TRAVEL: The hidden treasures of Cape Point National Park
Luke Alfred explores the landscape and stories of Cape Point National Park. You should too
Not enough is known about the Cape Point National Park and its shipwrecks, kelp-strewn beaches and phantom cemeteries. This is probably because most people associate the reserve with Cape Point itself, which is understandable enough, but rather like reducing Paris to the Eiffel Tower, or Rome to the Colosseum.
While the Cape Point restaurant, viewing areas and funicular remain closed for the time being, hiking opened to the public in September as lockdown rules were relaxed. Now is a fine time to visit the reserve because spring has sprung and after the Cape’s sumptuous winter rains the landscape is gurgling with rooibos-coloured water. Flowers are everywhere, ranging from tiny pinpricks of colour at your feet to grizzled old Protea bushes with their upturned, goblet-like flowers.
The bontebok have calved, the red locusts are going about their energetic chomping and ponderous tortoises are soldiering through the grass. Even the ostriches seem slightly less bad-tempered than usual.
The first adventure worth considering upon entering the park from either the Scarborough or Smitswinkel Bay side (R80 for locals, if proof of identity is provided; masks must be worn and your temperature is taken) begins at the Smitswinkel Bay viewpoint just inside the reserve itself.
Roughly a kilometre after the main reserve gates there is a (slightly hidden) gravel parking lot and viewpoint on the left. There’s room in the lot for 10 or 12 cars and it’s a good place for a final look back at Smitswinkel Bay. Accessible only by foot or sea, Smitswinkel Bay is about 5km down the road from Simon’s Town. It is off the grid and provides refuge and holiday homes for a variety of artists, nature lovers and those who perhaps guard their privacy more jealously than most.
Legend has it that smuggling once took place here and the place does have a vaguely illicit feel. It’s not difficult to imagine a still in a basement dripping lockdown hooch or mampoer into old Castle Lager bottles for drunken midnight jollies on the beach.
Turning your back on the view of Smitswinkel Bay, head through the parking lot to a path on a gentle downward slope which bears to the right. Well-marked and sign-posted, this (approximately) 15km walk takes you to all the way to Cape Point down the east side of the peninsula, but you can slice ’n dice it any way you chose, depending on fitness and time.
My favourite section of this walk takes you from the parking lot to the Bordjiesrif tidal pool and braai area, with Cape Point loitering in the heat haze a couple more hours of walking further down the trail. With the sea on your left-hand side pretty much throughout and the fynbos flats (the area is called Smitswinkel Flats) of the nature reserve on your right, it is almost impossible to get lost.
The hike from the parking lot to Bordjiesrif takes four to five hours, depending on your fitness and speed of walking. There are regular viewpoints to stop and admire the view and the small red, yellow and blue flowers at ankle height are worth looking out for.
Just when you are beginning to ache slightly, the Bordjiesrif tidal pool and braai area loom into view. It’s a good place to aim for and an even better place to take off your hiking boots, have a refreshing swim and hope those tuna mayonnaise sarmies in your rucksack haven’t been too badly squashed.
On the way to Bordjiesrif you will pass behind Judas Peak (with Blaasbalk Cave beneath it) as you skirt Rooinek (on your right) and move inland to negotiate Paulsberg, the highest point hereabouts at about 400m.
After that, look out for the old blackened cannon at Kanonkop, as you thread downwards to sea level. This is a wonderful walk, not excessively challenging, but one with spectacular views of the bays and rocks below. Once you’ve reached the tarred road on the way to Bordjiesrif you can stop to admire the handiwork of an adjacent lime kiln from 150 years ago, knowing that a refreshing swim is just a ramble away.
Tip: We walked these cliffs in the height of summer, when it was punishingly hot. Hats, sunscreen and — importantly — lots of water in your packs are a necessity because you won’t find any drinkable water on the landscape itself. If you are walking this route in September-October, though, the temperatures are cooler and there’s far more readily available water.
But there’s more
The next adventure worth pursuing is the area around Olifantsbos, easily accessible via the main reserve road. More windswept, generally a couple of degrees colder and certainly more barren, the Atlantic coast of the reserve is whalebone and shipwreck country, with the area south of the parking lot and Olifants Point being rich in wrecks dating back hundreds of years.
By far the most obvious wreck lies in front of the low dunes about a kilometre away from Olifantsbos. The Thomas T Tucker ran aground in 1942, the captain thinking he was far closer to Cape Town harbour than he was.
There are remnants today of the boilers, hull and what look like sections of its engine, all rusted deep metallic red. Depending on the tides, you can still walk over parts of the ship as you ponder its fate that foggy November night in 1942.
The Tucker belonged to a class of mass-produced American freighters called Liberty ships. Women shipbuilders played an important role in putting them together, and they often took no more than a month to build. They were vital in keeping the Allies supplied with material for the war. This Liberty ship was on her maiden voyage, sailing from New Orleans to Suez, but her compass was wonky and the captain became disorientated in the fog.
No lives were lost in her running aground, with the barbed wire and many of the tanks in her cargo being brought ashore. Of more interest to locals were the Tucker’s fridges full of American food, because SA was in the midst of wartime rationing and the locals were hungry. Alas, by the time the fridges were opened, all the tasty treats had been spoilt.
On the tableland above the wreckage is another reminder of World War 2. Submarines were a feature of life in these waters, and the cliffs south of Olifantsbos contain a concrete bunker once used for spotting German U-boats.
There are former living quarters behind the lookout station covered in weeds, the floors full of chipped masonry and rubble. There’s broken glass, a plugged-up well and a mildly creepy sense of what once was. You might want to linger and admire the view but you might also want to be on your way, hurrying down to the road below through a gentle kloof.
At road level you are presented with the area’s most enduring mystery, the so-called "Italian Cemetery". According to Peter Slingsby, whose excellent map of the area is a must, the cemetery contains the bodies of those who drowned when the Caterina Doge, a coal-carrying barque, sank in these waters in 1886.
Author and journalist Lawrence Green referred to the graveyard, as do several maps and naval charts. But it is almost impossible to find — I’ve tried. When I asked Slingsby about it he reluctantly admitted that "no one has ever found the spot".
So the mystery of the phantom cemetery remains, a strangely apposite story for this grief-stricken and hauntingly beautiful coast.
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