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October 06, 2009

New map traces Charles Darwin’s Cape Town visit

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Mist rolling over Lion’s Head, photo courtesy Shaen Adey

“This is a pretty and singular town; it lies at the foot of an enormous wall (the Table Mountain), which reaches to the clouds, and makes a most imposing barrier – Cape Town is a great inn, on the great highway to the east; an extraordinary number of houses are occupied as boarding houses, in one of which I am now settled…”

So wrote one of the world’s most important natural scientists, Charles Darwin, in 1836 to his sister Catherine of his visit to Cape Town.

He continues to write the next morning that he “walked to a neighbouring hill to look at the town.  It is laid out with the rectangular precision of a Spanish town city. In several trifling particulars the town has a foreign air; but daily it is becoming more English.”

Darwin visited the Cape between May 31 and June 18, 1836 aboard the HMS Beagle, on a homeward voyage from South America to England. His observations on the Beagle’s five-year journey contributed towards the ideas that would be published in 1859 in The Origin of the Species, his book about natural selection.

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Photo courtesy Shaen Adey

His journey in the Cape has now been chronicled in The Darwin Trail map, meticulously researched and documented by the Africa Genome Education Institute and published by A&C Maps.  The exquisitely designed map also suggests attractions that Darwin might visit if he were travelling today. 

The launch of the map was broadcast live to learners at 10 schools, using the Interactive Telematic Technology system via satellite. 

Speakers at the launch told the tale of the 27-year-old Darwin’s exploration of the Cape, including Simon’s Town, Wynberg, Claremont, Observatory, Cape Town, Sea Point, Paarl, Franschhoek, Houwhoek and Sir Lowry’s Pass. 

What few people realise is that Darwin at the time considered himself a geologist, not a biologist, yet recorded sightings of animals like elephant, rhinoceros, giraffe, the now extinct kwagga, and hippopotamus during his stay – all within the boundaries of the Cape.  He travelled with a Khoi groom, dressed in top hat and tails, as an early version of an expert “tour guide”.

Although much has changed since Darwin’s visit in 1836, Cape Town is still a city that credits its beguiling mix of culture, language, architecture and first-rate vineyards to a history of colonialism and offers visitors an abundance of natural beauty

Visitors and Capetonians can visit a Cape Town Tourism Visitor Information Centre to collect a copy of The Darwin Trail map and retrace the steps of this great scientist.

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