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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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,