Following Dias

All across Africa I was aware others had been there before me. This became increasingly apparent as I reached southern Africa – Angola, Namibia and South Africa. Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias reached Tombua, in the far south of modern day Angola in 1487. He had made his way along the Africa coast stopping off at Elmina, Ghana before Angola, which is more than I could do, forced to rush through Ghana in under 48 hours.

Dias’ and my route

Angola and the northern reaches of Namibia had already been visited by explorers of Europe’s Age of Discovery; Diogo Cao having landed at Cape Cross in Namibia five years before. Indeed, Cao left a navigational aid, a padrão. The slim column of Lisbon limestone topped with a cross is carved with the words: “the most excellent and serene king Dom John II of Portugal ordered this land to be discovered and this padrão to be placed by Diogo Cao”.

From Cape Cross Dias was entering the true unknown. I reached Walvis Bay, Namibia in February 2011, 523 years after Dias was the first European to do so. While he approached by sea in his 3 tiny caravels, I approached overland. I took a combi minibus from Swakopmund along the wild desert coast, dunes rolling inland to echo the Atlantic’s waves on the opposite side of the road. The outskirts of Walvis Bay host a monument to Dias’ visit: sail-like triangles of granite rise out of the sandy earth carved with images of Dias’ ships.


Dias monument, Walvis Bay


Continuing south, the coast as much his guide as it was mine, Dias’ men became the first Europeans to round the Cape of Good Hope, and its less famous more southerly neighbour Cape Point. Today it remains a blustery yet beautiful place, the winds and waters coming straight from Antarctica.


Cape Point, South Africa


Dias was reaching his journey’s end. For me it marked the halfway point, after six months of coastal travel. Dias ended his exploration, with his crew refusing to go any further, in Kwaaihoek on 14th March 1488, where he positioned the last of his padrãos before returning to Portugal. Even so, Dias was perhaps the Portuguese explorer who knew Africa best. It was his exploration that led to the opening of a sea route to India, the colonisation of Africa by European powers, and my own circumnavigation of Africa.

An more in-depth article discussing the voyages of Cao, Dias, and da Gama can be viewed here
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