A DORSET explorer is to embark on an epic voyage around Africa in a replica of a 2,500-year-old ship in a bid to solve an archaeological puzzle.

Philip Beale, 47, is trying to prove that the Phoenicians, an ancient civilisation that lived around the Mediterranean, managed a near-circumnavigation of the continent about 2,000 years before any Europeans.

He hatched the idea after reading the work of ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote of the Egyptian King Necho II asking Phoenician seafarers to sail around the continent in 600BC.

Mr Beale has commissioned the ship, which is currently being built on the Syrian island of Arwad.

It will have few mod cons, with only a basic toilet, no running water, no spare sails and no motor.

The single-sailed vessel will, however, be taking tinned food among the basic provisions, and will have oars so that the crew can manouevre in and out of harbour.

Mr Beale, who is based at Chaldon Herring near Lulworth, plans to set off in August with a crew of 20. Unlike the Phoenicians, they will be able to use the Suez Canal to travel from the Mediterranean into the Red Sea.

The 10-month voyage will then follow the east coast of Africa down to the Cape of Good Hope, then travel up the west coast of Africa, through the Straits of Gibraltar, and back into the Mediterranean.

Mr Beale, who travels out to Syria tomorrow to check on the progress of the project, said: "It's going quite well. The planking is about two-thirds finished.

"Now we need some crew. The trip is divided into 12 legs, and three people, including myself, are going to do the whole thing."

Volunteers will be asked to pay to take part, but Mr Beale warned: "I wouldn't underestimate the challenge. There's a genuine chance we might not make it because we don't have an engine we can switch on and get us out of trouble."

l For details, see the website phoenicia.org.uk.