Most visitors consider the historic lighthouse, the plinth depicting the splitting of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans and perhaps also the wreck of the Myshu Meru as all that the Agulhas National Park has to offer. How wrong they are, for there is now a range of accommodation scattered right across the 21 000 hectares that provide a gateway to endless opportunities for exploring this extremely diverse, historic and scenic landscape.
Pied Starling flocks flew up squawking and a Cape Robin-chat hopped after a scurrying Four-striped Mouse between gaps in the large stand of aloes as a pair of Cape Bulbuls fluttered above them. The red and white painted lighthouse towered above us as we found the short meandering path that took us from the parking lot and down onto the coast. We paused briefly to watch an Angulate Tortoise pulling itself through the soft sand and plotting its path between the mole-rat burrows. A robber fly sat in ambush and then flew with lightening speed to pounce on another smaller and softer bodied insect in a move that rivaled any of the “kills” to be seen by big predators in our better-known game reserves. My two daughters and I had barely walked a 100 meters and were already entranced with all that lay before us at the start of what was to be an amazing weekend at this southern most tip of Africa!
1 of 9. The Agulhas Lighhouse is a historical monument.
Having booked into the rest camp with its thatched units cleverly spaced amongst indigenous fynbos and within a stones throw of the ocean, my daughters and I had decided to drive back and wander a stretch of the Rusperspoint coastal trail. The change of the seasons from summer into autumn 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 and we were soon probing amongst the dried skeletal branches of sea fans, sponges of numerous shapes, sizes and species and 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 only seen 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 and this together with countless piles of tangled and discarded fishing line acted as a strong reminder that we need to be more aware of where we carelessly throw away our litter.
2 of 9. The werck of the Myshu Meru lies along the Rusperspunt Hiking Trail.
In the rock pools, the girls found mullet, klipvis, sea-urchins, cushion stars and anemones. I had an inquisitive octopus venture out from its lair to wrap its tentacles gingerly around my foot and ankle. On recognizing that I was not a suitable meal, the octopus rapidly changed color as if in embarrassment and shot off to another pool where it soon disappeared from sight. As we passed a fisherman, his line that had been thrown into the surf screamed as it suddenly ran seaward. The fisherman 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 and the fisherman slumped back into to the soft sand, ignoring the small waves lapping around him and forlornly commenting “Ag Man! Dit was ‘n baai groot vis wat nou los gekom het!” Out at sea, choka boats and small purse-sein trawlers bobbed between the white-horses of the swells indicating the richness of the Agulhas Banks for fishing.
3 of 9. A crab carapace and a cat sharks egg case are just some of the interesting items to be found washed ashore.
As we neared the rest camp again, we rounded the corner to find a large circular and well-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. As dusk turned into full darkness, one of the best star filled skies that 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.
4 of 9. An African Black Oystercatcher rests along the rocky Aguhas coastline
Dawn awoke 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 shrubby, 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 the mongoose away.
5 of 9. Comfortable thatched chalets within the Agulhas National Park.
A short drive later had me at the entrance to the Rhenosterkop farmstead, which had originally been built in 1742 and was now renovated into visitor accommodation. Silence interspersed with wind rustling through the grasses and whispering through the leaves of the Milkwood trees put me into an immediate mode of relaxation. Southern Boubou and Sombre Greenbuls called from deep within the tree line and high above an African Fish Eagle called out along its journey between water-bodies of the Soetendaals Vlei. A grey duiker burst from a thicket nearby and dashed off across open veld. Around the cottages, brilliant red Brunsvigia orientalis flowers added color to the historic landscape. Malachite Sunbirds, Cape White-eyes and Bully Canaries fed amongst the flowering leonotis bushes and a female rain spider guarded her nest that was well hidden amongst a thicket of branches.
6 of 9. Sewe-jaartjie flowers are amongst 2500 plant species found within the park.
Driving onwards towards Bergplaas, I passed fields with gatherings of sheep and their newborn lambs in tow. Herds of springbok, steenbok, yellow mongoose and large flocks of Blue Cranes were also 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. Bergplaas provides endless vistas across the Agulhas plains with Soetendaals 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 that skirted the homestead. A walk through the veld showcased just a few of the reported 2500 different plant species. 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, erica’s, lobelias and many others added color to the landscape and attracted Orange-breasted and Lesser Double-collared Sunbirds as well as the larger Cape Sugarbirds. Rock Agama’s sat high on the boulders and watched as numerous large spider hunting wasps flew past in search of an eight legged meal.
7 of 9. Brunsvigia flowers growing in the grounds around Rhenosterkop.
My final destination for the day was the Rietfontein Guest Cottages that lies in the heart of the lowland fynbos and 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 colored females and in the stream that runs next to the cottages Cape River Frogs and Clicking Stream Frogs called constantly. A bright pink stand of Amaryllus bulbs caught my attention and soon had me wandering into the veld in search of more floral delights and I was not left disappointed with stands of Protea Suzannae, dainty gladilous and Erica plunkenetti. Spotted Thick-knee, Black-Shouldered Kite, Capped Wheatear, Familiar Chat, Speckled Mousebird and Cape Wagtail were also some of the feathered diversity that was added to by now extensive bird list.
8 of 9. A four-striped mouse feeds on fynbos flowers.
As I drove 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 a course of safety past this rugged yet incredible piece of coastline and interior so full of life? I made a mental note to myself that I needed to explore further and breathe in the soul of this most special place called the Agulhas National Park!
9 of 9. Bottlenose dolphins play in the surf line.
Getting There: From Cape Town, Agulhas is a two and a half hour drive along the N2 to Caledon. Follow the R316 to Napier and Bredasdorp. Signage clearly indicates the route to Agulhas.
Weather: Summers are warm and winters are mild. Wind is present throughout the year with rain falling mainly in the winter months. Always be prepared for sudden changes in the weather. The best months to visit are April and September
Accomodation: A variety of accomodation is now available within the Park from the self catering chalets at the Rest Camp and Lagoon House that lie within a stones throw of the coastline through to the historical farmsteads of Rhenosterkop, Rietfontein and Bergplaas.
Activities: Agulhas National Park has much to offer, from looking out for locally endemic birds through to enjoying the approximately 2500 different species of plants. Long coastal walks showcase both the biodiversity and the rich history of the area while the settings for the various accommodation options allow the soul to relax and recharge. Remember to ask the SANParks office where you will need a special permit to gain access. Fishing will require a permit that can be obtained at a local post office.
Be Prepared: Remember that all accommodation units are self-catering and that all supplies will have to be brought with you. The small towns of Struisbaai and L’Agulhas, which are both situated nearby, do have a range of shops that can supply the basics. The park is still under development and so it is well worth asking what the latest developments offer.