. It encompasses 7'750 hectares of rich and varied flora and fauna and its 40 kilometre coastline stretches from Schuster's Bay in the west to Smitswinkel Bay in the east. The cliffs at the southern point, towering more than 200 metres above the sea, consists of three clearly defined promontories - Cape of Good Hope, Cape Maclear and Cape Point. History of human habitation dates back to the early Stone Age, and San hunter-gatherers and Khoi pastoralists lived here. Many middens (garbage or sewage pits) are found along the coast. Early European seafarers who circumnavigated the Cape of Good Hope include the 15th century Portuguese explorers, Bartholomew Dias and Vasco Da Gama , whose journeys led to the establishment of the Cape sea route to the East To commemorate their voyages of discovery, two navigational beacons have been erected at strategic points. In 1488, Dias named the peninsula Cabo Tormentoso, or the Cape of Storms. Portugal's King John II later gave it the name Cabo da Boa Esperanca, the Cape of Good Hope. In 1580, Sir Francis Drake described it as "The most stately thing and the fairest Cape we saw in the whole circumference of the  earth".

Prior to my planned annual break in South Africa, I had contacted hiking buddy and school friend, Ralph, to arrange to book a longer hike, rather than simply doing the usual day walk.  Several ideas came to mind, including the popular Whale Trail (usually booked well in  advance), but Cape Point Nature Reserve note: link to Google maps seemed the most feasible. We had once completed the first leg, being the walk from Cape Point Nature Reserve entrance to a car park located close to Cape Point itself (where a second car would have been left). The decision this time instead, was to overnight in one of a number of huts and then to return to the car park via the other (western) coastline.


The route took us from the entrance near Smitswinkel Bay, where Ralph left his vehicle after we had travelled from Stellenbosch, past Judas Peak, Die Boer, Paulsberg, Kanonkop, before heading down the coast for lunch, near Booi se Skerm. Ralph had contacted Brian Fainsinger, whom I had last seen from our UCT days, to join us.  Brian had emigrated to Australia (Bondi beach, I believe) and was out on old stomping ground on holiday. We all met up on the road that morning, in Muizenberg. Brian had brought a mate of his along who chickened out as soon as he saw the extent of the walk, 17km down the False Bay coast and 21km back along the Atlantic Ocean, though to be fair, he was carrying an injury. We set off at a leisurely pace on a clearly identifiable yet tricky path, concentration required, so as not to trip up. The beauty of hiking in the nature reserve is that the terrain is covered in natural fynbos indicative of the Cape. Brian was in fine spirits and cracking jokes, as I have always known him. In a way, it seemed as if nothing had really changed since we had been together at school. The route was quite deceptive in that the Point seemed so near, yet it seemingly took ages to get there, always around the peaks en route, never over them.

Map of Cape Peninsula section showing Cape Point road network (courtesy Cape Point Route);  View of Smitswinkel Bay and the road leading past it towards the entrance to the nature reserve.


View of the protruding Paulsberg and Cape Point in the distance - ex-schoolmates Brian and Ralph enjoying the fresh breeze and scenery.


Cape Point in the distance - Ralph contemplating another 15km odd.


  Shortly after circumnavigating Paulsberg, we descended towards the appropriately named Kanonkop (the cannon dates back to the second British occupation of the Cape) down to Booi se Skerm, on the coast, where we stopped for lunch. Basic, uncomplicated food is never more enjoyable than it is after having negotiating miles on a trek.  The scenery  is the food of the soul. Strange that the usually annoying, ever-present Chacma baboon population, quite daring and dangerous in their quest for food from visitors and tourists, were nowhere to be seen.  They subsist on fruits, roots, honey, bulbs, insects and scorpions. During low tide, they may be seen roaming the beaches, feeding on sandhoppers and shellfish, behaviour believed to be unusual in primates. We never saw them once on the entire two-day walk. I was having fun with my cameras & the 10.5mm fish-eye lens. A fresh breeze blew across False Bay from the south, providing light relief to what would otherwise reasonably hot, uncomfortable weather conditions, being totally exposed to the sun.

View from Kanonkop towards Buffels Bay and the Point itself.


The natural splendour of Cape Point Nature Reserve, off False Bay, accentuated by the use of a fish-eye lens.


Though we never approached it, the Vasco da Gama cross was clearly visible from Booi se Skerm, where we had stopped for lunch. A monument to the cross exists, as the original cross was lost. Bartholomew Dias had already rounded the Cape in 1488. Dias set sail in 1497 in an attempt to find a sea-route to India, passing the Great Fish River further up the Indian Ocean coast, on 16th December, where Dias had previously turned back. He reached Calicut in India on 20th May, 1498. This permitted Europeans to trade with the Far East without having to endure the costs and hazards of the Silk Road caravans, which followed inland routes through the  Middle east and Asia Minor at a time when much of this territory was part of the Mughal Empire.  The sea route was fraught with its own perils - his fleet went more than three months without seeing land and only 54 of his 170 companions, on two of his four ships, returned to Portugal in 1499. Nevertheless, Da Gama's initial journey ushered in an era of European domination through sea power and commerce that lasted several hundred years and 450 years of Portuguese colonialism in India and Africa that brought wealth and power to the Portuguese monarch.


Map (courtesy of Wikipedia) indicating the route to India around the tip of Africa followed by Vasco da Gama in 1497 & 1498.


Ex-schoolmates Brian and Ralph basking in the sunshine.


Once of the Cape's most famous legends involves a ship named the Flying Dutchman. In 1680, the vessel foundered whilst rounding the Cape in heavy weather. The captain, Hendrik van der Decken, swore while his ship was sin king, that he would round the Cape if it took him until doomsday. Some believe that he has kept his word, as over the years the Flying Dutchman is said to have been sighted on many occasions. A well-know shipwreck is that of the Lusitania, which struck Bellows Rock in thick fog at midnight on 18 April 1911. This was one of the reasons why the present lighthouse was built. The remains of at least 23 shipwrecks lie along the coastline , only five of which can still be seen - at Olifantsbos, Duikersklip, Hoek van Bobbejaan, Dias Beach and Buffels Bay. The remains of two wrecks near Olifantsbos can be reached from the beach. These are the Thomas T Tucker, which ran aground during World War II and the Nolleth, wrecked in 1965.


View back towards Paulsberg, Die Boer and Judas Peak, just beyond Buffels Bay, from the direction of Cape Point.


Waves breaking on the rugged, rocky coastline just beyond Buffels Bay, near Matrooskop, with the huts still some distance away.


"The Point" has not been called the "Cape of Storms" for nothing and has therefore been treated with respect by sailors since it was first sighted by Dias in 1488. By day, it was a landmark of great navigational value until the introduction of the radar. By night, and in fog, it was a menace. Ships had to approach closely to obtain bearings and thereby were exposed to the dangers of Bellow Rock and Albatross Rock. In 1860 the first lighthouse was completed, 238 metres above sea-level. However, this light was often obscured by mist and fog. In 1913 construction was started on a second lighthouse on Dias Point, some 87 meters above sea-level. This second light was first lit at sunset on 11 March 1919, and remains the most powerful on the South African coast. The original lighthouse still stands on the highest section of the peak and is now used as the centralised monitoring point for all the lighthouses on the coast of South Africa.


Ralph & Brian on the approach above Rooikrans, just prior to our final gruelling ascent to Erica hut, where we were to stay for the night.


We made the final ascent up to the huts but took a wrong turn by mistake, thinking that it led to Erica hut. We turned back down to the road that led directly up to it.  The following facilities are provided in Erica hut, which dates back to the Second World War: shower, toilet, solar lighting, bunks with mattresses, water, a two-plate gas stove and an outside braai place. Ralph and Brian had gone out to explore the hillside above the hut and the old WWII gun emplacement. The priority was a shower and organising food, which was definitely not in short supply, Brian having brought along steaks, if you please, which were grilled on the fire! A "boer maak a plan" improvisation on a "potjie" theme seemed a good idea too. We sat outside at a bench on the deck and thought how "unfortunate" we were to experience "another shit day in Africa", so to speak. So, there we were, "die manne", in the bush, lie old times.


Brian Fainsinger preparing our well-earned dinner in the kitchen of Erica hut, near the Point.


  We talked the things old boys talk about, usually women, though we exceeded ourselves on occasions, broaching more serious issues such as South African politics, business (not surprising since both Ralph and Brian have their own companies) and global warming.  

Views from the stoep of Erica  hut, with False bay to the right and the Atlantic Ocean in the west, to the left.


Ralph recalled the time he had been in Cape Point near Buffels Bay with his family, when a baboon found its way into the back of his kombi, with his daughters in there with it.  All survived but the incisive manner in which the baboon opened a carton of fruit juice still sends a chill down his spine. And so we headed off to sleep, door shut, just in case the baboons did show.  Suffering from acute sinus conditions since arriving in South Africa, I struggled all night to breathe, my nose totally blocked, which seemed to bother the others. I had arrived in South Africa from the UK still recovering from the most horrendous bout of the flu I had ever experienced.

The journey continued on the second day, along the coast to Pegramís point, Platboom, Hoek van Bobbejaan and then inland to Sirkelsvlei, ending again at the Main Gate.  No sooner had we reached Pegram's point and Platboom from the hut, than we encountered some kite surfers, obviously experienced, starting out on the Atlantic shoreline, close to the rocks.  Angling and diving are also popular down here. We stuck to the beach area and had to negotiate the sand dunes to some degree. Further north around Hoek van Bobbejan, the reserve had played victim to veld fires which had burnt the landscape for miles but which was showing signs of recovery. We encountered game en route, in the form of bird life and game, notably Eland and Bontebok but no baboons!

After turning inland, we reached Sirkelsvlei.   I found the following information regarding this isolated spot in the reserve: "Sirkelsvlei, a small perennial lake near Olifantsbos in the Cape Point Nature Reserve is unique. It has no apparent water supply. The water level is maintained partly by seepage. Because this water filters through acid sands, it would be expected that the water in the vlei would also be acidic. After all, the water in streams and man made water holes are acidic. Sirkelvlei has neutral water. This may mean that there is a subterranean source of water (from underground aquifers). The water tastes brak but tests have indicated that it is not very saline. Although the vlei has some aquatic life for example, the Cape River Frog or "Platanna" and fresh water shrimp, it does not attract much in the way of bird life. Not much is known about this body of water."  Sirkelsvlei covers some 6 hectares and has a maximum depth of 1.4m. The wind had picked up substantially, particularly as we climbed our way up to Rooihoogte, our final obstacle prior to the final descent back down to the main entrance. our water supply had begun to run out and our lips were parched and dry but we kept going. A look at the small scale map we had been given upon our entrance, one would be deceived into thinking that we had one single hill to negotiate. It proved tougher than this and after a long day out in the sun, it required every sinew and determination to will our way over a number of elevated outcrops of rock. By the time I had reached the gate, I knew I had been on a hike.

We all agreed that it was a tribute to our level of fitness and good health that we completed the hike, notwithstanding our advancing years.


Watching kite surfers head off near Platboom.


The road into the reserve as it runs down he back of Judas Peak, Die Boer and Paulsberg, taken from Rooihoogte, just prior to our final descent to the main entrance.


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