What (and Where) Are the Great Capes?

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The Great Capes are the three famous headlands in the Southern Hemisphere. Each one has earned a reputation for challenging sailors with dangerous currents and rough weather, leading to numerous shipwrecks over the years. Despite such hazardous conditions, the Great Capes are still beautiful places to visit — safely. These are the three Great Capes (plus one honorable mention), which sit along the southernmost points of Africa and Australia. Here’s everything you should know about them.

What Is a Cape?

Beautiful view of the Japanese Sea in Primorskiy kray, Russia.
Credit: Bastrik/ Shutterstock

A cape is a headland that juts out from the mainland into the open ocean and breaks the normal pattern of the landscape. Capes are formed in a number of different ways. They can be shaped by glaciers, volcanoes, tides, ocean currents, and changes in sea level. Their isolated position leaves them vulnerable to erosion, particularly from tidal movements, and they often have shorter lifespans than other natural features. For centuries, sailors have used capes as navigational landmarks because they are typically the first piece of land that can be spotted from sea.

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

View of the Cape of Good Hope on the Cape peninsula, near Cape Town, South Africa.
Credit: JohnnyGreig/ iStock

European explorers have used the southwesternmost point in South Africa to navigate for centuries. The first sailor to identify the cape was Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias in 1488. He spotted the headland on his return trip to Portugal after reaching the southern tip of Africa. Dias allegedly named the landmass “Cape of Storms” because of the stormy weather and strong currents he experienced there. The cape’s discovery meant that India could be reached by sea from Europe, so many claim that King James II opted for a more positive name, ultimately re-christening it the Cape of Good Hope.

The Cape of Good Hope became a popular stopover point for Europeans making the long journey to the eastern colonies. Sailors originally bartered with the local Khoikhoi people for provisions, but that changed in 1652, when Jan Van Reibeeck of the Dutch East Indies Company established a re-supply center on the Cape, paving the way for Dutch colonization. The cape and surrounding area grew into a booming trade center, eventually morphing into the metropolis known as Cape Town. It has also become a legend over time; some say the sailors of the Flying Dutchman, who lost their lives in an attempt to round the stormy cape, still haunt the area.

Today, the Cape of Good Hope and the entire Cape Peninsula are part of Table Mountain National Park. The region is also classified as a UNESCO-protected site to preserve its biodiversity, particularly the native fynbos vegetation. Visitors shouldn’t miss the Cape of Good Hope Trail, which leads along Cape Point to the Flying Dutchman Funicular. From there, hikers can continue down the steep path that leads to Cape Point or enjoy a scenic train ride.

Cape Agulhas, South Africa

A look at the South African coastline near Cape Agulhas.
Credit: stuz01/ iStock

Although smaller and less historically significant than the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Agulhas earns a mention as the southernmost point on the African continent (a title often mistakenly given to the Cape of Good Hope). This landmark cape is roughly 160 miles from the Cape Peninsula and is marked with an iconic, red-and-white lighthouse, established in 1849. Visitors can walk to the lighthouse and gaze out on the rocky coastline to the point where the Indian Ocean and Atlantic Ocean meet.

Sailors have always been wary of this cape due to notoriously rough seas and rogue waves reaching heights up to 100 feet. These conditions have tragically caused many wrecks off Cape Agulhas, one of which can be seen in the nearby Agulhas National Park. In fact, the word "agulhas" means “needles” in Portuguese, which could be a reference to the razor-sharp rocks and reefs that have doomed many ships. Despite its treacherous waters, the area is particularly scenic; those who visit the cape safely will be in awe of its natural beauty. Visitors who spend time here can explore the two seaside villages of L’Agulhas and Struisbaai, in addition to many beautiful beaches.

Cape of Leeuwin, Australia

An aerial view of the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse around the Margaret River.
Credit: Matt Deakin/ Shutterstock

Australia’s southwesternmost point sits 200 miles from the city of Perth, marking the spot where the Southern Ocean and Indian Ocean meet. In 1801, English navigator Matthew Flinders named Cape Leeuwin in honor of the namesake Dutch ship that charted the coastline in 1622. The Leeuwin (meaning “Lioness”) was the fifth Dutch ship to gaze upon Australia’s coast, but it was the first vessel to reach the continent’s southernmost point. A plaque commemorating the voyage and the surrounding mainland known as Leeuwin’s Land stands in honor of the Dutch explorers.

Sir John Forrest, Australia's first prime minister, commissioned the Leeuwin Lighthouse, completed in 1896. Today, visitors can climb the 176 steps for vistas over Australia’s expansive coast (and the chance to spot whales and dolphins), learn more about the cape’s maritime history, and refuel with coffee and scones in the Leeuwin Lighthouse Café.

Cape Horn, Chile

The impressive cliffs of Cape Horn, the headland of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago in Chile.
Credit: Marco Ramerini/ iStock

Each Great Cape is treacherous in its own right, but Cape Horn is commonly known as the most dangerous ship passage in the world. Feared and respected by mariners for centuries, Cape Horn is infamous for wind, waves, icebergs, and extreme currents. The cold climate and unforgiving environment has sunk over 800 ships and claimed the lives of roughly 10,000 sailors.

Cape Horn sits isolated on Islas Hornos (Hornos Island) in Chile, the last in a long smattering of islands that comprise the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. There’s some debate as to whether it was English explorer Sir Francis Drake or Spanish sailor Francisco de Hoces who first discovered Cape Horn accidentally; however, it was Willem Schouten, the Dutch captain of the Eendracht, who is credited with the first successful journey to the cape in 1616 on a mission to establish a new trade route to the Pacific.

The ship and its crew were the first to intentionally round the cape, and subsequently named it Kap Hoorn after Schouten’s hometown. The Drake Passage (the channel between Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands), however, was named after the Englishman (or the Spaniard, depending on who you ask). Adventurous travelers can visit Cape Horn by taking a cruise from Ushuaia, Argentina’s southernmost city, famously referred to as the “End of the World.”

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