There is a point in South Africa that defines the dividing line between the Indian and Atlantic Oceans a craggy outcrop where whales can be seen passing in the blue waters below, while cormorants wheel in the gusts. And, it being the type of spot on a map that a tourism bureau would like to stake a sign and advertise to the world, the exact location of that point has been fought over all the way to court, where expert witnesses have testified about everything from ocean currents to the composition of limpets.
Cape Agulhas won the right to advertise to tourists, but Cape Point, the downturned thumb of land that wraps around False Bay south of Cape Town, is where everyone goes. Like any tourist destination, it's filled with things to do and superficial tourist traps to avoid. When I visited, in the November springtime, I toured with a guide whose wit, expertise and gangly professorial eyebrows all stand in opposition to tourist kitsch. George Branch operates Strandloper Safaris, which he runs exclusively through The Last Word's "intimate" boutique hotels in the Cape Town suburbs, and which he devised as a way to employ his grad students in the marine biology programs at Cape Town University, where he is an emeritus professor.
"Emeritus professor" is one of those quick-to-write titles that, for Branch, obscures more than it reveals. He's written two books about South African marine environment, The Living Shores of Southern Africa and Two Oceans: A Guide to the Marine Life of Southern Africa. He's advised the government of South Africa both during and since Apartheid on fisheries management, and it's fascinating to hear him discuss the tensions between sustainable fishing policy and the rights of native fishermen who were shut out of the best fishing grounds for generations. (Just as it is fascinating to hear him talk about setting up promising black zoology students, during apartheid, to fail in ballet programs to get around segregation policies that otherwise would have prevented them from studying at Cape Town University.) He's discovered countless marine critters, including an invasive mussel that tied him to some of my friends in science back home on the Hudson River. And, he was among those offering expert testimony in support of the "losing" side, as it turns out on the question of where exactly two of the world's oceans divide.
"For me, it's absolutely clear cut," he said, standing on the rocky shore of Black Rocks, a Cape Point beach on False Bay, on a "wild and woolly" morning. "This is where everything divides."
While wading into the shallows, pointing out starfish, sea urchins (left, alive and dead), sea anemones and other creatures that define life on the Atlantic and Indian ocean sides ("There's more to life than limpets," one of the world's foremost limpet experts says, matter of factly) he will have you convinced, too. At the very least, you can be sure you aren't just taking in the view which, it has to be said, is magnificent at every turn.
What Branch and Strandloper Tours offer is the view but in richer detail. Not only do you experience the jaw-dropping natural splendor of the cliffs, but you learn to pick out the stratigraphy of rock layers stratigraphy that is mirrored in Patagonia and Australia, thanks to continental drift and the breakup of Gondwana nearly 200 million years ago.
Not only do you gape at the Boulders Beach penguin colony, but you learn why it is this rare mainland refuge is so important for a population that stands at just 2% of historic levels, thanks to of all things guano harvesting, sardine fishing and, quite possibly, climate change. (And you learn the African penguin's original name was the jackass penguin, which is a good fact to drop on your friends back home, as you flip through photos.)
Not only do you get the chance to click away with your camera, bent over the bright wildflowers, but you learn that the bioregion that produces those wildflowers the fynbos, or "fine bush" in Afrikaans is a semi-arid environment unique in the world, home to the world's smallest floral kingdom but its highest diversity of plant life. Not only do you learn to utter some of their names profusions of "pincushions," fields of heather, bouquets of papery "everlastings" (right) but you learn that this is where a high percentage of cut flowers in U.S. markets originated, genetically.
Not only do you hike to the majestic outcrop at the tip of Cape Point, where on the day I visited, Cape cormorants were tottering unsteadily on the wind and darting onto their cliff nests before taking off again in V-formations to hunt, but you get the special pride of hearing an expert like George Branch who seems to have seen everything and know everything there is to know about Cape Point say out loud, to you, that he's never seen them behave this way before.
"Strandloper" is one of the names of the San people, the natives of South Africa's coast, and one of the oldest if not the oldest cultures on Earth. Branch has an encyclopedic knowledge of history and the environment, but a writer's sense of how much to reveal to his audience in order to keep them interested. For a traveler like me, who likes to plug away with questions at guides, drivers, waitresses, passers-by and anyone else who will tolerate me he's the perfect companion. Your conversation doesn't need to stop with limpets and pincushions, but can turn to the country itself, and the sweep of history from the time when the Strandlopers walked about more-or-less unmolested, through colonization and apartheid, to today, after two decades of majority black rule. I heard all kinds of perspectives on our trip, but my own views came to mirror Branch's more closely than most others. Yes, the level of government services has dropped since white-only rule created pockets of First World infrastructure surrounded by Third World poverty potholes have been a problem and the bureaucracy is rife with inexperience and nepotism, in part thanks to affirmative action policies but when you're talking about lifting a population of people brutally oppressed for generations, there will be some limping on the road to a better future in this nation of unparalleled natural splendor.
"I wouldn't have it any other way," Branch said.
For a tour of Cape Point, I'd say the same thing.
About The Last Word
Strandloper Tours are run exclusively for guests at The Last Word, a boutique hotel that aims to give guests a unique experience it calls "intimate," in part by offering the feeling of staying in the home of a friend one of six very wealthy friends living in the leafy suburbs of Cape Town. The hotels emphasize local, quality ingredients in the meals they serve and employ local people for everything from plumbing to some very impressive mosaic tile art, but the emphasis is on luxury, and having a host to make reservations, arrange transportation and otherwise take care of you.
Photos by Samantha Shapley and Dan Shapley.
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