Six hundred and fifty shipwrecks lie off the Cape of Good Hope. I prayed that we would not make it six hundred and fifty-one.
I had already read enough to be good and scared—I knew about the oil tankers and cargo vessels, the clipper ships and iron-hulled battleships of old and not-so-old. Many large and seaworthy ships have met an ungracious end on Africa’s southwestern point—the one with such an optimistic name.
Almost absurdly, we were launching our skinny little kayak into these very same waters, pushing the pencil-thin fiberglass boat into the heaving surf. Each new wave began as a milky green-turquoise sheet that swept towards us in whoosh, rolling high, then collapsing with a crash onto the soft white beach at Olifantsbos.
The first wave stung my toes with cold; the second wave swallowed me whole, submersing me up to the waist in numbing water.
“10 degrees Celsius,” said Lewis with great certainty. I did not question my kayak’s captain. The man knows water temperature like a dog knows its owner. Lewis Pugh has swum incredible distances in some of the harshest conditions on Earth (not to mention every ocean). On his long list of amazing swims? The North Pole, where he swam a full kilometer in water that was –1.7° C (29° F), wearing only a Speedo and some goggles.
If Lewis said it was 10° C (50° F), than it probably was. I did not doubt him, but if my legs were not paralyzed from the cold, I probably would have walked right out of the ocean and marched back up onto the bright sun-warmed beach. Instead, I swung my legs into the boat and began paddling furiously against the rising swell.
My captain entered the sea with purpose and I followed his lead—left-right, left-right. I dipped the double-blade into the perfect water, all the while our fragile boat bobbed on the sea like a wobbly grain of rice. With each new wave, I expected us to capsize, dreading the possibility of swimming back to shore. These were not leisurely waters.
In 1488, Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Dias sailed around this point without even knowing it. The man was headed to India, but after more than seven months at sea, his impatient crew revolted and he was forced to turn back. It was only on his return that he “discovered” South Africa’s Cape which he aptly named “Cabo das Tormentas”—the Cape of Storms.
A steady southeasterly wind blows across the Cape constantly, some days stronger than others. It is the same wind that rocked me through my final stretch of the South Atlantic and the same wind which has broken up ships on the rocky shoals that necklace this southwestern point of the great Africa continent.
But today was different—today was perfect. There was not a cloud around and the sea seemed almost lazy: flat, shiny, barely breathing. As our kayak made out to sea, Lewis reminded me that these were perfect conditions, almost unprecedented. I wanted to believe him—the ocean surface was calm, the water remarkably clear. Gazing down, I could see the sandy sea bottom twenty feet below us, rippled with cheerful sunlight, and showing off a bright clearness that no backyard swimming pool will ever achieve.
The perfect visibility disappointed me greatly. It was the first time I did not want to be able to stare into the ocean. I was petrified about what I would see.
Lewis had warned me back on the beach, “When we encounter a great white shark, don’t panic. If we capsize, just stick to the boat. We’ll right her quickly and then climb back in. And if the sharks get too close, just whack it on the nose with you paddle. That should send them away.”
Lewis’s last-minute shark brief was not a dramatic overture—he offered me the truth like a plucky British sea captain, with the nonchalance of a man who has served in the SAS—the elite British special service (like our Navy Seals). Lewis was not trying to frighten me—he only wanted me (his one-man crew) to be ready for any unfortunate scenario.
But I was frightened, regardless. No matter that I have encountered sharks around the world—typically I am wearing dive gear and the sharks are very small and timid. The waters we were kayaking in are particularly notorious, home to hundreds of very big, very dental great white sharks. It wasn’t a case of, “there might be sharks here.” They are there, most definitely. I just prayed not to see any of them while I was out on the sea, straddling a fiberglass hangnail of a boat.
Unlike the crew of Bartholomew Dias, I had no intention of revolting against my captain, the great Lewis Pugh. I knew that my life depended on his strength and general knowledge of the sea. We kept paddling, turning south and following the coast at a safe distance.
We chatted like new friends at a bridge party, swapping story for story. As I struggled to keep time, Lewis paddled in front. I stared at his head from behind, focusing on the salty drops of sea that shone in his hair and doing everything in my power not to think about great white sharks.
But then we entered a kelp forest, popping and sighing with the wavy sea plants that move with the sea. Suddenly, every piece of kelp looked like a shark fin, every splash of wave hinted at something large and alive in the water. As we paddled through the beautiful canopy of kelp, my mind saw a hundred shark fins all circling around our tiny craft.
“How do you swim in these waters?” I asked him. I was having a hard enough time simply kayaking without imagining a fishy beast appearing beneath us. Lewis did not need to imagine anything because it’s already happened to him. Once when he was swimming around the Cape of Good Hope (with another group of swimmers), a sizable great white shark swam up right beneath them. He could see it with his goggles, but he kept on swimming. The shark soon sped away.
Lewis tapped his head with one finger. “It’s all in your mind,” he answered. “If I let my mind get into that space of doubt and fear, than it’s already over.” Basically, don’t think about sharks, he said. Know that they are there, even swimming beneath you, but keep your mind focused on the goal.
So just what is his goal? This man who swims impossible distances in deathly cold waters, who dives into frigid seas filled with polar bears, leopard seals and great whites—why?
“Because it’s so important,” Lewis confides. His cause is simple: the Earth and the Earth’s water. Lewis is an active environmental campaigner, who uses his endurance swimming to highlight the dire plight of the planet.
“I want to be a voice for water,” he adds, while we pushed across the water. Smaller waves now appeared, rocking us even more than before. I tried to apply this man’s advice: Don’t focus on fear, focus on hope.
My only hope was to get back to shore alive. I was not looking for a medal or a hero’s welcome. I only wanted to make it.
Bartholomew Dias first made it around the point in 1488. Twelve years later, he returned to the Cape in hopes of actually making it to India. This time, he encountered a huge storm that sunk his ship. Bartholomew Dias drowned in a storm off the Cape he had personally named the Cape of Storms. It was the king of Portugal who changed the name to Cape of Good Hope—a kind of cartographic PR slogan describing the lucrative route to India.
Following Dias, all the early explorers rounded the Cape of Good Hope: Vasco de Gama, Captain Cook, Sir Francis Drake. For centuries, the Cape has marked the halfway point between home and abroad, here and there, the known world versus the unknown. When it comes to ships, the whole world intersects at this rock in the sea: Asia meets Europe, Africa meets Asia.
As a traveler, my journey in a kayak was only a symbolic tribute to the original explorers—a mere 10 kilometers instead of 10,000, but my aim was the same: to round the point and get to the other side.
I watched the Cape of Good Hope from our kayak—the shelves of rock and the perky promontory that sticks out of the sea, a rather meek mountain tribute to the huge significance of this dot on the map.
There it is, I thought: the Cape of Good Hope—and I did in fact feel hopeful. Arriving at the Cape meant that we were nearly halfway there. Like the sailors of long ago, we could rest assured that we’d made it this far and now the odds were in our favor.
But nothing is what it seems down in this part of the world. The Cape of Good Hope is not the southernmost point in Africa, nor is it a singular feature. The peninsula is actually split into two different capes—the Cape of Good Hope (on the west side) and Cape Point (to the South). In between the two outcroppings lies a closed-in stretch of pristine sand known as Dias Beach.
“I almost drowned there once,” Lewis told me, remembering one of his swims around the Cape when he intended to head into shore and got caught up in a spin cycle of surf.
Nearly everything that Lewis does in the water is a near-death experience. Most people would fall into irreversible hypothermia in the places he swims, but not Lewis. His body temperature always recovers—he always makes it, though he accepts that he is not invincible. If anything, Lewis knows everything that can go wrong in the ocean, and his work is to fight against all that is wrong with the ocean.
But even with Lewis by my side, I had no desire to swim around Cape Point. I only wanted to paddle upright. There were too many rocks—too many waves. The sea began to jump a little.
“You get two conflicting currents here—both oceans meeting and swirling together, so the water’s a bit strange,” Lewis explained, not panicking. We were at least one full kilometer from shore and our kayak was wobbling like a child in a chair. Lewis beat the sea back with his paddle—every wave that wished to throw us over, Lewis counter-splashed. I tried to follow his rhythm and suddenly our conversation grew very quiet. Suddenly we were sailors, negotiating with the sea, one wave at a time. Splish. Splash.
The two sides of the Cape are like two different countries with two very different color schemes. We had left the sunny west coast with its Mediterranean blues and had paddled into the unsettled seas at the Point before finally turning into the subdued grey-blue waters around the Point. After more than an hour of pushing against it, the current was on our side, the eternal southeasterly pushing us back into calmer, flatter waters.
False Bay opened up before us, with its promise of arrival, a separate world of water surrounded by shark-tooth mountains. I was still trying not to think about sharks, but this very bay reminded me of a shark’s open jaws, ringed with mountainous teeth.
We paddled on, now in a straight line towards a friendly beach. We’d only been at sea a mere two hours, but the weather was already changing. Back on shore, triumphant, I looked back towards the point we had paddled round—the waves were bigger now, a tad angrier, more Cape of Storms than a cape of hope.
Lewis insisted we go for a victory swim, “This water’s warm!” he cried. “At least 14 degrees Celsius.” But 57° F is not warm water. At Buffels Bay, I fell into the waves behind Lewis and went into shock. I did a few strokes and watched Lewis swim far in front of me. He was happy as a seal, gliding in cold, cold water, a traveler that’s arrived at his destination.
Over and over again, travel teaches me not to be afraid of the world. Every day there is so much to fear, but each time I launch myself out into the world, I am acting on the great hope of travel: that we will make it, that the adventure will be memorable, that good weather will follow bad.
In a kayak on the sea, less than an hour outside of Cape Town, Lewis Pugh taught me not to be afraid. Everywhere in world is filled with something like a Great White Shark, but to worry too much about the unseen realities only cripples us and prevents us from getting the important things done.
No. Instead, we must travel in hope, like Bartholomew Dias did so long ago and like Lewis does with his hands and feet in the sea.
This will be my memory of the Cape—how I started with a real fear of tipping our kayak amongst very large sharks, but how we rounded the beautiful cape with the force of our own hands, pushing ourselves to the other side, hoping for the best and in the end, making it.
As travelers, that is all we can ask for—to make it safely to the other side. That is my constant prayer on every plane and train and boat. And it’s how I hope to live my life, always—with good hope.