Cape Agulhas lighthouse

View of Cape Agulhas lighthouse from the seaward side
View of Cape Agulhas lighthouse from the seaward side

The Cape Agulhas lighthouse is the most visually pleasing lighthouse that I’ve visited so far. Tony and I visited it while we were staying at De Hoop last September.

View of Cape Agulhas from the top of the lighthouse
View of Cape Agulhas from the top of the lighthouse

Cape Agulhas was named by the Portuguese from their word for needle. During the 1500s, when they were plying Southern Africa’s coastline, the magnetic declination in the area was approximately zero, meaning that there was no deviation between true and magnetic north, and the compass needle pointed to true north.

The door at the top of the tower
The door at the top of the tower

(Technical sidebar: Cape Agulhas lay on an agonic line during the 1500s. An agonic line is a line on the earth’s surface along which the magnetic declination or variation is zero. Earth’s magnetic field slowly changes, and with it the positions of the north and south magnetic poles. For this reason, the variation between true and magnetic north at a point on the earth changes slowly over time. You can examine a map of historic declination over the last 400-odd years here – if you scroll it back to 1590 you can see the green line through Cape Agulhas.)

The lighthouse is within walking distance of the southernmost tip of Africa inside the Agulhas National Park, and was built on land donated by Michiel van Breda, a local landowner (for whom Bredasdorp was named). Van Breda had experienced the trauma of shipwrecks along the stretch of coastline on his farm, with hundreds of dead bodies washing up after ships foundered on the rocky shores in rough seas. The shipwreck museum at Bredasdorp commemorates many of these wrecks.

The lens inside the lantern house
The lens inside the lantern house

The lighthouse was commissioned on 1 March 1849. It has a 7.5 million candela light that emits one flash every 5 seconds and has a range of 31 nautical miles. The lighthouse tower is 27 metres high, with a focal plane 31 metres above sea level. The tower is made of limestone with a white lantern house. By the 1960s the tower had deteriorated to such an extent that the lighthouse was temporarily decommissioned (its job performed in the interim by an aluminium tower), and restoration was undertaken. It was recommissioned in 1988.

View of L'Agulhas
View of L’Agulhas

The lighthouse is open to the public (also on weekends, which is unusual for a South African lighthouse) and contains a museum and a gift shop on the ground floor. The view from the top is well worth the climb.

If you love lighthouses, you need to get hold of Gerald Hoberman’s Lighthouses of South Africa.

Visible shipwrecks: Meisho Maru No. 38

Meisho Maru 38 in the distance
Meisho Maru 38 in the distance

The Japanese crew of the MFV Meisho Maru No. 38 could not have picked a more beautiful piece of South African coastline to run aground on. Granted, it was 3am on 16 November 1982 when they got into difficulties, and sightseeing was probably not high on their priority list, but the fact remains that the wreck is in a remarkably scenic spot. It is also within spitting distance (OK, two kilometres) of the lighthouse at Cape Agulhas.

It is also very easy to access. By foot, it is a flat walk along the coast for 1.5 kilometres from the signage at the southernmost tip of Africa. There is a well-kept dirt road out of L’Agulhas, which terminates at Suiderstrand, that runs parallel to the coast. If you drive along the road rather than walk next to it, you will see the wreck in short order.

The bow of the Meisho Maru 38
The bow of the Meisho Maru 38

Here’s a picture of what the wreck looked like not long after grounding in 1982. (Compare it to these pictures of the Eihatsu Maru, aground at Clifton…) She was about 45 metres long, and was carrying a catch of tuna. Her entire crew (17 men) managed to get ashore All that remains now is the bow of the ship, facing out to sea after being turned around by the waves. When we arrived, some Egyptian geese were sitting pensively on the railings. The rest of the wreck has broken up and is hidden in the surf zone.

Decimal-form co-ordinates for the wreck are -34.829763, 19.983845, but if you drive from L’Agulhas towards Suiderstrand along the dirt road, you can’t miss it.

If you’re interested in visible shipwrecks, check out my ebook Cape Town’s Visible Shipwrecks: A Guide for Explorers!

Struispunt marine light

Spring flowers at the Struispunt light
Spring flowers at the Struispunt light

Just outside Arniston is the Cape Nature-administered Waenhuiskrans Nature Reserve. The famous Waenhuiskrans sea-cave is actually inside the reserve (which doesn’t appear to be fenced but is indicated with signage). We visited the area and drove into the reserve to the cliffs overlooking Otter Bay, where we had lunch. At the opposite end of Otter Bay to Arniston is Struispunt, which is in fact the eastern extremity of neighbouring Struisbaai.

On Struispunt is a marine light, or beacon, which is essentially a wannabe lighthouse! I walked down the beach to visit it, and back on the sand road behind the beach. The beacon is a masonry tower 10 metres high, topped with a red and white striped globe for daytime navigation and a relatively small, solar-powered light (1,747 candelas) that flashes three times every fifteen seconds. The water off Struispunt is very shallow, only about five metres deep for some distance from the light, so its presence is essential.

Struispunt
Struispunt

The Struispunt light was erected following the wreck of SS Queen of the Thames, in 1871. It is visible for 11 nautical miles. Its western and eastern sides were painted red and white for a while, but most of the paint has worn off and I could only discern a faint reddish tinge. Behind the light, on the rocks, many gulls and cormorants were roosting when I visited. There were also some human fishermen nearby!

Tony took this picture of me walking back from the light
Tony took this picture of me walking back from the light

Learn more about South Africa’s lighthouses in Lighthouses of South Africa.

The new Cape Point lighthouse

View of the new Cape Point lighthouse from the sea
View of the new Cape Point lighthouse from the sea

To me it would seem totally logical to build a lighthouse as high above sea level as possible. As we saw with the old Cape Point lighthouse, there is such a thing as too high, particularly when you’re building in an area that is prone to heavy mist and fog. The most notable shipping casualty that occurred after construction of the old Cape Point light was that of the Lusitania, wrecked on Bellows Rock in 1911. A new lighthouse was planned, along with a light at Slangkoppunt in Kommetjie, to replace the old light at Cape Point.

View of the new lighthouse at Cape Point
View of the new lighthouse at Cape Point

The new lighthouse was built on a 15 metre high pinnacle of rock called Diaz Point, which was dynamited to form a flat platform upon which the lighthouse would be built. Building materials were hauled by oxen from Simon’s Town, and transported by tram down a track on the cliffs. Most of the way the gradient of this tram track was 1 in 4; for a short stretch it was 1 in 2. This is incredibly steep. At the end of the tram track, the building materials were lowered by crane onto a ledge. Building sand was excavated from a cave at the bottom of the cliff, and carried up to the platform on which construction took place. Water was brought close to the building site by trolley, and piped down onto the location.

 

Like the old lighthouse, the new lighthouse is nine metres high, but instead of cast iron, it is constructed from masonry and the tower is square. The lantern house on top is white. The new lighthouse’s elevation is 87 metres above sea level, giving it a range of visibility of 32 nautical miles. The fully automatic light flashes three times every 30 seconds, and there is a subsidiary red light in the base of the lighthouse facing towards Anvil and Bellows Rock. This light is only visible from the sea, if you go around Cape Point to the western side of Cape Point.

On 11 March 1919 the new lighthouse was commissioned (put into service). The view from this lighthouse covers a full 353 degrees, with seven degrees obscured by Da Gama Peak behind it. It was manned for a time, but is now automated.

Getting closer to the new lighthouse
Getting closer to the new lighthouse

The public is not allowed to visit the new lighthouse, or even to get particularly close to it. It can be viewed from a viewpoint at the end of the Lighthouse Keeper’s Trail, a highly recommended short walk from the old lighthouse at Cape Point. Along the way you will see the remains of World War II bunkers and a radar station, and you will traverse the most fantastically narrow ridge of rock (in perfect safety). The wind is likely to be extremely strong, whatever time of year you go – dress accordingly. Also note that the walk does not take nearly as long as is suggested by the signage at the start. It is approximately one kilometre each way.

View from the old lighthouse towards the new one
View from the old lighthouse towards the new one

As usual, everything I know about this lighthouse that I didn’t learn by looking at it (i.e. most everything), is thanks to Gerald Hoberman’s wonderful Lighthouses of South Africa book.

The old Cape Point lighthouse

The old lighthouse at Cape Point
The old lighthouse at Cape Point

The old Cape Point lighthouse was commissioned 1 May 1860. A nine metre cast iron structure (same fabrication as the Slangkop lighthouse), it is painted white. The designer of the lighthouse did not visit the site, and decided that the weight of the nine metre high cast iron tower would be sufficient to keep it anchored in place without a foundation. Fortunately the construction supervisor was well appraised of the strong winds that blow year-round at Cape Point, and decided to bolt the tower to the rocks.

Southern face of the old Cape Point light
Southern face of the old Cape Point light

The lighthouse was built 262 metres above sea level – the highest practical elevation at which it could be situated. On a clear evening, the light was visible for up to 36 nautical miles. Much of the time, however, it was hidden under the blanket of fog and low-lying cloud that frequently bedevils Cape Point. The Lusitania was wrecked on Bellows Rock, below Cape Point, on just such a foggy night in 1911.

In 1919 a new lighthouse was commissioned, lower down the cliffs from the old light. This light, combined with the Slangkoppunt lighthouse, would do the job that the old light was supposed to do. The old lighthouse is now a watch room with a communications centre and lighthouse monitoring system.

It is not open to the public, but if you wish to walk around it and admire the spectacular views, it can be found at the top of the hill (or take the funicular if the power isn’t switched off for load shedding) above the main parking area at Cape Point.

Plaque commemorating period of operation of the lighthouse
Plaque commemorating period of operation of the lighthouse

As usual, everything I know about this lighthouse that I didn’t learn by looking at it (i.e. most everything), is thanks to Gerald Hoberman’s wonderful Lighthouses of South Africa book.

Cape Town’s visible shipwrecks: Winton and Hermes

Being (in midlife) a creature of the south peninsula, I tend to focus my attentions on False Bay and the Atlantic coast from Hout Bay southwards. But there are rewards for the shipwreck hunter who ventures further north, and even for the shipwreck hunter who doesn’t necessarily want to get their feet wet. A visit to Milnerton beach, and a walk north from Milnerton lighthouse, reveals two shipwrecks in the surf zone. Milnerton beach is surpassingly filthy, but while I was there a beach cleanup was making some headway on the mounds of rubbish tossed off ships in Table Bay that ends up on the beach. The view of the lighthouse from the beach is also far more fetching than the view from the car park, if you can overlook the garbage.

Milnerton lighthouse
Milnerton lighthouse

About one kilometre north of the lighthouse, where the beach is cleaner and pebbles roll euphoniously in the waves, you will come across the massive boilers of the Hermes in the surf. The NSRI gets calls every year from concerned locals worried that a whale is stranded near the beach; the sea spray sometimes pushes through holes in the top of the wreck creating an illusion of a whale’s blow. The Hermes was a liner, built in 1899, on her way to Cape Town with a large cargo of livestock, forage and a few passengers. When she arrived in May 1901 the harbour was full, and she was forced to drop anchor for the night. A north westerly gale came up, she dragged her anchors, and when the captain ordered her engines started, they failed.

Hermes (front) and Winton (back)
Hermes (front) and Winton (back)

Seawards and to the north of Hermes, the engine block of the Winton is visible, in much the same way as the SS Clan Stuart can be seen at Glencairn in False Bay. The Winton came aground in July 1934, carrying a cargo of wheat from Port Lincoln in Australia to Liverpool, England. Her captain was unfamiliar with Table Bay and had mistook the red lights on top of the radio mast at the Klipheuwel Wireless Telegraph Station near Milnerton for the harbour lights. Attempts were made to pull her off the beach and some of her cargo was salvaged, but the wheat ignited and efforts to refloat her were to no avail.

On a calm day, an aerial view of the site reveals the full outline of both vessels surrounding the parts that protrude from the water. When I visited, it was rough after a large swell, but the tide was low. At high tide the view will be considerably less impressive.

The boilers of the Hermes in front of Table Mountain
The boilers of the Hermes in front of Table Mountain

It is possible to scuba dive this site, and Underwater Explorers dives the Winton every year during their summer Table Bay wreck diving jamboree. Obviously very calm, low swell conditions are required because the wreck is so shallow and so close to the beach.

If you’re interested in visible shipwrecks, check out my ebook Cape Town’s Visible Shipwrecks: A Guide for Explorers!

Mouille Point lighthouse (decommissioned)

The base of the Mouille Point lighthouse at Granger Bay
The base of the Mouille Point lighthouse at Granger Bay

We aren’t done with lighthouses yet. One of the ones I haven’t told you about is the old Mouille Point lighthouse, which is located in Granger Bay. This is what I used to interchangeably call the lighthouse at Green Point, but in fact they have always been two entirely different entities. The Green Point lighthouse was built in 1824, and was the first lighthouse in South Africa. The lighthouse at Mouille Point, a few kilometres down the road, was built in 1842 and decomissioned in 1908 when a light was established on the breakwater (or mole, hence the name) at Mouille Point making the light redundant.

This lighthouse was a beautifully cylindrical tapering tower, with horizontal stripes up its length. The base of the old Mouille Point lighthouse still stands, on the grounds of the Cape Technikon Hotel School. It is behind a parking boom, but if you speak politely to the security officials they will let you walk onto the premises to take some photographs. When I visited there was a wedding going on, and it took some manoeuvring to take these pictures without guests appearing in them!

Newsletter: Wrinkly fingers

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Sunday: Launching from Simon’s Town jetty at 10.00 am for SAS Pietermaritzburg / 12.00 pm for Atlantis

Divers at Roman Rock
Divers at Roman Rock

We did not quite reach the wrinkly finger clean and cold diving conditions we were hoping for this week. We have launched on every diveable day this week, but the water has remained at around 14 degrees and the visibility between 4 and 8 metres. After the dives today I ran around the bay looking for cleaner water but did not find much. There is some south easterly wind tomorrow which will not be a great help. I am out on Saturday for a private charter but plan to dive on Sunday if there is viz.

Text or email me if you’d like to keep in the loop about Sunday’s dive plans.

regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog/

Diving is addictive!

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Green Point lighthouse

Green Point lighthouse sign
Green Point lighthouse sign

Green Point lighthouse is South Africa’s first lighthouse, commissioned in 1824, and is currently the headquarters of the South African lighthouse service. The lighthouse is instantly recognisable, constructed from immensely thick masonry and painted with red and white diagonal bands. The walls at the base of the tower are almost two metres thick, because the building material is unworked stone bound by lime mortar.

The tower is 16 metres high, with its focal plane 20 metres above sea level. Currently the light is an 800,000 candela metal halide lamp. These facts mean that the light can be seen from 25 nautical miles away. The sound of its fog horn (of a variety called a nautophone) will also be familiar to local residents and boaters. We listened to it for ages while waiting for last year’s Freedom Swim to commence.

View of the lighthouse across Beach Road
View of the lighthouse across Beach Road

Green Point lighthouse works in conjunction with Milnerton lighthouse and the Robben Island light to guide vessels safely into Table Bay, past Robben island and avoiding confusion from the myriad city lights. Technically the lighthouse is situated in Mouille Point. There used to be a Mouille Point light (commissioned in 1842) close to where the wreck of RMS Athens lies. It was decommissioned in 1908 when a light was established on the breakwater nearby. The base of the decommissioned Mouille Point lighthouse still survives at Granger Bay, and when I find it and photograph it I will show it to you.

The rotating lens at Green Point lighthouse
The rotating lens at Green Point lighthouse

The lens, a thing of beauty, was supplied by Chance Brothers; their handiwork is also visible at the Slangkoppunt lighthouse.

The lighthouse is open to the public on weekdays between 10.00 am and 3.00 pm, for a cost of about R14. You can climb up the tower and also browse the fascinating historical displays inside the building. You could also fantasise about working for the lighthouse service, and crash back to earth with the realisation that in today’s age of unmanned lights, it’s a far less romantic job than you think it might be.

As usual, everything I know about this lighthouse that I didn’t learn by looking at it (i.e. most everything), is thanks to Gerald Hoberman’s wonderful Lighthouses of South Africa book.

Hangklip lighthouse

Hangklip and its lighthouse
Hangklip and its lighthouse

The lighthouse at Cape Hangklip, on the eastern entrance to False Bay, is far remoter than I expected it to be, and much further than expected from the actual Hangklip mountain feature, too. Reaching it required a drive through Pringle Bay (where John and Tanya gave us further directions), down a long dirt road, and finally a fairly long walk through fynbos and beach sand.

The Hangklip light is the twin of the light at Milnerton, but in a far more arresting setting. Apparently maintenance staff occasionally see leopard footprints in the area around the lighthouse – testimony to its remoteness. The plain concrete tower is 22 metres high with a light of 800,000 candelas, visible over a range of 25 nautical miles. Like the Milnerton light, Hangklip was commissioned in 1960.

Hangklip lighthouse
Hangklip lighthouse

The tower is not open to the public, and it isn’t a good idea to go there alone, although we did see several families toting fishing gear on the day that we visited. We also watched a very entertaining and efficiently-performed boat launch at the Skuitbaai slipway.

Everything I know about this lighthouse is from Gerald Hoberman’s magnificent book, Lighthouses of South Africa.