Cape Point Nature Reserve | Exploring the Tip of Africa

One of the most recognizable natural features of Southern Africa, Cape Point rises out of the Atlantic Ocean, its rocky cliffs constantly battered by the pounding waves. Hundreds of years ago, it was a crucial landmark for ships on their way to India and East Africa. The lighthouse that was later built served to guide ships safely past the ‘Cape of Storms’.

Today, tourists from all over the world travel to see Cape Point and stand on the edge of the African continent. While it is not the southernmost point in Africa (that being Cape Agulhas), it is in many ways the tip of Africa.

But Cape Point is only one part of the Cape Point Nature Reserve, which makes up a significant portion of the Table Mountain National Park. A wide plateau dominates the reserve, with fynbos stretching uninterrupted from one side to the other. The Atlantic coastline hides wide deserted beaches, some with white sand and others covered in sandstone boulders, while the False Bay coastline is dominated by towering cliffs. For me, what keeps bringing me back to this place is the sense of wildness and isolation you get being in the nature reserve. You almost forget that Cape Town is barely an hour’s drive away.

Tours and tickets

Entrance price: R90 for South Africans | R180 for SADC Nationals | R360 for tourists | Half-price for kids!

Funicular tickets: R70 one-way | R85 return
The Flying Dutchman Funicular takes you from the car park to the summit of Cape Point – for those who aren’t too keen on the steep but lovely walk up. It runs every three minutes, so you won’t have much of a wait!

Cape Point Tours: The drive to Cape Point is a really beautiful and peaceful trip, easy to make on your own. But if you don’t have a car, or just prefer the experience of a guided tour with new people and interesting information, you can join this half-day tour of Cape Point and Boulders Beach or check out one of the tours below!

The Wild West Coast (Olifantsbos to Kanonkop)

One of the best parts of the park is the secluded Olifantsbos beach on the western coastline. To get there, you need to take the first turning to the right, which takes you across the fynbos-covered plateau. Along this route, I have had most of my encounters with Cape Mountain Zebra, as well as my only sightings of red hartebeest and Cape Grysbok. The fynbos is predominately low-growing, except along the vleis, and dominated by flowering erica’s and grass-like restios, two of the dominant groups of plants in the fynbos biome.

There are also several stands, both at the beginning and end of the road, of the strikingly beautiful marsh pagoda. In fact, around 1 100 species of plant have been recorded in the Cape Point Reserve, almost half of the 2 500 species recorded within the entire Table Mountain National Park.

At the end of the road, there is a T-junction – Olifantsbos is to the left. The road runs close to the foot of a low rocky cliff where white-necked ravens and jackal buzzards roost. Several small stands of milkwood trees also grow close to the beach, which are great hiding places for birds like bokmakeries and speckled mousebirds.

Surrounded by a beautiful setting, with not a house in sight, the beach itself is often covered in washed-up kelp, which attracts large numbers of seabirds who come to feed on the invertebrates attracted by the decaying kelp. There is a local troop of baboons that often visit the beach and I have always seen ostrich, bontebok and eland here too. If you’re lucky, there is a good chance of seeing these animals walking on the beach itself.

Further south, a lookout point overlooks another stretch of the western coastline, Gifkommetjie Beach, providing an impressive view looking out across the Atlantic Ocean. Quite isolated, often the only company one gets is the local rock agamas and rock martins. Trails down the mountainside lead down through the milkwood thickets and onto the rocky shoreline. The lookout is the main stop on the circular drive, which traverses some incredibly beautiful sections of the plateau.

The Inaccessible East Coast (Smitswinkel Bay to Buffel’s Bay)

Much of the coastline on the Eastern Side of the Peninsula is dominated by steep cliffs with no beaches below. The four highest peaks are the most prominent points, with the third, Paulsberg, being the highest at 368 metres above sea level. The second highest, Judas Peak, overlooks Smitswinkel Bay below. The reserves boundary fence extends down onto the end of the beach below, which is regularly occupied by holiday-goers staying at the few houses nestled in the valley just outside the Park.

Despite this coastline’s inaccessible nature, for thousands of years people have lived along this coastline. The Khoisan people, nomadic hunter-gatherers would have sheltered in caves carved out by the elements in the coastal cliffs. Archaeological evidence shows that modern humans were living on this coastline and harvesting shellfish well over 120 000 years ago.

Within the Park, the Buffelsfontein Visitors Centre overlooks the Eastern Coastline and provides people with a wealth of information about the park’s natural, geological and human history. Just below the centre, a freshwater spring comes to the surface, creating luxuriant vleis that attract many of the Reserve’s animals. A turning to the right just before the centre leads down to the site of the Da Game Cross and a Tidal Pool at Bordjiesrif. This route also goes along the rocky coastline northwards for a short way until it reaches the Venus Tidal Pool.

The only easily accessible beach on the False Bay side of Cape Point, Buffels Bay is a popular site for people looking to braai by the ocean or to launch boats and kayaks off the slipway. The Da Gama Cross overlooks the Bay from the northern end. Ostriches are often seen on the beach here and eland, bontebok and mountain zebra come to graze on the vegetated dunes.

There is a troop of baboons that regularly visits this beach too, in search of shellfish to feed among the rocks. In the sheltered waters of the bay, the dense kelp forests just off the beach support a diverse array of marine life, including spotted gully sharks and short-tailed stingrays. Once the site of a fishing and whaling station in the early 20th century, today Buffels Bay is part of Table Mountain National Parks network of marine protected areas.

These are vitally important, as approximately one-third of all the marine animals in Southern Africa’s oceans can be found around the Cape Peninsula. Above the bay, the vegetation is dominated by larger bushes, particularly the tree pincushion proteas. The flowers of these proteas are pollinated by the Cape sugarbird and orange-breasted sunbird, which can be seen all over the park.

The Point

Of course, no trip to the nature reserve would be complete without visiting Cape Point itself. After passing Buffels Bay, the main road passes through dense stands of tree pincushions before reaching a roundabout. Just before is the turnoff to the Cape of Good Hope on the left, which takes you past Platboom Beach, which always has beautifully bright blue waters just offshore. The site of the Cape of Good Hope sits at the foot of the Cape Maclear cliffs. A small colony of Cape Fur Seals lies on the rocks close by and there are always ostriches feeding by the shore.

The Car Park at Cape Point itself can get very busy, especially on a weekend and during peak tourist season. However, the high chance of spotting the local eland bulls in the dense bushes close to the car park usually makes the hassle worth it for me. Nonetheless, I still try my best to avoid the crowds by going in the week out of season.

There is almost always a troop of baboons that hang around the car park waiting for the chance to grab some food (so make sure you have none on you and your car is securely locked).

There is also a trail that leads down to Dias Beach, which is surrounded by a semi-circle of high cliffs that make for some spectacular scenery. The walk up to the viewpoints overlooking Cape Point and the Lighthouse can be a bit tough in some sections but the view is well worth it.

There are a number of viewpoints situated below the Lighthouse, which served as lookout posts during World War II. From these viewpoints, you get an impressive view of the Points cliff faces, in spite of the relentless wind. The ocean below is also incredibly rough, constantly pounding the rocks below and slowly eroding them away. The wild, bright blue waters below mask the dangers of these rough seas that have claimed many ships over the years.

From these lookouts, birders should keep their eyes open for roosting peregrine falcons, cape buntings and cape siskins. There is also a trail that goes along the top of the Point until it reaches another lookout point, not far from the second lighthouse, which is still in operation. This trail can get quite narrow in some sections, so it should not be attempted when there is fog or extreme weather. Here, the vegetation is quite hardy and sparse, with only dassies and girdle lizards braving the strong winds to eke out a living on the tip of Africa.

Hiking at Cape Point

For anyone who loves hiking, Cape Point has a number of hiking trails that vary in length and intensity. Some are short trails, like the one leading from the Olifantsbos Car Park to a shipwreck at Olifantsbos Point a few hundred metres away. Another trail at Olifantsbos is far longer than this, leading up onto the plateau to Sirkelvlei, the largest (and one of the very few) sources of fresh water on the reserve, easily visible from the other side of the plateau. One of the toughest starts at the lookout point over Smitswinkel Bay and traverses the four high peaks overlooking False Bay. These Trails gives visitors the chance to explore the Park free from the confines of a car or a bus and get a chance to better connect with nature.

Overnight hiking trail

In my opinion, the best way to fully experience Cape Point is to do the overnight hike, which essentially is a massive circuit of much of the reserve. Starting at the Entrance Gate to the Reserve, the first day covers 15 kilometres, taking hikers over the four peaks, down to Buffels Bay and then up to the overnight hut at Rooikrans (very close to Cape Point itself).

From these huts, you can get a spectacular view of both sides of the Peninsula and see both oceans, watching the sun set on the first day and rise on the second. And when the visitors leave, there is a period when there are barely any other people at Cape Point but you.

The next day is a fair bit longer than the first, 22 kilometres, but the terrain is much flatter. Starting early, you head down to Platboom and cross the dune belt that extends away from the beach (be alert as it is very easy to lose the path, which is marked by yellow footprints). This part of the trail really takes you to some of the wildest and most inaccessible parts of Cape Point. You can be the only people watching a herd of eland grazing by the sea or bearing witness to the decaying hulk of a washed-up shipwreck. You also have the chance to see things you might miss from a car, like a puffadder hiding in the fynbos or a dung beetle rolling away a dung ball.

Leaving the beaches behind, the trail crosses the wide central plateau, passing Sirkelvlei and crossing the road to Olifantsbos. The last bit requires scaling the Rooihoogte Peak before dropping down to the Entrance Gate. While this is a challenging trail, it is an incredibly rewarding experience. At some points on the Trail, you really feel like you have travelled back in time, back to before the Bartholomeu Diaz first sailed around the fabled ‘Cape of Storms’.

Last thoughts on visiting Cape Point Nature Reserve

Visiting Cape Point is often high on the list of things to experience for people visiting Cape Town (or living here, for that matter) and for good reason. To stand on the tip of Africa and stare out towards the Southern Ocean can be humbling.

But there is so much more to this reserve than just the Point itself. Visitors can have amazing sightings of large animals and a range of bird species. Hikers can explore the coastlines and mountains away from the roads, finding shipwrecks and plants found nowhere else in the world. Cyclists can traverse the park while freedivers can swim in amongst the dense kelp forests.

There is even a chance to learn about the incredibly rich history of humans in the Cape, from the earliest modern humans to the Battle of Muizenberg. Whether you’re looking for a short relaxing break from the city or something more adventurous, then look no further than the wildest section of the Table Mountain National Park.

If you’re interested in visiting Cape Town’s nature reserves, check out our post on the West Coast National Park!

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