Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Southernmost Point in Africa

Geographical extremes capture the imagination. From ancient mariners to contemporary mankind, the quest has always been to reach the poles, sail around the tips of continents, conquer the highest peaks and dive to the ultimate depths...South African National Parks
My first job with the US Fish and Wildlife Service was as an ascertainment biologist in our regional office in Minneapolis. There were four of us whose responsibility it was to review lands proposed to the Service for acquisition and inclusion in the National Wildlife Refuge system. We did this work in Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and that state just west of Wisconsin whose name begins with an M.

After reviewing background information on the lands and doing site visits we prepared reports for submission to Washington DC justifying (or not) the preservation of those lands. Our reports became known as the "superlative" reports because in them we used words like "most", "fewest", "biggest" or "best" or "last" or the massively overused phrase "at a biological crossroads" between the "southernmost" and the "northernmost" or "easternmost" or "westernmost" points in the range of a species or a habitat.

It was partly because of our responsibilities in that job (and partly because I'm anal-retentive) that I developed an interest in visiting places or seeing species that are at the edge or the limit of their range. For example, a few years ago I made it a point to fly to Ushuaia, Argentina in Tierra del Fuego because its the southernmost city and has the southernmost airport in the world. Similarly there is Barrow Alaska with the northernmost airport in the world. In 2000, I chartered a plane and flew to Rose Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in American Samoa - it is not only the southernmost refuge in the system but also the southernmost point of land controlled by the United States.

One spring I walked to the tip of Point Pelee near Leamington Ontario so I could urinate on the southernmost point in continental Canada.
Point Pelee, Ontario - the southernmost point in continental Canada

When you land at the Hilo airport on the Big Island of Hawaii not only is it a new airport for your airport list but its also the easternmost airport in that state.
Hilo Airport - the easternmost airport in Hawaii

And who could forget Port Oxford, Oregon, the westernmost point in the continental United States? Or taking off from the Hobart, Tasmania, airport, the southernmost airport in Australia? Or Key West, Florida, the southernmost city in the continental United States?

One of the many reasons I wanted to visit South Africa was because it is the southernmost country in Africa. And before making this trip I had always been under the misguided assumption that the Cape of Good Hope south of Cape Town was the southernmost point in Africa - its not.
Cape of Good Hope - the southwesternmost point in Africa

When I discovered this little geographic oversight I had to make a change in my trip plans to go to the southernmost point. I was so close there was no alternative.

This information from Wikipedia pretty well describes Cape Agulhas:
Cape Agulhas is the southernmost point in the continent of Africa. It is located at 34°50′00″S 20°00′09.15″E,34°50′00″S 20°00′09.15″E in the Overberg region, 170 kilometres (105 mi) southeast of Cape Town. The cape was named by Portuguese navigators, who called it Cabo das Agulhas — Portuguese for "Cape of Needles" — after noticing that around the year 1500 the direction of magnetic north (and therefore the compass needle) coincided with true north in the region. The cape is within the Cape Agulhas Local Municipality in the Overberg District of the Western Cape province of South Africa. The official dividing line between the Indian and Atlantic oceans is defined by the International Hydrographic Organization to pass through Cape Agulhas.

South of Cape Agulhas the warm Agulhas Current that flows south along the east coast of Africa retroflects back into the Indian Ocean. While retroflecting, it pinches off large ocean eddies (Agulhas rings) that drift into the South Atlantic Ocean and take enormous amounts of heat and salt into the neighboring ocean. This mechanism constitutes one of the key elements in the global conveyor belt circulation of heat and salt.

Unlike its better-known relative, the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Agulhas is relatively unspectacular, consisting of a gradually curving coastline with a rocky beach. A survey marker indicates the location of the cape, which would otherwise be difficult to identify. The waters of the Agulhas Bank off the coast are quite shallow and are renowned as one of the best fishing grounds in South Africa.

The rocks that form Cape Agulhas belong to the Table Mountain Group, often loosely termed the Table Mountain sandstone. They are closely linked to the geological formations that are exposed in the spectacular cliffs of Table Mountain, Cape Point, and the Cape of Good Hope.
I visited Cape Agulhas on September 29, 2011 arriving there in early afternoon after driving over from the penguin colony at Simon's Town. Just like a major tourism attraction in the United States the road signs telling you that you are approaching the area begin 50 miles before you get there. Its no different with Cape Agulhas.

On my arrival I discovered that I had to disagree with some of the words in the Wikipedia description because the snarling, angry ocean crashing relentlessly into the rocks at the Cape made the Cape awfully spectacular.

Geographers have determined (decreed?) that the Cape is the official place where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic Ocean. However looking out over the water I couldn't tell where one ocean ended and the other began. Maybe next time?
Where the Indian Ocean and Atlantic Ocean meet

Despite 50 miles of highway signs leading to the Cape, and signs on almost every building in the village proclaiming this to be the southernmost point, and there being a National Park at the Cape, I was the only visitor during my hour at the Cape.
A Cape Wagtail was the "Southernmost" landbird in Africa when I visited the Cape

As I stood at the southernmost point of continental Africa looking south into the fierce spring winds my usual case of incurable wanderlust came over me. I fantasized about being on a ship headed due south from that point. Google Earth told me that it was just 2,400 miles from where I was standing to the first point of "land" on the ice continent of Antarctica. A well-provisioned ship could get me there in five days. Imagine all the cool seabirds I could find in those 2,400 miles. Then came thoughts about all of the explorers who passed through those waters just after everyone realized that the earth isn't flat. And think of the crazy folks who have passed through the "roaring forties" in sailboats as they have tried to circumnavigate the globe. Then I thought about Mark Twain's superb book "Following the Equator" and realized that at some point on his around-the-world journey Mark Twain had to have passed directly south of where I stood.

There was so much history in front of me that I wanted to learn and so much geography that I wanted to experience and so much biology swimming and flying around somewhere south of where I stood. And here I had gone and planned only an afternoon out of my five week trip to be at Cape Agulhas. Before going there I thought it was just going to be another bunch of rocks by the ocean where tourists would take pictures and Aunt Edna would say to Uncle George "did you see that big wave, George?" and then forget that they had even been at the Cape the following day. One of the first things you learn when you travel extensively is to always plan more time than you think you'll need for each place you want to visit. I didn't do that with Cape Agulhas and left the Cape feeling I had missed out on something.

There are many other "most's" I would like to see some time. And if you think long and hard and objectively enough almost everyplace could be turned into a "most" of some sort.

Still among all of the "most's" I have already experienced Cape Agulhas, described as "unspectacular" has been the most spectacular most of them all.

I think I need to go back there.


  1. The Earth isn't flat anymore??!!?? I didn't get the memo on that one. Next you'll be telling me that the Earth isn't the center of the solar system anymore. (Great article, Craig.)

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