I always though the Cape of Good Hope was the southernmost point of the African mainland, but it turns out that it isn’t.
That honour goes to Cape Agulhas, which lies a further 150 kilometres to the southeast.
The Cape of Good Hope is, however, the most southwestern promontory on the African mainland; it’s the point at which boats making the trip from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean would turn from a predominately southerly direction to a predominately eastern direction.
Perhaps that’s why it lodged itself in so many sailors’ memories and earned its notoriety.
Who was the first to sail past the Cape of Good Hope?
There are plenty of legends of Phoenicians, Greeks, and other ancient societies having completed the journey around the Cape of Good Hope, but none of these accounts have ever been substantiated.
The first modern European to sail past was Portuguese mariner, Bartolomeu Dias, who did so in 1488, and subsequently named the Cape: Cabo das Tormentas meaning Cape of Storms.
The promontory was later renamed by King John II of Portugal, who gave it the title, Cabo da Boa Esperança, meaning the Cape of Good Hope – it was given this moniker as the Portuguese hoped the successful rounding of the Cape had opened the much-desired sea route to Asia.
Vasco de Gama would cruise past the Cape ten years later on his groundbreaking expedition to India – he was the first to complete the journey from Europe to Asia by sea.
In 1652 Dutch explorer and representative of the Dutch East Indies Company, Johan Anthoniszoon van Riebeeck, set up a way station 50 km north of the Cape of Good Hope. The way station was used as a means of re-provisioning passing ships on their way to and from various Asian trading ports.
That little way station went on to become Cape Town.
Buffels Bay Beach – a bit sharky
Ami and I thought we’d begin our trip to the Cape of Good Hope with a refreshing dip in the waters at Buffels Bay Beach. Giddy with delight, we parked our tiny hire car in the deserted car park, jumped into our swimmers, and trotted down to the sand. On the way we passed a solitary, grizzled, grey-bearded gent, his eyes fixed to the waves.
‘Wouldn’t swim today,’ he says gruffly, offering a wry smile.
‘Why not?’ I ask
‘Water’s a bit sharky.’
We stop in our tracks. Sure enough, cruising through the shallow waters, patrolling the beach from end to end, passing each other at the midpoint like swimmers doing laps in an Olympic-sized pool: the shadowy outline of two – what can only be – sharks.
They aren’t huge; probably just 2 metres each in length. Their dorsal fins occasionally pierce the water surface: the fins dark, unmarked.
‘Probably harmless,’ I say, ‘we aren’t their natural food source.’
We enter the water cautiously, and slowly wade up to our thighs. One of the sharks turns its nose towards us, cruises to within a few metres of where we are standing, before flicking its tail and shooting away.
‘Probably just curious,’ I say.
We get out of the water all the same.
We return to the car and point it in the direction of the Cape.
A few hundred metres later we find ourselves stopping for a troop of baboons as they cross the road ahead of us in single file.
Weighing up to 45kg, and measuring up to 115cm in length, the Chacma Baboon is in contention for the title of world’s biggest monkey.
There are hundreds of these in Cape Point Nature Reserve.
If you’re lucky you could also spot ostrich and Cape mountain zebra wandering around the park (you can see pics of Cape mountain zebra in my post here, and compare them to the regular plains zebra here, and Grevy’s Zebra here).
Fynbos is an Afrikaans word describing the type of heathland found on the Cape.
The fynbos forms part of the Cape Floristic Region of South Africa, which is of such importance it has UNESCO World Heritage status.
The Cape of Good Hope
Finally, after many distractions, we arrive at the Cape of Good Hope.
Precipitous, guano-smeared cliffs, craggy boulders beaten by ferocious waves, strange currents in the sea.
I must admit it looks the part.
I can see why it’s this cape, rather than Agulhas, that lodged itself in all those early sailors’ minds.
Practical information and how to reach the Cape of Good Hope:
The Cape of Good Hope is located in the Western Cape region of South Africa, about 25 kilometres (30 min) by road from Simon’s Town, and 70 kilometres (approx. 1.5 hours) by road from Cape Town. The best way to reach the Cape of Good Hope is to hire yourself a car; otherwise there are plenty of tour companies that will be happy to shuttle you around.
More transport info here.