The Cape Agulhas Lighthouse stands proudly near the quaint town of L’Agulhas in South Africa, holding within its walls a rich history of maritime navigation. Built in 1848, the Agulhas lighthouse plays a crucial role in navigating ships through treacherous conditions at the southernmost point of Africa, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. Its strategic position has helped guide sailors to steer clear of the infamous Agulhas Bank, notorious for its shallow depths, raging storms, and numerous shipwrecks.
At the very tip of Africa lies the Cape Agulhas Lighthouse, a guiding beacon of light with an intriguing past. This lighthouse, the third built in South Africa, remains one of the country’s oldest operational structures, surpassed only by the Green Point lighthouse in Cape Town. Situated along the southern perimeter of the Agulhas National Park, its radiant beam is overseen by the Transnet National Ports Authority.
Recognising the need to aid ships on the journey through the ‘Cape of Storms’, Colonel C.C. Michell, the Cape’s surveyor-general and civil engineer, requested the construction of a lighthouse in March 1837. However, it took several years for the Cape Legislative Council to raise the required funds. Construction of the Cape Agulhas Lighthouse finally began on April 1, 1847, and was completed in December 1848 The lighthouse was first lit on March 1, 1849.
Opened in 1994, the Cape Agulhas lighthouse museum is the only one of its kind in South Africa. With a rich history that spans over 175 years, the lighthouse museum celebrates the lighthouses’ origin, as well as L’Agulhas’s maritime history and fishing landmarks. Travellers and locals in Cape Agulhas and Struisbaai can visit the Agulhas Lighthouse Museum and climb the tower’s 71 stairs. The panoramic views from the top of the lighthouse are spectacular, offering visitors a glimpse into the Cape’s past with historic artefacts and memorabilia from 200 nearly 200 years ago.
Standing 27 metres tall, the lighthouse in Cape Agulhas is crowned by a circular tower, painted a striking red hue with prominent white bands. Attached to the keeper’s abode, which now houses the lighthouse museum, its architectural inspiration can be traced back to the once magnificent Lighthouse of Alexandria.
The light’s focal plane, positioned 31 meters above sea level, extending its range to 30 nautical miles (56 km; 35 mi) via an impressive 7.5 megacandela lantern. Best seen at night, the white flash emanates from its rotating optic every five seconds.
Records of the Agulhas lighthouse reveal that coal and sheep tail-fat originally powered the lantern, but the lighthouse has undergone several upgrades over the years. In 1905, an oil-burning lamp took the reins, later replaced in March 1910 by a first-order Fresnel lens. Progress continued in 1929 with the installation of a petroleum vapour burner. However, the dawn of electrification ushered in a new era, amplifying its operational capabilities with an electric bulb.
Today, the lighthouse stands as a testament to modern technology with its four-kilowatt rotating optic (first installed in 1936) that emits a characteristic white flash every 30 seconds, guiding vessels up to 30 nautical miles away.
In 2016, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) identified the Cape Agulhas Lighthouse as a prominent historic engineering project and International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
Cape Agulhas represents the spirit of exploration, as many historic voyages embarked from this point to discover new lands, transport exotic goods, and journey to the ‘new world’. The site has since become a popular tourist destination, drawing travellers excited to visit the southernmost tip of Africa and witness the true geographic point where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet.