South of Cape Town is one of South Africa’s most famous spots, the Cape of Good Hope. First sighted in 1488 by the Portugese navigator, Bartolomeu Dias, and claimed to be the southern limit of the African continent, its name came from King John II because its discovery was a good omen that India could be reached by sea from Europe. The Cape is part of the Table Mountain National Park which begins in Cape Town and extends southward towards Llandudno and Hout Bay, through Chapmans Peak Drive, and to the Cape of Good Hope.
But, it is not the most southern point on the continent. Cape Agulhas, roughly 150 km southeast, actually is the most southern point on the continent and the site where the Atlantic and Indian ocean waters converge. Here at the Cape of Good Hope, warm waters from the Mozambique-Agulhas current and the cool Benguela current from Antarctic waters meet. But, even so, ocean waters on the open ocean side are still frigid cold. Brrrrrrr.
Either by foot or by tram, the lighthouse at Cape Point is accessible and can’t be missed. It is one of the two touristy reasons to take the drive to the park. Prior to the construction of the first lighthouse in 1859, navigation around the Cape was a trial by fire. Exposures of the Cape Supergroup, jutting out of the ocean, have claimed hundreds of ships over the centuries. The present structure sits atop the highest peak (249 m), and is used as the monitoring point for all lighthouses along the South African coast. But, due to continued navigational problems during the late 19th and earliest 20th centuries, a new lighthouse was built in 1914 and is the most powerful on the South African coast. It continues to operate, today, despite technological improvements in navigational aids.
The coastal configuration of the Cape of Good Hope and False Bay are the result of exposures of the Table Mountain Group, an Ordovician-aged sedimentary unit. These are mature quartzites that accumulated in an estuarine environment where tidal processes dominated. Outcrop, particularly at Neptunes Dairy, exhibit well developed trough crossbed sets, showing bimodal transport directions. But, the entire sequence is subdivided into several formations that include the Graafwater Formation (sandstone, siltstone, shale), the Peninsula Formation (quartizitic sandstone), and the Pakhuis Formation (tillite) which is restricted to the summit of Table Mountain. The nearly 2 km sequence has undergone a very low grade metamorphism grade that is the result of the assembly of Pangea and the formation of the Cape Fold Belt in the late Paleozoic.
The Cape peninsula is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized for its plant biodiversity. Although the 553,000 hectares of the Cape Floral Region constitute less than 0.5% of Africa, almost 20% of the continent’s plants grow here! The ecosystem, called fynbos, refers to the “fine bush” type of plant found here. Many unique and endemic species are restricted to the Cape peninsula, and the area is the smallest, but richest, of the six floral kingdoms presently recognized on Earth.
The national park encompasses 7,750 hectares in which buck, baboons, and Cape Mountain Zebra, as well as over 250 species of birds, can be found. Living in the rugged rocks and sheer cliffs, towering more than 200 m above the ocean, is the closest relative to the elephant, the lowly Dassie or Cape rock hyrax (Procavia capensis). The animal resembles a guinea pig with short ears and tail, and those living in the national park are tame enough to pet, at times. Although not endemic to South Africa, their hyraceum—a sticky mass of dung and urine—has been used as a folk remedy for a variety of ailments.
Although the biodiversity of the fauna doesn’t come close to matching that of the flora, the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve conserves not only mammals (baboon; these primates are a protected species in this part of the Western Cape) and birds (ostrich), but also marine mammals (seals).