British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Colin Everard
Journeying to Cape Guardafui
Locust Migration
Mr Nicholl's very interesting, and delightfully written, article entitled Cape Guardafuitook me back to the late fifties when I undertook two journeys by land and sea to Cape Guardafui. At that time I worked for the East Africa High Commission (based in Nairobi) and one of its farflung departments was called the Desert Locust Control Organization. In the fifties we were much preoccupied not only with controlling the invading swarms of desert locusts and their progeny; we also spent much effort in trying to understand the migratory patterns of the vast invading swarms. It was in the latter connection that I made my journeys to Cape Guardafui.

I described the first journey in my book The Guardian Angel*. As an aside, in ancient times, the general area was regularly visited by the Egyptians for the purpose of collecting myrrh; the Egyptians called the area The Land of Punt. In Roman times, the area was called Promontorium Aromata. The name Guardafui stems from the name of the tribe of the area; the tribesmen are called Guardaf. The following extracts are taken from the text of The Guardian Angel.

Journeying to Cape Guardafui
Locust Swarm
As I settled into my work in Mogadishu, I became intrigued concerning the locust situation in the north-eastern part of Somalia. I therefore planned a journey to the tip of the Horn of Africa, namely Cape Guardafui.

After a three day journey, we halted near the top of the mountainous escarpment at a small village called El Gal. The villagers told us (I spoke fluent Somali) that although the Italian authorities were beginning to survey the area with the intention of constructing a road, there was no road linking El Gal with the coast. It would be necessary for us to hire burden camels. It was explained that although camels were not usually used on mountainous tracks, the local people had bred a smaller type of burden camel; these animals would be quite capable of walking through the mountains to a coastal fishing village called Durbo.

We set off in the late afternoon, with two camels carrying our belongings and water. After descending into a valley in the late evening we made a small camp; we carried on at 5 am the following morning. Once in Durbo I made contact with a Somali District Officer, who kindly made his small cross-country vehicle available to me, stating that I could drive the vehicle with my helpers to Alula and decide at Alula how I should reach Cape Guardafui.

Journeying to Cape Guardafui
Myrrh Trees
At some points on the littoral, we found ourselves driving close to low cliffs, which narrowed our passage between the sea and the higher ground. The surface of parts of the cliffs had been cracked and sometimes broken by myrrh trees, whose bulbous roots had somehow taken firm hold. My mind went back to a visit to the Valley of the Kings in Upper Egypt and a wonderful wall painting (in the palace of Queen Hatchepsut), which depicted myrrh being collected in about 1500 BC from the Land of Punt, which was later to be called Somaliland. The aromatic tree was an important ingredient for scent.

Journeying to Cape Guardafui
Alula is a small town which is the administrative centre for the tip of the Horn of Africa. I was told that it would be difficult to reach Cape Guardafui, because after a few hours the track would come to an end at the foot of some cliffs which extended into the sea. We drove eastwards towards Cape Guardafui and reached the end of the track at Bereda just before nightfall. There we asked the villagers how we should reach Cape Guardafui. They advised us that the best way would be to travel by canoe during the night to Olloch, from where one could walk to Cape Guardafui. At 10 pm I was invited to sit in a canoe and I enquired whether I should paddle or assist in any other way. The answer was immediate,

"You are a tall man and skill is necessary to paddle the canoe in the sea so that it will not capsize. The sea is shark-infested. The best thing for us would be if you could lie on the bottom of the canoe and remain as still as possible!"

The next eight hours proved to be the most comfortable part of the journey. The canoe made its slow progress in a smooth and stable way, following the shoreline about two hundred yards out to sea. The moon was clear and the air was pleasantly warm; with the gentle lapping of the sea against the sides of the canoe, the experience was positively refreshing.

At 6 am the following morning we reached Olloch and the canoe was beached some way from the shore as the water was shallow. I left the canoe with the helpers and waded through the surf towards the village which had been established on a sandy slope just above the sea. As we walked out of the sea, the villagers streamed towards us. Clearly, the villagers were surprised to see us and some of them touched my skin; most of these individuals had never before seen white skin and were clearly intrigued by the difference between the colour of their skin pigmentation and my own.

Cape Guardafui
Cape Guardafui
At 8 am we began the walk towards Cape Guardafui. The first part of the walk remains unforgettably imprinted in my mind. It was extremely hot and the soft sand burnt our feet as we tried to force our way upwards. The first part of the journey was strenuous and it seemed to last an eternity; as we took each step forward, the soft sand dragged us back. Eventually, the trying first stage of our walk was left behind and we continued for a few hours over a gently rising plain until, at last, the lighthouse at Cape Guardafui came into view.

The lighthouse was maintained and operated by Alfredo Polidari. Although he spoke no English and my knowledge of Italian was superficial, somehow over the next day and a half we managed to communicate effectively. Alfredo had looked after the lighthouse for two years and was proud of his ability to maintain and operate it; he gave me a detailed guided tour of the lighthouse complex. All was immaculate and clean; the metal parts of the equipment were highly polished, which added lustre to the general appearance.

Cape Guardafui
Cape Guardafui Lighthouse
Evidently, Alfredo was a self-sufficient individual. He had lived on Cape Guardafui with three or four Somalis for two years. Although he was totally preoccupied with the maintenance and operation of the lighthouse, he seemed well-versed in current affairs and referred to the Suez Crisis, the German question and other events of the day with knowledge.

If someone has been virtually alone for a protracted period, when the person receives a visitor it is quite normal that the person begins to talk, sometimes uncontrollably. During my visits to various field officers, the tendency for them to talk continuously for long periods was much in evidence. As far as Alfredo was concerned, he showed no inclination to talk at great length; on the contrary, he was interested in the purpose of my visit, asking questions and listening to the answers with interest. Alfredo explained that he had recently accepted an offer of a short holiday in Mogadishu, but had cut it short; he had not enjoyed the noise on the streets and the general hubbub of the city! He also explained that he rarely received visitors. He had been visited a year previously; there had been two men, one of whom was a Catholic priest. Unfortunately, the priest had suffered a heart attack and had died. Alfredo then pointed towards the grave which he himself had dug about a hundred yards from the lighthouse.

After having spent two nights at the lighthouse and having obtained as much information as was possible about movements of locusts, I told my helpers that we should leave, returning the way we had come. Apart from the information I had received, we had walked over the general area and collected samples of many species of the vegetation and these were placed in a press; subsequently, they would be sent to the herbarium in Nairobi for further examination. It later transpired that at least one of the plants we had collected had become an addition to the recorded African plant species.

We returned to Durbo over the next two days, using the same route; the overnight canoe journey proved to be as pleasant as the earlier one. We reached the fishing village of Durbo, west of Alula, by about midday and the helpers suggested that we should return to our Land Rovers at El Gal that evening. I responded that it would be unpleasant to walk in the heat of the afternoon and felt that perhaps we could leave at about 3 pm; from this time, the temperature should progressively cool. We should be able to reach an altitude of about three thousand feet above sea level by nightfall; we could then walk the remaining part of the journey to El Gal the following morning.

Cape Guardafui
Journey to El Gal
At about 2 pm, we were making final preparations for the walk and the helpers were loading the camels. A man then began to talk to us and it transpired that he too would be walking to El Gal. We invited him to walk with us. He then explained that the camel track which we had used was a rather long route; he knew a much shorter route and offered to show us the way if we would like to use it. We were fatigued and the prospect of a shorter walk proved attractive. We therefore asked the camel driver to meet us with the camels near the top of the escarpment; by the time he arrived we would be waiting for him by the track.

At 3 pm the group of four of us (including our new-found guide) set off and, initially, we made good progress. After about an hour, the terrain became steep and rocky. Our guide explained that once we had reached the top of the ridge, it would be a steady walk to the track where we were to meet the camels. We laboured long and hard up the mountain and, after scrambling for two hours, we became extremely tired. Our guide had stopped his easy conversation and looked a little anxious. Shortly after we had carried on, one of my helpers collapsed with exhaustion. When I asked for the goatskin of water to help revive him, I found that the rest of the group had already drunk about two thirds of the available water. After a few minutes, the man slowly began to regain consciousness and we told him that we would try and half-carry him onwards with his arms on our shoulders. After another hour's hard scrambling (by this time no one spoke), we had reached what seemed to be the crown of the mountain; we then stopped to rest.

I noticed that the lips of the guide were quivering and I looked at him with concern. He then announced that he had missed his way and we had climbed a mountain which was too far to the west. In order to gain the ridge where we were supposed to meet the camels, we would have to descend into a valley and climb the side of the next mountain. At this juncture, the helper stared at me with piercingly deadly eyes. With a look of hate on his countenance he blurted out, "Shall we kill him?" For one ghastly fleeting second, I felt I could identify with his exasperation. Then I simply responded "No!" But I could understand his frightening emotion.

Not only had the guide misled us, but one of our group had collapsed with exhaustion and the remaining helper and myself were in a pitiful state of fatigue. I for one felt terribly alone on the mountain. The barren mountains were uninhabited. Although the sun would soon set, it was still hot. If we were soon to find that we were all in a state of collapse from exhaustion, would we be able to summon the strength to forge ahead the next day after an overnight rest on the mountain? Would we be prey to wild animals? How long could one maintain one's strength without water? We could not evade such questions and we did not know the answers. All we did know was that we had made a dreadful misjudgement; we had separated ourselves from our water!

I gathered myself and announced that we had no option; we must try and reach the ridge before the camels, otherwise the camels would pass and we would be without water. We scrambled down the mountain and into the valley. As we began to climb up the other side, I realised that dusk would descend within the next 45 minutes. We were beyond the point of goading one another to greater efforts; the only question was whether we could keep going at all.

The final part of the climb up the mountain entailed scrambling over some huge rocks. Fortunately, the man we had been dragging had now partially recovered and I tried to explain to him that if he could keep moving for another half hour, we would be on the ridge. When we reached the camel track on the ridge it was dark. We sank to the ground amongst the bushes in a semi-exhausted state. By now, the silent night air felt cool and I hoped that a breeze would bring more relief to our weary limbs. As a faint wafting of air filtered through my shorts, which were saturated with sweat, I began to feel more lively. I wondered about the whereabouts of the camels; were they in the area, or had they already passed?

Cape Guardafui
In terms of co-ordination, the planned separate movements of the camels and our group had turned out to have been a terrible mistake. In any case, within two minutes of our arrival on the track, we heard the unmistakable noise of wooden camel bells. Although we were exhausted, we managed to generate mild feelings of relief.

The next morning, fed and rested, we walked the remainder of the journey to El Gal. At lunchtime, we began the long drive back to Mogadishu. On our return to Mogadishu, a comprehensive report was prepared covering our expedition and a number of possibilities were highlighted which merited further exploration. In fact four years later, in 1961, I was to make another expedition to the area. Alfredo, the lighthouse keeper, was still enjoying his lonely work; in that remote region, in his friendly way, he asked me whether I happened to be 'passing again?' I asked him how many visitors he had received during the previous four years. He became thoughtful for a few moments; then he made his response,


British Colony Map
1968 Map of Horn of Africa
Colony Profiles
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 86: October 2003