A long slender beam of light sweeps over the rooftops in rhythmic intervals, like an outstretched arm caressing the village of Cape St Francis to sleep. Every dusk till dawn since 1878, the lighthouse on Seal Point has kept watch over Cape St Francis and its rugged coastline. This is also the tallest masonry lighthouse on our coastline and the round white tower has a stoic and regal air.
Over 20 shipwrecks dot the immediate coast flanking Cape St Francis, and are testimony to the harshness of this stretch of seaboard – many street names in the village commemorate these shipwrecks, such as Queen of the West, Osprey, Bender and Panaghia. It’s said Seal Point, where the lighthouse is, is one of the ‘corners’ of the South African coastline where ships have to alter course, so they often choose to come close inshore to save time – and sometimes they come just a little too close.
Even since the lighthouse was lit, ships have still come to grief here, more recently the yacht, Genesis, that struck a rock and sank off Cape St Francis point in the early nineties – three lives were lost. Now a flashing beacon marks the Cape. More comedic was the 20-ton fishing boat Barcelona that simply drifted onto the beach one quiet night. The sea was so calm, the crew had no idea they were no longer afloat until they were woken by an amused angler the following morning.
Part of the allure of Cape St Francis is that it’s so far south – said to be the second most southern tip of Africa after Cape Agulhas – that it gets lots of wild weather. But when it’s good, it’s just perfect. Long golden beaches, world-class surfing, a safe swimming beach and space for every kind of watersport under the sun – or walk the wildly beautiful coastline and swim in rock pools en route. For many, Cape St Francis is paradise, and may even have a small cult following. When it gets under your skin, there’s little chance of escape.
Hikers will enjoy the Irma Booysen Flora Reserve which is an area of magnificent coastal fynbos or take a walk along the wide sandy beach between Seal Point and Cape St Francis or Shark Point and see ancient shell middens. An amble along the Wild Side, or Rocky Coast Farm, is again a completely different perspective of the area – it’s unspoiled and magical. The fisherman’s path here hugs the coastline for miles and the scenery of high rocks and the deep Indian Ocean is evocative. Along the entire coastline of Cape St Francis, birdlife is also prolific with terns and Cape gannet diving for fish; gulls, cormorants and oystercatchers in abundance. Offshore, frolicking southern right whales are plentiful in winter and huge schools of dolphins surf the waves throughout the year.
Legend has it that Cape St Francis has the longest wave in the world and the bay has been a surfing hot spot since the days of longboards. In ideal weather conditions, a single wave can span the entire width of the bay. Not surprising then that Cape St Francis acquired international surfing acclaim after featuring in the movie Endless Summer. But the cult status of Cape St Francis amongst surfers is as old as the waves. They fondly call this spot ‘Seals’.
Gloria de Jager knows Cape St Francis better than most. She first visited here as a schoolgirl in 1959 and she still lives there. “I love the feeling of freedom and calmness here,” she says, “it’s where I truly feel at home.” Gloria knows the South African coastline intimately. Married to a lighthouse keeper, Gloria and her husband Andries have lived at many breathtaking places where there are lighthouses, but it’s Cape St Francis they fell in love with. Gloria says it’s just completely different from anywhere else.
“When we were first stationed at the lighthouse in 1975, we were the only people to have electric lights, thanks to the generators that ran the lighthouse,” says Gloria. “Nobody else had electricity until the mid-eighties, because we were off the grid. The roads were all dirt and it was a rough ride to get to Cape St Francis. There was nothing much here except the lighthouse, but we loved it.”
As the lighthouse keeper there in the late fifties, Andries remembers ox wagons travelling along the beach transporting the diesel to run the lighthouse engines, and horse-drawn carts bringing provisions to the three lighthouse keepers who lived at Cape St Francis. It was extremely remote then, the lighthouse was manual and the lightkeepers worked in shifts around the clock to keep it all going.
Today, Seal Point lighthouse at Cape St Francis is fully automated. “Yes it’s changed a lot,” admits Gloria, “it’s transformed from a retirement village to a working village, with lots of young people who want to live a more authentic life. Of course, it’s busier too and there are many houses now, but for me, the feeling is still the same. I never want to live anywhere else.”