Read more about: Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town's Cape Point is not the southern-most point on the African continent. That tribute goes to Cape Agulhas, 105 miles (170 km) to the south east. Cape Agulhas also defines the official geographic divide between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Does that mean that Cape Point's claim to fame that it is "where two oceans meet" is just tourism hype? Well, not at all -- it depends!
Map of the Western Cape showing Cape Point and Cape Agulhas
Imagine a river 1000 miles long, 60 miles wide and more than a mile deep flowing at up to 6.5 miles an hour. This huge flow of warm water is known as the Agulhas current, flowing southwards along the Indian Ocean shoreline of Southern Africa.
To sail north against this powerful current, ancient mariners had to tack their sailing ships back and forth along the narrow margin separating land from the main southerly flow of the current. Imagine the dangers of running aground on uncharted reefs. Frequent south-easterly gales and even rogue waves increased the measure of risk immensely.
Even today, ships navigating the seas off the southern shores may face tempestuous winter storms and sustained spring gales, with winds of 100 miles an hour and monstrous waves. The interplay of ocean, land and wind off this tip of Africa is complex, with huge swirls of warm Indian Ocean waters breaking away from the powerful surge of the Agulhas current, to be carried away by the cold northward flow of the Atlantic's Benguela current. The unique characteristics of shoreline, continental shelf, ocean currents and gale force winds can create dangerous rogue waves. The Portuguese mariner Bartolomeu Dias had a particularly bad experience rounding the Cape in 1488 and declared this to be the Cape of Storms (Cabo das Tormentas).
Above: Flow of the Indian Ocean Agulhas Current
[Attribution: South African Data Center for Oceanogrpahy (SADCO)]
Not every mariner that rounded the southern tip of Africa experienced the worst that this Cape has to offer. On his famous round the world voyage, Sir Francis Drake sailed into Cape Town's Table Bay in 1580 and is on record for his description of the Cape Peninsula as "the fairest Cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth". This is a region of breathtaking scenery - mountains rising up from towering cliffs, sheltered bays, sandy shores and serene ocean vistas. Not surprisingly, the Western Cape of South Africa has become a world-renowned tourist destination.
The visitor touring the Cape Peninsula and ascending the funicular to the view sites overlooking Cape Point will believe in her heart that she is indeed witnessing the meeting of these two great oceans -- and yes, doesn't the ocean change in appearance from east to west? The tourist brochures will have proclaimed this to be so. When she visits Cape Agulhas a few days later, she will be assured by locals and brochures that this is where the two oceans meet.
This contradiction and the resulting jibes at Capetonians for bending the truth has a simple enough explanation. Although Cape Agulhas marks the geographic divide between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, the boundary between the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and the cold Atlantic migrates seasonally between Cape Agulhas and Cape Point.
Nature can be harsh to mariners but kind to the authors of tourism brochures!
Cape Point Lighthouse
The working Cape Point Lighthouse can be seen, perched near the end of the Point, from the old lighthouse lookout point. This “new” lighthouse is much closer to sea level and is situated further south on the Peninsula. It was built following the loss of the Portuguese liner Lusitania on April 18, 1911. The Lusitania foundered on Bellows Rock, just south of the Point. The old lighthouse was set back from the rocky point and could be seen too soon by ships approaching the Point from the west, causing them to approach too closely. The old light was also often obscured by foggy conditions at the higher elevation.
The popular “Flying Dutchman” funicular railway ferries visitors from the car park up the steep slope to the foot of steps leading to the old lighthouse. This popular lookout point provides superb vistas over the cliffs of Cape Point and ocean.
The Flying Dutchman funicular was rebuilt and launched in 2010. Designed to hold 40 people, its working capacity is 30 passengers, conveying visitors every 3 minutes in each direction. In keeping with Cape Point’s green standards, a low carbon footprint is ensured. The funicular operates on solar powered batteries that charge the funicular via photovoltaic panels while in transit.
Above: The Flying Dutchman Funicular Railway
Below: Steps ascend to the Old Lighthouse Lookout Point
[Attribution: Cape Point South Africa]
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