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Desert Foxes and
This is the greatest legend of the sea.
And is the story of a seaman condemned for his misdeeds to sail
forever round the Cape, never reaching harbour.
Van der Decken is the name of the unfortunate seaman in the Dutch
story, although van Straaten is another candidate ... and in the
German version the name is von Falkenberg.
All three Captains are said to have cast dice with the devil for
their souls ...
Walter Scott examined this legend and traced it to a ship in 1680,
laden with bullion, on which a murder had been committed or in
which plague had broken out.
The ship sailed on and on, only to find that each port, learning of
its history, was closed to it ...
Another story suggests that it was hit by a sudden tropical gale
which tore the sails to shreds and wrecked the rudder and the ship
was unable to make headway round the Cape.
The most surprising thing about the Flying Dutchman is that he was
seen in the year 1881, well of his usual beat, and vouched for by
the late King George V.
The spectre is well described in The Cruise of Her Majesty's Ship
Bacchante, written by George V and his brother, Prince Albert
Victor (afterward the Duke of Clarence), who were midshipmen at the
Since then there have been countless sightings of the phantom ship,
the last being in 1942 when four people sitting on their balcony in
Mouille Point, Cape Town, saw the ghostly East-Indiaman sail into
Table Bay and disappear behind Robben Island.
Wagner was inspired by the story to write his
Der Fliegende Hollander.
the Mid-Day Sun
Nobody believed the Phoenicians when they claimed ... 2000 years
before the Portuguese discovered West Africa ... that they sailed
right round the Dark Continent from Suez to Gibraltar.
They were laughed to scorn when they insisted that as they had
rounded the southern tip, the midday sun had been to the north of
Every man in the ancient world knew that the sun was always in the
sky's southern half ... and so it is ... in the northern
Even the Greek historian, Herodotus, who reported their story 150
years later, dismissed the tale as a hoax.
Yet the Phoenician adventurers did in fact make the journey they
claimed. And what proves it to modern scholars is the very detail
that convinced the ancient world they were telling a pack of lies
... the report of the sun on their right at midday as they sailed
west round the Cape of Good Hope.
Not even the exploring Phoenicians could have guessed that what was
always true of the sun's position in the temperate northern waters
of the Mediterranean was never true south of the Tropic of
The voyage itself was planned by an Egyptian pharaoh, Necho, around
600BC. He became intrigued by the possibility of sailing from
Egypt's east coast on the Red Sea of Alexandria on its north
Rather than build a canal across the desert (as they did later),
Necho thought it would be a fairly simple journey to follow
Africa's southern coast round to Morocco.
Because his own people were not great seafarers, he hired crews of
Phoenicians together with a small flotilla of their own 50-oared
sailing ships; and ordered them to sail down the Red Sea round
Africa to the Pillars of Hercules, now knows as the Straits of
The Phoenicians were happy enough to be hired, as they were anxious
to find a new route to their eastern markets, and thus avoiding
waters controlled by their Greek rivals.
But neither they, nor Necho had any idea of the shape or the vast
size of the continent that lay on their route.
According to modern reconstructions of their voyage, the
Phoenicians set off in November ... rowing to the eastern tip of
Africa at Cape Gardafui before turning south-west with the monsoon
For month after month, they pushed on down the coast ... further
than anyone before them ... constantly expecting the coastline to
sweep round to the west and north and point the way home. But to
their dismay it did not.
Instead, they noticed anxiously that the sun was slipping down the
sky to their north ... they thought that their compass must be
wrong ... and then the pole star vanished altogether ...
The explorers were ready to give up when finally, they coast swung
They ploughed slowly along the 500 mile tip of the continent until,
in May of the year after they set out, they rounded the Cape of
Good Hope where the coast began to drop away to the north.
The relieved crews stopped to plant some of the wheat they had
taken with them. And in the December they sailed homewards with the
harvest ... each day the sun climbed higher and higher in the
It took them at least ten more gruelling months to fight their way
round Africa's huge north-west bulge, and another long stopover
somewhere in Morocco to restock their food supply, before they
sighted the familiar Straights of Gibraltar.
More than two years and 16,000 miles after they cast off in the Red
Sea, the Phoenicians sailed triumphantly up the Mediterranean to
Egypt ... and to 2000 years of ridicule.
Almost 4000 years ago, the ancient Egyptians built waterways across
the Isthmus of Suez, the neck of land 100 miles wide which joins
Western Asia and Europe from Egypt. But they fell into disuse and
were filled in AD775 after an Arab invasion.
Napoleon discovered the remains and dreamt of improving trade
routes by linking the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.
It was in 1859, due to the genius of a French diplomat and
politician, Ferdinand de Lesseps, that work started on a new
waterway, who had dreamt of a canal since his youth. And for 10
years he dedicated his time and efforts supervising the excavation
of 97 million cubic yards of earth.
Working from north to south, de Lesseps' scheme involved carving a
24 foot deep channel across the land, connecting up lakes enroute.
The Great and Little Bitter Lakes in the south were reconnected
with the Red Sea and flooded with sea water. The canal joined these
with Lake Timsah.
In the beginning the canal was dug out by workmen by hand and at
the height of the operation an estimated 80,000 fellaheen
(peasants) were employed, each being paid up to three piastres
(about 3 modern pence) per day.
But from 1863 until 1869 the labour force was withdrawn in favour
of mechanical dredgers and digging equipment.
The total length of the canal is 103 miles, 21 of them through the
lakes. It is 500 ft wide at the top, sloping to 196 ft at the
bottom, and the total cost of the project was an estimated £20
This was more than twice the original estimate but a tiny sum
compared with the value of the canal to world trade.
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