If you think you’re adventurous when you go 4x4ing through Botswana or climbing up Mount Kilimanjaro, think again. As we discover when we visit the Shipwreck Museum in Bredasdorp, the true adventurers were sea explorers of yesteryear who braved one of the most challenging sea crossings of their time: the Atlantic-Indian Ocean crossing via Cape Agulhas.
The southernmost coastline of Africa is so dangerous that generations of sailors have referred to it as the ships’ graveyard. And no wonder: some 250 ships and 2 500 people have been lost in its waters through the centuries. Some of their stories are told here, the only shipwreck museum in the country.
Take, for instance, the story of the Arniston which came to grief in 1815 with more than 300 on board. A fortnight later, a local farmer trying to find some lost sheep smelled something pretty rank and found just seven people still alive. The rest were lost or dead and rotting around them on the beach. In 1982 the wreck was declared South Afria's first underwater historical monument and divers spent 200 hours recovering about a thousand artefacts.
Much luckier was the Queen of Thames, wrecked here in 1872. All 400 passengers on board were saved, as were many valuable articles that were later sold. So it’s apparently not unusual to find Queen of Thames silverware, glassware, chairs, cupboards, even a piano, still lurking about in homes in the area today, nearly 140 years later.
There’s a sense here of how the Strandveld owes much of its character and history to the ships and wreckage that washed up on their doorstep, how the farming community helped in rescue attempts and gave shelter to survivors. Although the artefacts recovered from wrecks are fascinating, most evocative for me are a diagram and a series of scale models. The diagram shows the layout and working of an old wooden ship, making me realise how many men must have been buried deep in the claustrophobic bowels of the thing, far from fresh air or sunlight, for just about the whole voyage. The series of scale models shows the death throes of a ship over time, from when it first settles under the sea until its final disintegration, when it’s buried by sand.
For lovers of odd or wacky stories, some of the details recorded in the museum are intriguing. Like a ship that was stranded here in 1686 with a Siamese delegation on board, on their way to the court of the sun king, Louis XIV. Rendered shipless by this ruthless coast, they set off on foot to find help. Back in the 17th century that was bound to lead to a long walk. The mandarins got so thirsty and hungry along the way they were forced to eat their own shoes. Only a small group of survivors arrived in Cape Town 24 days later.
But perhaps the quirkiest story, giving a sense of how little people knew about the world around them in those days, is about a French ship from the East Indies that sank off Quoin Point in 1871. The man sent by the French consul to investigate reported that he found a body of a small man covered from head to foot in hair among the wreckage. Two weeks later, in an embarrassing about-turn, he wrote another letter confessing that this was in fact an orang-utan. In those days, it seems, they were easily confused.
More about the area
Agulhas National Park: everything you need to know
Agulhas walking trail
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