Phantom ships, braying penguins, brazen baboons, wandering ostriches, hoards of tourists - South Africa's Cape Peninsula has them all

By Jack Souther

With her blasphemous captain lashed to the helm and her ghostly crew battling a perpetual gale the Flying Dutchman is doomed to sail until judgment day into the teeth of a storm without ever rounding the Cape of Good Hope. There are as many versions of this old mariner's yarn as there are shipwrecks off the coast of southern Africa. Long before Richard Wagner adapted the tale to his opera, the Flying Dutchman was part of maritime legend and sighting the phantom ship was taken as an omen of impending doom.

The Cape of Good Hope is actually not the most southerly point of Africa. That distinction belongs to Cape Agulhas, 150 km to the east and 50 km farther south, but Good Hope, at the southern end of the Cape Peninsula, gets most of the attention — and for good reason. The Cape Peninsula, that crooked finger of land projecting from the southwest coast of Africa, is where the cold, Benguela Current flowing north out of Antarctica clashes with the tropical Agulhas Current flowing westward out of the Indian Ocean. Bartolomeu Dias, the Portuguese mariner who first rounded the point in 1488 named it the Cape of Storms. It was John II of Portugal who later christened it "Good Hope", in reference to the fact that mariners who made it around the cape had a fighting chance of getting to the Orient and back home to Europe.

Until the Suez Canal was dug in 1869 clipper ships plying the trade route between Europe, Australia, and the Orient were forced to run the gauntlet of the cape's turbulent waters and many of them didn't make it. In 1648 the crew of the shipwrecked Harlem planted some seeds near their camp in Table Bay at the north end of the Cape Peninsula. Their garden did so well that the Dutch East India Company decided to establish a refuge there where ships could re-supply and repair their rigging. The "Company's Garden" provided sailors with fresh vegetables to augment their diet of salt pork and dried beans. The bars and brothels flourished and the place became known as The Tavern of the Seas. Today that rowdy and rollicking 17th century out-port has become the modern port-city of Cape Town and The Company's Garden is now a carefully tended city park — a refuge where both locals and tourists gather to enjoy a morning coffee in the shade of trees that were planted there more than 300 years ago. And that is where we began our trip to the Cape of Good Hope.

We joined Daytrippers who offer a mix of driving, cycling, and hiking. It's only about 30 km from Cape Town to The Cape but we took our time — hiking up to viewpoints, riding the bikes, visiting a penguin colony, and stopping for a picnic lunch at Buffels Bay. The coast road follows the east side of the peninsula, alternately clinging to precipitous cliffs and skirting broad sandy beaches shelving into the warm waters of False Bay. From Cape Town south to Simon's Town the waterfront is a succession of small towns, tourist resorts, and suburban homes. With both rail and road access this part of the False Bay waterfront has been a favoured residential suburb for generations of Cape Town residents. The penguins moved in later.


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