There are some places on this great planet that just resonate with our souls on a very base, almost instinctual level. There’s no rhyme or reason to this metaphysical travel experience, it can happen anywhere at anytime to anyone. I’ve been fortunate enough to feel that special surge of electricity run through my body a few times, but most recently it happened on a trip to South Africa’s Cape Peninsula near Cape Town.
Hugging the coastline, passing through small fishing communities and villages that had been commandeered by retirees instead of sailors, our van never strayed far from Table Mountain National Park. The look and feel of it though definitely changed and as we drove through the Cape of Good Hope entrance to the park, I wondered into which world we had slipped.
A vast plain stretched out as far as the eye could see, mottled with rocks and a small, dense gorse-like shrub I later learned was something called fynbos. There didn’t seem to be anything living in the small hills leading to the massive rocky peaks in the distance. It’s an illusion though; the Cape Peninsula is full of life.
Cape Peninsula is much larger than I originally thought; it stretches 52 kilometers and includes not only Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope, but the iconic Table Mountain as well. In addition to the scraggly fynbos, the area is also home to mischievous baboons (don’t feed them), Cape Mountain Zebras, wandering ostriches and more than 250 species of birds. Our guide said that people travel from around the world just to observe some of the rare bird species in person.
The first harkening that this was to be a special place for me was the inexplicable rainbow that seemed to erupt out of a field of grey clouds. The seas around the Cape are infamous for their capricious behavior, and those weather patterns infiltrate the surrounding land. But there, in the midst of a light drizzle and chilly temperatures was a rainbow, leading us to our first pot of gold, the Cape of Good Hope.
Of course the Cape is anything but hopeful. It’s original name was Cape of Storms, but it’s hard to convince sailors to go anywhere within a thousands miles with a name like that. So in a fit of smart consumer marketing the powers that be gave the cheery moniker of Good Hope on this barren spit of land.
I stood there on the beach and watched as thick and angry waves crashed constantly against the hard rocks and birds tried fighting against the heavy winds. I stared out and realized that I was in love with one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. The inconsistent colors of the sky, the voracious waves and the rock-strewn beaches called to me, like my own personal siren. I was in absolute awe of the power of nature and how raw a form its beauty can take. That was before the coachload of Chinese tourists decided to swarm the beach like the Allies on D-Day.
In the distance we could see more buses approaching and made a hasty retreat onward to the rocks at 34°21′26″S/18°29′51″E, otherwise known as Cape Point. Contrary to what most people who visit Cape Point believe, this is NOT the southernmost point in Africa. No, that designation is reserved for Cape Agulhas to the southeast. Nor is it true that the swirling waters around the cape are where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. That too lies further afield, but it’s hard not to BELIEVE that this place is of some importance. And it is. This is the point were countless ships sailed either on their way to a grand adventure, or returned home with exotic spices and fabrics. This is the spot where history was made and where the world changed forever. It’s also a memorial to the hundreds of ships consumed by the volatile seas around the cape.
Not that you see much of that while standing on top of Cape Point today. From the café and restaurant at the base a funicular (one of my favorite words and modes of transportation) guides guests up to the peak near a lighthouse and a set of stairs are the final test for those who want to gaze across the sea. It seems desolate, removed and barren because it is all those things, but just like the Cape of Good Hope, raw beauty abounds around the rocky outcroppings.
I stood there for a long time, some French toddlers were screaming and running around the lighthouse, oblivious to anything or anyone around them. I looked due south and imagined what lay further afield. Somewhere, far away was Antarctica, somewhere far to my right was the west coast of Africa and much further to my left the east. Again, it’s really not that simplistic and really isn’t all that true, but that’s what it feels like standing there. You feel like an explorer, you feel like an adventurer and except for the French school kids, you feel like you are the last person on Earth. I again looked around and wondered if anyone else felt the same way I did and I caught the eye of a young guy in his 20s. He smiled in a silent nod to a shared feeling of awe and wonder.
I left, again fleeing mobs of Chinese tourists desperate for photos and knick-knacks. In a rare moment of souvenir shopping I decided to buy a simple blue t-shirt with the words Cape Point and the latitude and longitude emblazoned on them. I wanted something tangible to take away from the experience, something that would help me recollect the feeling of wonder, awe and contentment I felt in what is undoubtedly a most unlikely place. I also wanted to make sure I hadn’t conjured up the entire experience; the shirt would be my witchlike familiar guiding me back to that day.
As I sit here remembering that afternoon I can’t help but smile. It was one of many adventures in South Africa and one of dozens of beautiful sights. But for some reason the rocks and waters of the Cape Peninsula have stuck with me, lingering in the back of my soul reminding me how awesome (in the real sense of the word) the world is and just how miniscule I am. Then I look at my t-shirt and smile and think yes, that was a very good day.
10 thoughts on “Finding Joy in an Unlikely Place – Exploring South Africa’s Cape Peninsula”
Wow, Matt, I felt like I was right there with you as you saw and experienced the raw beauty and grandeur of the Cape’s, including the Chinese tourists and French school kids! Really enjoyed this post and your photos are just as amazing, especially the perfect rainbow shot.
I admit, Mother Nature added a nice touch with the rainbow :)
Matt, a piece of writing that will linger with me for a long time (as the memory of Cape Point does). You evoke the spirit and sense of place of Cape Point like no other I’ve read. Thanks for reminding me to visit Cape Point again. As a Capetonian, I’ve been there many times. This week is National Parks Week in South Africa, and you’ve just convinced me that my next visit is due tomorrow! Safe travels, Heidi
Wow, thanks so much! I really appreciate that. Have fun at the park! :)
I invision this place to be so desolate, and the photos sort of confirm that point, so I am surprised to hear you mention so many tourists – people come from all over the world to visit this spot? I am intrigued!
Well 1) it’s beautiful; 2) People everywhere have heard of the Cape of Good Hope and 3) It’s cool to stand on the bottom of Africa and gaze out. Geography nerds drawn like flies
I love your description Matt! Very nicely done! Great photos too, especially that one with the rainbow in it!
Oh wow, how did I miss this wonderful blog post? Thanks, it really is a special place and we love it when visitors such as yourself pay such homage and with wonderful photos, too!
Thank you Francoise, it is indeed a special place for me.
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