Agulhas National Park is the country’s newest park – proclaimed only in the late 1990s – that lies on Africa’s southern most tip with one of the most beautiful and varied landscapes of any parks in South Africa.
Its fundamental role is to protect lowland and rare limestone fynbos. But its wildness and beauty are what really draw visitors.
Here are 13 secrets of Agulhas National Park that will have you visiting, tomorrow:
OMG the sea views!
Part of the park’s impressive scenery is the rugged, rock-littered seascape where on some days the wind howls (Agulhas has some of the highest wind speeds in the country) and the rain drives down in sheets, but for the rest of the year the view over the wildness of this invigorating, undeveloped coastline is nothing short of stupendous.
Better still, the park has a series of wooden chalets on stilts with sea views for hire (Agulhas Rest Camp).
Head inland for 20 km or so, and you’re in a different country
It’s nothing short of awe-inspiring that one can drive the mere distance of a few kilometres, still within the park, and find yourself in a completely different landscape more akin to flat farmland. And between the sea and the flatlands are a series of vleis and wetlands.
Once upon a time there were rhinos here
And lions, elephants, hippos and generous swathes of plains antelope, particularly bontebok (which have thankfully been preserved inland at Swellendam’s Bontebok National Park).
According to Year in the Wild journalist, Scott Ramsey, this area was once known as the ‘Serengeti of the south’, so one can only imagine the intensity of game. The skull of a several hundred year-old white rhino unearthed on a neighbour’s farm is proof that the strandveld provided plenty of grazing material back in the day.
A neighbouring farmer has recently released hippos into his vlei
It isn’t only the park involved in restoring the area to what it once was.
In an attempt to compensate for his great grandfather’s claim to have shot the last hippo in the area at Zeekoeivlei in 1898, farmer Dirk Human, whose family have farmed here for several generations (obviously) released 5 hippos into a huge vlei in the wetlands on his farm, just outside the park. They’ve subsequently calved.
Roughly 300 of the plants in the park are found nowhere else on earth
The park has an extremely high botanical diversity. And with the threat of climate change their diversity is at risk. The park’s importance is all the more vital. The slopes of Soetanysberg are covered in hundreds of species of fynbos like the bashful sugarbush, which you’ll find in only a couple of places in the country.
Agulhas boasts one of the most southerly lakes in the country
Soetendalsvlei is one of the largest, and the most southerly, lakes in South Africa. But it’s not the only water in the park. There are a number of vleis, rivers and wetlands – home to frogs, toads and the endangered western leopard toad, which Capetonians fiercely protect thinking it is found only on the Cape peninsula.
If you’re a birding fan, you can see over 21 000 water birds
That’s roughly 9% of the all the water birds in the Western Cape. And there are also noteworthy flocks of the vulnerable blue crane, and Stanley’s bustard, further inland in the park.
Local farmers formed a co-operative to restore the area’s heritage
Over 25 farmers in the Overberg, who own farms around the national park, are working with SANParks to re-establish the area’s biodiversity choosing to practice sustainable agriculture and dedicating tracts of the land to its original state.
They’ve called the project the Nuwejaars Wetlands Special Management Area and have involved the local Elim community in harvesting fynbos, removing alien vegetation, and rehabilitating wetlands.
The jagged coastline in the park is so inhospitable to ships that you can do a shipwreck hike
Named Cabo das Agulhas (Cape of Needles) by early Portuguese explorers, the coastline of the Agulhas National Park serves as the terrain for a three-day hike that follows the trail of the early stone age people who walked the coast, known also as the ‘graveyard of ships’ for obvious reasons.
The trail is called the Spookdraai Hiking Trail (spook is ghost in Afrikaans) after the discontented spirits who must wander the coastline.
Renosterkop cottages are another option to overnight in the park
The three thatched historic cottages are very different options to the newer wooden chalets at the coast, but no less beautiful for that. And they’re centrally placed, built on the oldest farms in the Strandveld.
Stay just outside of the park
We recommend either Agulhas Ocean House in L’Agulhas or the gorgeous Black Oystercatcher Cottages in Elim. Both are beautiful, accommodating venues close enough to the park to visit during the day, but providing comfortable alternatives, particularly in the colder months of the year.
Climb to the top of the Egyptian Pharos-style sandstone lighthouse
Despite looking as though it lies outside Agulhas National Park, the two hectares around the lighthouse were the first bits of land conserved by the park to protect the lowland and limestone fynbos.
You don’t have to be a lighthouse fanatic to enjoy your time here. It’s stood here since 1848, modelled on the Pharos of Alexandria in Egypt, one of the Seven Wonders of the world.
Ancient fish traps suggest Bartolomeu Dias wasn’t the first at the tip of Africa
There is a theory that the ancient stone fish traps on the park’s shoreline are similar to those found in Scandinavia. The beads discovered in amongst the remains might even be Chinese in origin, which suggests that the Vikings, Chinese, or both, were here first.
That’s over and above the local Khoisan, whom we know explored these shores way before settlers arrived here.