At land's end

At land's end

At land's end

For long, the old world believed that the earth was flat. Any ship that drifted to the ‘edge’ was liable to tumble into a deep fearful abyss.

To represent this horrendous thought, there is an illustration on the first edition of Thomas L Friedman’s book, The World is Flat, vividly depicting two multi-misted ships set on this fateful course.

In medieval times, and in the era of renewed interest in learning, intellectuals who should have known better gamely went along with the idea — the powerful Orthodox Church was the centre of the universe.

Everything, including the sun, revolved around it. That was it. No questions asked. So when Copernicus or the telescope-wielding Galileo Galilei hopped along with a different take, they were seriously in for some trouble.

On a recent trip to Europe, we talked about this school of thought that put the brakes on scientific reasoning. A few days earlier, we had stood at the tombs of Galileo at Santa Croce, Florence and the poet Luis Vaz de Camoes and explorer Vasco da Gama at the Jeronmios’ monastery, Lisbon. Now on a gorgeously sunny day, standing at Europe’s most westerly point, some 40 kms from Lisbon, we were back on the topic.


White seagulls and sea birds screeched, wheeled over the shimmering Atlantic ocean; below was the famed Pedra da Ursa or the Bear Stone; in the niches of the hill, birds had nests. Far down below to our right was a white foamy beach with joggers, sunbathers and frolicking children. And looking around, we saw a couple of daredevils scaling the slippery rocky slope. Every now and then, they exulted with raised fists. Someone from above was recording the hair-rising climb.

For sure, there are less easy ways to reach the summit — cars, buses, motorbikes, bicycles or even a long walk — but a climb on the rough side? “All you need is the right gear,” said the man who pulls it off umpteen times, the smiling videographer, Ramon Julian. “Rope, stoppers, slings, step-aider, pulley wheel and it’s a breeze. All you need is a sense of adventure!” he adds.

“Thanks, I’ll remember the tip”, I said reflecting on the bravado left after negotiating the steep winding coastal road and jostling for space with speeding Yamaha Fazer 600s and other souped-up monster bikes. “I’ll pass on the rock-climb option,” I said thinking of the meanies in my life — delivery boy who chucks our daily read unerringly into puddles on the drive-way or the sports TV guys interjecting commercials at the very moment when a header is making a goal!

Down the cliff, waves kept slamming the rocks, stirring up gigantic foam and splashes in turn, tenderly or ferociously but always, spectacularly. Our hostess, the gracious Lata Reddy, the Indian Ambassador to Portugal at that time, said “Cabo da Roca is peaceful. Despite the fierce ocean, it is nature’s geography at its best!”

“New York is directly across the ocean,” she explained. “We know that now. But for ancient Romans who came this way, there was no such thing as NYC or the New World. For them, Cabo was Land’s End.  Full stop,” she added. To reach this point, we had motored from the Capital, past stretches of lush wilderness and valleys speckled with farmhouses and cottages, and sheets of pines climbing steep hills. Crossing Sintra, we thought of the young Lord Byron who called the place, ‘glorious Eden’ and the ‘prettiest village in Europe’.

The picturesque views have changed little since. In 10th century BC, Roman legions were halted at this headland, so were their forward conquests. The commanders on elegant horses and centurion helmets led their battalion — foot soldiers, creaking wooden-wheeled wagons, cattle and essential service providers — up to this point — the ‘Land’s End’. Today, dominating the landscape is a large white monument with a thick white cross jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, and behind it are a series of defence installations and a lighthouse.

Iconic lighthouse

The monument is encrusted with a royal crest and bears geographical details and a quote from The Lusiads by the bard, Camoes. Behind the monument are uneven patches of land. The natural beauty, biodiversity and geology of the area are to be enjoyed peacefully, we were told. It’s wonderful for photographers, bird-watchers, and lovers of sports such as surfing, climbing or diving and for honey-mooners. A fenced pathway leads to a cluster of maritime installations and a beautiful lighthouse with elegant stone trim and red lantern.

Every 18 seconds white-shafts of light are sent far out to the ocean to warn approaching ships of the rocks. On the other hand, the flashing light means good news for home-sick, sea-weary sailors who are coming home after months at sea to a family and a hot home-cooked meal.

Owned by the navy and operated by the Navy’s lighthouse directorate, Marinha de Portugal — the lighthouse, has been more than a beacon in the latter part of the Age of Sail. In the period between 16th and 19th century, “It was a source of inspiration and pride for the Portuguese”, said Lata. Adding further she said, “People engaged in trade, naval warfare, and voyages depended on it.

When caravels set sail or when they were returning, the light from the lighthouse was most reassuring, that all was well in the world.” After the ‘wild isolation of a cape’ tour, we made our way to our car. The sound of the sea battering the landmass and water exploding followed us; birds screeched above. Then a shaft of light flashed over our head, and drifted out into the Atlantic.

This timeless drama, in mind-blowing 3D recreates itself daily at Cabo da Roca. Whether you get there by car, bus, motorbike, bicycles, foot or by an adventurous hill-climb, this experience of the Old World’s Land’s End is magical, something that I’ll remain long in memory.

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