At Caledon, turn off the N2 and follow the R316 through rolling pastures and fields to Napier and Bredasdorp. The close proximity of these two towns is due to a dispute between two prominent men (Pieter Voltelyn van der Byl and Michiel van Breda) in 1838 over the site for the building of a church in the area. Unable to find common ground, they each built one.
Napier, named after Sir George Napier, Cape Governor, lies between Soetmuisberg and the undulating grain fields of the Ruggens, dotted with grazing sheep. Established in 1838, the village has retained a country atmosphere – it is one of those places where one can still see horses, cows and poultry on plots and in side streets. In recent years many artists and other creative people have settled here, and it is home to a variety of eateries and speciality shops, as well as a toy museum.
In the 1890s miners searched for gold on the farm Hansiesrivier in the district. The Napier Gold Mining Company was founded and shares issued, but it didn’t last long – only fool’s gold was found.
Bredasdorp was also established in 1838 and named after the local landowner who promoted the project, Michiel van Breda. He owned vast tracts of land in the area, including Zoetendals Vallei, was the first mayor of Cape Town (owner of the farm Oranje Zicht) and also a member of the Cape Legislative Assembly.
The Bredasdorp Museum, housed in the historic Keet church, features some of the many ships wrecked along the Agulhas coast. Other collections are old wagons and motor vehicles, and a room honouring well-known Afrikaans author Audrey Blignault.
The nearby Rhenosterfontein farm (off the road to Swellendam) has an ancient milkwood tree that is a National Monument, and near the farm Nacht Wacht, on the way to Arniston, is the first protective fence ever erected to help save the Bontebok from extinction (1837).
At the foot of the Bredasdorp mountains lies the Heuningberg Nature Reserve where the red Bredasdorp Lily and many fynbos species are found. In October each year the Foot of Africa Marathon is held, regarded as one of the toughest of its kind. The area has a rich agricultural history and both the Drakensberger cattle breed and the South African Merino sheep industry originated in the district.
A gravel turn-off from the Bredasdorp–Struisbaai road takes one to De Mond, a popular angling resort at the mouth of the Heuningnes River. Camping and bungalows are administered by CapeNature.
Struisbaai, named for the ostriches (“vogelstruise”) that the early Dutch seafarers saw here, is characterized by a white sandy beach of 14 km. It has been a popular holiday resort for centuries. Farmers from Bredasdorp and elsewhere would spend a month or more here during summer, arriving with wagons packed with everything needed for their stay, including chickens and ducks for eggs and for the pot. The sheep to be slaughtered and a cow for milk had to travel on the hoof.
Struisbaai is regarded as one of the very best angling spots in South Africa. Fishermen settled here more than a century ago and a cluster of their simple thatched houses may still be seen at Hotagterklip, at the entrance to the town. The working harbour often affords the opportunity for colourful photographs of the fishing boats on the azure sea.
The southernmost tip of Africa was first called Cabo das Agulhas (“Cape of Needles”) in 1502 by Portuguese seafarers, after it had previously been named Ponta de Sint Brandao by Bartholomeu Dias, who first rounded the tip of Africa in January 1488, in honour of the patron saint of that day. The accepted explanation of the reference to needles is that, at the time, the magnetic needle of a compass showed no deviation from true north (simply a chance occurrence, as magnetic divergence varies greatly across the globe and changes over time – the divergence at Agulhas is now about 24,5 degrees west).
The stretch of coastline around Agulhas became notorious amongst seafarers as a graveyard of ships. Hidden reefs, sandy shallows and jagged rocks all awaited the unwary mariner who ventured too close to the shore or was driven there by the huge swells and strong gales. The first of over a hundred shipwrecks recorded was that of the Zoetendal in 1673; the survivors reached Cape Town over land, and on the way named a freshwater lake near Struisbaai Zoetendals Vlei.
In the late 1830s letters – some from overseas – appeared in a Cape Town newspaper calling for a lighthouse to be erected at Cape Agulhas. Michiel van Breda, owner of most of the land around Agulhas and mayor of Cape Town, was prepared to donate land. A public fund was started in 1840, and by 1841 Col Charles Michell, Surveyor-General of the Colony, was already working on the design. It was only six years later, however, that the Government allocated funds for the erection of the lighthouse and that work started. Most of the limestone and clay was carted from van Breda’s farm Zoetendals Vallei, where a kiln was also built to burn seashells for lime. The lighthouse was put into operation on 8 January 1848.
Michell’s design was a homage to the lighthouse that had stood on the island of Pharos at Alexandria in Egypt for 1500 years until the fifteenth century, and known in antiquity as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The optical apparatus was manufactured by Le Paute in Paris; it had no turning movement and consisted of an intricate arrangement of a lens, reflectors and refractors that concentrated the 4500-candlepower light from a four-wick Argand burner. Initially fat from the tails of the local fat-tailed sheep was rendered in the two fireplaces in the building to supply fuel for the lamp.
Mr Le Paute contributed not only the apparatus to the project, but also a new name: in correspondence with this Frenchman, Agulhas came to be referred to as L’Agulhas, and this name was soon adopted in everyday usage.
Over the years the apparatus was upgraded a number of times, and was electrified in 1936. The lighthouse did not miss a blink in its first hundred years of operation, but in 1968 the building was declared unsafe and the lighthouse function was taken over by an unsightly automated beacon on the hill. People in the area, however, did not want to see their beloved lighthouse disappear, and mounted a battle and fund-raising to save it. In 1973 the building was declared a National Monument, and eventually it was transferred to the Bredasdorp Museum. Restoration of the building started in 1984, and in 1986 Portnet, who now operated all South African lighthouses, requested that the lighthouse be recommissioned. The light of the refurbished Agulhas lighthouse was switched on on 25 March 1988.
The name L’Agulhas had fallen into disuse, but in 1987 the Friends of the Lighthouse asked the Place Names Commission to reinstate the name L’Agulhas and the request was granted. However, as the name of an international maritime landmark may not be changed, the geographical feature is still known as Cape Agulhas.
The southernmost tip of the African continent was determined by the Chief Directorate: Surveys and Mapping in June 1983, about a kilometre west of the lighthouse: 34° 49' 58,74" South and 20° 00' 02,12" East. At the time, the confusion about where the two oceans met was also cleared up: the Hydrographic Office stated that the internationally accepted “boundary” between the Indian and Atlantic Oceans was 20° 0' longitude, which is only about 1200 metres west of Cape Agulhas – clearly not at Cape Point, as is often claimed.
The lighthouse now falls within the Agulhas National Park administered by SANParks. A number of tourist accommodation facilities are being developed at various locations in the park.