There’s something hugely romantic about lighthouses. Think ghostly lights shining through the swirling mist, brave men in small boats pitting themselves against raging seas, and lonely outposts with only the wind and gulls for company.
If you visit Agulhas lighthouse today, it’s hard to picture what things were like back in 1848 when it was built from locally quarried limestone at a cost of just £25 000.
Back then there was nothing else here, whereas today it’s on the edge of the thriving little settlements of Struisbaai and L’Agulhas. Back then, the fuel used for the lamp was made from sheep-tail fat, later replaced by an oil burner; today there’s an electric light that’s more than 2 600 times brighter than the original lamp.
One thing that obviously hasn’t changed is the intriguing design, with three towers instead of the usual one. That’s because it was modelled on the ancient Pharos of Alexandria in Egypt – one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
We visit the small museum inside the lighthouse and discover that construction on that ancient Alexandrian wonder started in 261BC and took 19 years to complete. Wood fires in the 140-metre tower produced a warning light at night and a smoke signal during the day. The fires were maintained for a remarkable 1500 years – until a spoilsport earthquake destroyed the building in 1258.
Agulhas is the second-oldest working lighthouse in South Africa (after Mouille Point in Cape Town) and is undergoing some much-needed restoration. One of these days, there’ll even be a new tourism office and heritage centre in the lighthouse precinct, but that’s probably still a year or two away.
There are 71 steps to the top and the brochures boast about the stunning views from up there. But when we walk up, the last layer – where the light is – is locked and inaccessible and we can’t see much of anything through small holes that are the only ‘outlook’ we can find.
That disappointment aside, once we get into the maritime spirit at the lighthouse, we decide we have to find out more about the shipwrecks that litter this coastline. And there’s no better place to do that than at the Shipwreck Museum in nearby Bredasdorp. So that’s where I’ll be for my next blog post…
More about the area
Agulhas National Park: everything you need to know
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