THE POINT OF LIFE
Words and pics by Peter Chadwick
The red-and-white painted lighthouse towered above as my two daughters and I started along the short meandering path from the parking area to the sea. Flocks of pied starling flew up squawking. A pair of Cape bulbuls fluttered about while a Cape robin-chat hopped after a three-striped mouse scurrying in the large stand of aloes.
We paused briefly to watch an angulate tortoise pull itself through the soft sand and plot its path between the mole-rat burrows. A robber fly sat in ambush, then pounced lightning speed on a smaller and softer-bodied insect in a move to rival any of the kills by big predators in better-known game reserves. We had barely walked a 100 metres and were already entranced. It was the start of what was to be an amazing weekend at this southernmost tip of Africa.
Most visitors consider the historic lighthouse, the plinth depicting the splitting of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, and perhaps also the wreck of the Meisho Maru as all the Agulhas National Park has to offer. How wrong they are. There is now a range of accommodation scattered right across the 21 000 hectares that provides a gateway to endless opportunities for exploring this extremely diverse, historic and scenic landscape.
Having booked into the rest camp with its thatched units cleverly spaced amongst indigenous fynbos and within a stone’s throw of the ocean, we decided to drive back a bit and wander a stretch of the Rasperpunt coastal trail. The change of the seasons had brought huge sea swells and a thick bank of ominous grey clouds to the horizon. But it was these swells that had thrown out an interesting array of debris onto the beach.
We were soon probing amongst the dried skeletal branches of sea fans, sponges of numerous shapes, sizes and species, as well as the scapula and rib bones of a seal. Cat shark and ray egg cases littered the beach and we found the carcass of a Cory’s shearwater that is usually seen only far out to sea. A sad encounter was a Cape fur seal pup whose life had been ended by a snaring ring of plastic around its neck. A strong reminder to be more aware of where we throw away our litter.
In the rock pools, the girls found mullet, klipvis, sea-urchins, cushion stars and anemones. An inquisitive octopus ventured out from its lair to wrap its tentacles gingerly around my foot and ankle. On recognising I was not a suitable meal, the octopus rapidly changed colour as if in embarrassment and shot off to another pool where it disappeared from sight.
As we passed a fisherman, his line in the surf screamed as it suddenly ran seaward. He leapt up and spent several frantic minutes trying to bring the fish to shore. The line however went slack again as the fish managed to free itself. The fisherman slumped onto the soft sand, ignoring the small waves lapping around him, sighing forlornly: “Ag, man! That was a really big fish that got away!” Out at sea, chokka boats and small purse-seine trawlers bobbed between the white-horses of the swells indicating the richness of the Agulhas Banks for fishing.
Heading back towards the rest camp, we rounded the corner to find a large circular and sheltered lagoon where flocks of white-fronted plover and pairs of African black oystercatcher searched for food in the pebble piles. A roost of terns, cormorants, gulls and even a lone grey heron sat on the outer rocks of the lagoon, being buffeted by the gusting wind. A real privilege for us was a sighting of a pod of bottlenose dolphins that surfed the waves not far from the tern roost. Further along, a large Khoi-San shell-midden took us back to a time when the tidal rock pools must have been teaming with shellfish that included huge limpets, alikreukel and massive abalone.
Dusk turned into full darkness and one of the best star-filled skies I have seen in a long time had the family searching with craned necks to identify the different constellations and see how many satellites we could count. In the distance both spotted eagle-owl and barn owl were heard calling in the night.
Dawn rose with a clear sky and a rock kestrel sitting on the railings of our deck with its breakfast in the form of a small bird. It flew off a short distance where it fed further, unperturbed by my presence as I stepped onto the deck. In the low shrubbery, neddicky, grey-backed cisticola, Karoo prinia, Karoo scrub robin, yellow canary and a bokmakierie all made the most of the new day, either calling repeatedly or searching for food. A small grey mongoose caused a moment of consternation for the birds as it ran across an opening and this attracted a family of Cape spurfowl who quickly chased off the mongoose.
Renovated cottages and farmsteads
A short drive had me at the entrance to the Rhenosterkop farmstead, originally built in 1742 and recently renovated into visitor accommodation. Silence interspersed with wind rustling through the grasses and whispering through the leaves of the milkwood trees put me in a mode of immediate relaxation. Southern boubou and sombre greenbuls sang deep within the tree line and high above an African fish eagle called out along its journey between the water bodies of the Soetendals Vlei. A grey duiker burst from a thicket nearby and dashed off across open veld.
Around the cottages that form part of the original farmstead, brilliant red Brunsvigia orientalis flowers added colour to the historic landscape. Malachite sunbirds, Cape white-eyes and bully canaries fed amongst the flowering leonotis and a female rain spider guarded her nest well hidden amongst a thicket of branches.
Driving on towards Bergplaas, which is situated on the slopes of the Soetanysberg and a 30-minute drive (36 km) from the Agulhas lighthouse, I passed fields with flocks of sheep, newborn lambs in tow. Herds of springbok, steenbok, yellow mongoose and large flocks of blue cranes are common. Denham’s bustard, Cape clapper lark and Agulhas long-billed lark were very worthwhile birding sightings, as was a lone black harrier that quartered low over the fields.
The Bergplaas guest house offers a relaxing country setting that provides endless vistas across the Agulhas plains with Soetendals Vlei constantly shimmering in the distance. Speckled pigeon, Cape weaver and helmeted guineafowl were watched over by a jackal buzzard that sat high in one of the gum trees skirting the homestead.
Walking along the track that runs behind the farmstead and heads up the mountain, I found numerous examples of the reported 2 500 different plant species that occur in this amazing park. Recovering from devastating fires a couple of years earlier, the veld was now alive with protea, cone bush, mimetes and restio seedlings. The flowers of pelargoniums, ericas, lobelias and many others added colour to the landscape and attracted orange-breasted and lesser double-collared sunbirds as well as the larger Cape sugarbirds. Rock agamas sat high on the boulders and watched as numerous large spider-hunting wasps flew past in search of an eight-legged meal.
My final destination for the day was the Rietfontein guest cottages that lie in the heart of the lowland fynbos, only 5km from Rietfontein Bay, a popular angling destination. On my arrival a herd of springbok that had been grazing the lawns wandered off at my approach. Black and yellow Cape widowbird males chased after drabber coloured females and in the stream next to the cottages Cape river frogs and clicking stream frogs called constantly.
A bright pink stand of Amaryllus caught my attention and soon had me wandering into the veld in search of more floral delights. I was not left disappointed with stands of Protea Suzannae, gladiolas and Erica plunkenetti. Thick-knee, black-shouldered kite, capped wheatear, familiar chat, speckled mousebird and Cape wagtail were some of the feathered diversity I added to my now-extensive tick list.
Driving back from Rietfontein to the rest camp, I passed the lighthouse that was now throwing long beams of light into the night and wondered how many ships it had steered on safety past this rugged yet incredible piece of coast so full of life. I made a mental note that I needed to explore further, to breathe in more of the soul of this special place, the national park at Agulhas.
Agulhas is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Cape Town. Head along the N2 to Caledon, then follow the R316 to Napier and Bredasdorp. Signs clearly indicate the route to Agulhas.
Summers are warm and winters mild, with rain falling mainly in the winter months. Expect wind at any time of year and always be prepared for sudden changes in the weather. The best months to visit are April and September.
A variety of accommodation options is now available within the park, from self-catering chalets at the rest camp (from R840 a night for two people) and the Lagoon House within a stone’s throw of the sea (from R2 365 a night, sleeps six) to the historical farmsteads (from R570 a night for two).
The settings of the accommodation allow the soul to relax and recharge. Take a long walk along the coast to enjoy the biodiversity and the rich history of the area. Look out for endemic birds and enjoy the approximately 2 500 different species of plants. Remember to ask the SANParks office about which areas you will need a special permit to access. Fishing requires a permit, which can be obtained at a local post office.
All accommodation units are self-catering, so you will have to bring supplies with you. The nearby small towns of Struisbaai and L’Agulhas have a range of shops that can supply the basics. The park is still undergoing development, so it is well worth asking what the latest improvements offer.
Park +27 28 435 6222
Central Reservations +27 12 428 9111
Source: Wild Magazine