For centuries mariners sought out the most daring of adventures – reaching the poles or sailing around the tips of continents. Man continues to challenge himself by trying to conquer the highest peaks or dive to the ultimate depths of the oceans. The southern tip of Africa pays homage to those who do or have pushed the boundaries.
One of the most challenging sea crossings has always been the Atlantic-Indian Ocean via Cape Agulhas. This cape is less well-known than Cape Point, but has a charm of its own. Here the hazardous winds became known as the legendary "Cape of Storms" and were responsible for wrecking many ships making their way to the East. It is here where the two oceans meet. The cold Benguela current of the Atlantic Ocean and the strong, warm Mozambique/ Aghulhas current of the Indian Ocean come together here to create a choppy sea. This force of nature has sculptured a dramatically rugged coastline.
It was along this coast that the Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Diaz first rounded the Cape in 1488. He gave the coastline its name of Cabo L’Agulhas and found that there was no magnetic inclination here. At the Cape of Needles, Magnetic and True North coincided, making navigation tricky and often led to disaster (more ships have been wrecked here than anywhere else along the South African coast).
As these treacherous seas took so many lives, it became a priority to save the ships from crashing into the rocks. So many traders and adventurers were rounding the Cape heading for Asia and the Far East in search of their fortunes.
The "Pharos of Alexandria", the first lighthouse of the world, inspired the Cape Agulhas Lighthouse which dominates this stretch of the coast. It is a striking structure that stands 89ft (27 metres) high, is elegant and proud. It is only the third lighthouse to be built in South Africa and the second-oldest still in operation after Green Point in Cape Town.
Funds to build the lighthouse were raised from India, the Philippines, St Helena and England. Along with funds from the government of the Cape Colony the money was pooled and construction was completed in December 1848. It cost almost $24,000 for the whole project, which was an enormous amount of money in the mid 1800s.
The light in the lighthouse was lit for the first time on 1st March 1849. It was fuelled using the tail-fat of sheep. Interestingly this fat comes from twenty five percent of the world’s sheep population. The sheep have fat or broad rumps and/or tails which help them adapt to extreme climatic conditions. Their tails were a source of fuel for cooking and warmth and are still considered a delicacy in some cultures. In Arabic, for example, the fat is called “allyah” and was used in ancient Persian and Arabic cooking. In the Hadith, historical Muslim religious text, sheep-tail fat was considered a cure for sciatica (lower back pain which shoots into the legs when the sciatic nerve is aggravated). But in this case the sheep fat was used to fuel the light for the lighthouse.
In 1906 the fuel was changed to white rose oil, which I am sure was not only effective, but no doubt smelled lovely too. In 1968 the lighthouse was taken out of service, declared a national monument in 1973. Today visitors have the opportunity to climb to the top and admire the marvels of the coastline.
Standing on the most southern tip of Africa, it is hard to believe that the continent stretches for over 4,500 miles northwards to the Mediterranean Sea. That in itself makes this a very special place!