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TThe Cape Agulhas lighthouse, built in the classic Egyptian Pharos style, presides over the southernmost tip of Africa – a coastline that was once a frequent graveyard for ships straying too close to land.
The names of the ships that fell onto these shores – with enormous loss of life – include the Zoetendal, Arniston, Meisho Maru and the Birkenhead.
One of the local farmers owned land that took the name of one of the wrecks: Zoetendal’s Vlei. He was a Mr Van Breda, and at a public meeting in Cape Town on 11 July 1840, he had this to say: ‘I have been painfully called upon to witness ship after ship cast away, valuable cargoes strewed along the beach, and hundreds of human beings at a time washed dead upon the shore.’
He was part of a large local contingent that pleaded with the ruling British authorities to build a lighthouse at Cape L’Agulhas. On 1 March 1849, the third of South Africa’s lighthouses was built here, overlooking the southernmost tip of Africa.
The lighthouse was partly financed by traders from as far afield as Bombay (Mumbai), India, because their shipping business was badly affected by this formerly unprotected part of the South African coast.
A prominent sea trader and shipmaster of his time, Captain TW MacAllen, praised the light-keepers of Cape Agulhas at its centenary celebration in 1949: ‘No words are adequate enough to express that feeling of relief at seeing the welcome flash of such an important focal point as Agulhas. Remember, it is not the sea which the sailor fears – it is the land.’
In 1962, the lighthouse building was deemed to be unsafe and faced demolition. The local community, determined to save its lighthouse, appealed to the government to intercede. In 1971, the local council was given the responsibility for the upkeep of the Cape Agulhas lighthouse.
Today, the lighthouse has a restaurant, gift shop, the only lighthouse museum in the country and is surrounded by the 20 000ha Agulhas National Park, a delightful mix of marine- and land-based conservation at Africa’s bottom tip.
South Africa’s ‘Pharos’ still stands sentinel over the lovely Southern Cape coast.
TTravel tips & planning info
Who to contact
Cape Agulhas lighthouse
Tel: +27 (0)28 435 6078
What it will cost
Entrance fee to the lighthouse is R32 for adults and R16.50 for children under 12.
How to get here
From Cape Town, take the N2 going east, turning off at the Caledon off-ramp onto the R316. From Caledon, drive through the towns of Napier and Bredasdorp (where you should stop at the Bredasdorp Shipwreck Museum) and follow the R319 down to L’Agulhas.
Best time to visit
The Overberg is at its most spectacular from September to May (during summer).
Things to do
If you’re interested in lighthouses and old sea tales, then you must visit the Shipwreck Museum in Bredasdorp. And don’t forget to visit the cairn marking the southernmost point of Africa.
Many Cape-based tour companies specialise in the Overberg. You could, for instance, go shark cage-diving off Gansbaai or visit the Moravian Mission of Elim, where you’ll find a monument in memory of South African slaves.
What to pack
Throw in a light windcheater and dress seasonally, remembering to bring your camera and wide-angle lens to capture the lighthouse and its background.
Where to stay
The local towns of Struisbaai and L’Agulhas offer a wide range of accommodation. The Agulhas National Park also offers a number of guest cottages and rest camps.
What to eat
Light meals at the lighthouse restaurant or, if you’re there on a Sunday, an excellent buffet.