Agulhas National Park is the most southern national park in Africa. Cape Agulhas was named by early Portuguese navigators, the first to round the continent in the 15th century. At the southernmost point of the journey, they noticed that their compass needles were not affected by magnetic deviation, pointing true north instead. They called this point the “Cape of Needles”. This promontory is where the tip of the African continental shelf disappears into the ocean to form what is known as the Agulhas Bank. The Atlantic and Indian oceans merge at this point, just off the coast of the Agulhas National Park. The only physical evidence of this convergence is a simple stone cairn. Meisho Maru 38 can be seen 2km west of the Agulhas lighthouse.
The Agulhas Lighthouse is the oldest working light house in Southern Africa. It was built in 1848, following the design of the Pharos lighthouse of Alexandria in Egypt. It fell into disuse, but was restored and reopened in March 1988. Today its 7.5 million-candlepower lamp is visible for 30 nautical miles. The museum attached to the lighthouse was opened in 1994. There are 71 steps to the top of the tower, which affords superb views of the coast and seascape of the Agulhas National Park.
Nestled in the Agulhas Plain, the national park conserves not only the endangered lowland fynbos, but a graveyard of ships that met their end in the geographically extreme waters where the Indian and Atlantic oceans clash. Known by many names, such as “The Cape of Needles” or “The Ship’s Graveyard”, it is estimated that 150 wrecks litter the ocean floor.
A short kilometer east of the southern-most tip of the African continent you'll find the second oldest lighthouse in South Africa, built in 1848. The lighthouse, which was modeled after one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient Word - namely the Pharaohs of Alexandria lighthouse - casts a beam that can be seen 50km out to sea. This national monument is not to be missed.
Of the world’s six plant kingdoms, the Cape Floral Kingdom is renowned for being the smallest and richest in diversity. The Agulhas National Park boasts an estimated 2 000 species of indigenous plants of which 100 are endemic to the area and over a 100 are listed in the Red Data Book. Its bio-diverse qualities are often compared to that of tropical rain forests.
The Agulhas National Park is flanked to the west by Cape Town International Airport and to the east by George International Airport situated in the Garden Route. The airport of choice will depend on your tour preference – many travelers start their journey in Cape Town, for example, continuing along the coast to the Garden Route, or vice versa.
Your personal guide will transport you in a private, air-conditioned vehicle across either the scenic Overberg region from Cape Town, or the agricultural plains that stretch from George. The drive takes approximately three hours from Cape Town International Airport and three and a half hours from George.
The Overberg region and, more specifically, Cape Agulhas, has a consistently mild climate, with mostly hot and dry summers, followed by cool, rainy winters. The region is also characterized by either southeast or northwest winds all year round, which is one of the predominant reasons it has also historically been called “the Cape of Storms”.
It is best to visit the park between August and April, in the late winter to summer, as the flora begins to bloom and the fynbos can be admired in all its natural splendor. It is also at this time that the southern right wales are recurrent in the waters just off the Agulhas Plains, and the migratory birds return for their annual southern holiday.
The cultural history of Cape Agulhas stretches millennia, as remnants from a lost age continue to be found along the Agulhas Coast. Fish traps and other hunting tools such as middens, as well as hearths and pottery which belonged to the Khoi-khoi, have been found in the area and serve as a reminder of the deep archaeological relevance of Agulhas, even before it was named as such. Cabo dos Agulhas, as it was called by the 15th century seafaring navigator Bartholomew Dias, translates directly to the 'Cape of Needles'.
The area was named after not only its treacherously sharp reef and coastline, but also because the ships' that reached the point compass needles would swing, unable to determine True North from the Magnetic North. The coastline is littered with shipwrecks, which have endowed the coastal town with a rich heritage, as some of the shipwreck survivors ultimately settled here.There are many buildings in the area, including historic homes and the iconic Water Mill in Elim, that were built with the debris from the various broken-up ships that washed onto the shore. The last ship to meet its end here was the Meisho Maru in 1982 – the crew of 17 all survived.
A diverse variety of vegetation - which includes wetlands, a salt pan and fynbos, to name a few - attracts birds in multitudes. This includes the endangered African black oystercatcher, with a current population of less than 5 000 adults; the Damara Tern, which is considered as near-threatened; the Cape clapper lark; the blue crane; black harrier; black eagles; and even flamingos. It is estimated that over 21 000 migratory and local wetland birds occur in the area annually, and that there are more than 270 species to look out for. An internationally acclaimed birding hotspot, this is where you want to be if you want to admire rare endemic birds in their natural environment.
Apart from the birdlife in the area, there are many other animals that can be viewed on and off the coastline. Coming across baboons, bushbuck, klipspringer, ostriches, tortoises, porcupines and snakes, is rather common. If you are lucky, you might even see a Cape Fox, the notorious honey badger or the endangered Cape frog (also known as a ‘Platanna’). Additionally, the southern right whale frequents the area to mate and give birth, and they are often joined not only by their young but by dolphins and seals. The abundant waters have also earned the Agulhas coastline the reputation of being one of the best fishing grounds in South Africa.
Once covered in the now extremely endangered lowland fynbos and renosterveld, the Agulhas National Park was established to conserve and extend the Cape Floral Kingdom and its rich fauna and flora. Of the world’s six plant kingdoms, the Cape Floral Kingdom is renowned for being the smallest and richest in diversity. The Agulhas National Park boasts an estimated 2 000 species of indigenous plants of which 100 are endemic to the area and over 100 are listed in the Red Data Book. Its bio-diverse qualities is often compared to that of tropical rain forests, containing some of the most endangered ecosystems.
The plan to turn a small piece of land around Cape Agulhas into an expanded park has been a major success so far, expanding from a meager 4 hectares at its inception in 1999 to approximately 22 000 hectares at present. They have big dreams to further the conservation of this immensely unique terrain, one of which is reintroducing animals that were once part of this eco-system. These include the black rhinoceros, Cape lion and hippo. It is no wonder that this plain, in its historical glory, is referred to as the “Serengeti of the Western Cape”, with ecosystems that support species that are found nowhere else on earth.
In terms of historical significance, viewing the Agulhas lighthouse (which has also been transformed into a museum) and some of the shipwrecks along the coastline are an absolute must. Also make sure that you introduce yourself to the millennia-old Khoi lifestyle - the area is rich in antiquities and tells a great deal about the South African indigenous people and their history. There are various hiking trails, such as the Spookdraai (Ghost-turn) Hiking Trail and Rasperpunt Hiking Trail, that incorporate the history of the area, whilst also allowing you to enjoy the magnificence of the natural biodiversity of the area, not to mention that you are doing all of the above on the southernmost tip of the African continent.
Even if you are not an avid birding enthusiast, the abundance and variety of birds found in the area will leave you awed. Birds can be viewed everywhere, from the coastal region to the wetlands, and overhead at camp and in the salt pan. Spending some time on the white sands at the shoreline will not only leave you refreshed, but often with a sense of excitement and wonder as you can spot whales, dolphins and seals frolicking nonchalantly in the treacherous waters.
When visiting Agulhas National Park in South Africa, you'll savor the site's storied history as well as its geographical significance. Moreover, the location is indelibly beautiful, with sunsets making for the most spectacular natural displays.
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