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13 March 2012 | Travel & Tourism

Shipwrecks off South Africa's coast
Lonely shipwreck on South Africa's West Coast.
Lonely shipwreck on South Africa's West Coast.

Think of famous South African shipwrecks and you can probably reel off 6 or so. Now add about 3000 to that number and you'll approach the number of vessels that have come to grief along the South African coastline. Each represents a valuable insight into world seafaring history.

The Cape of Good Hope – the spiritual southern tip of Africa (though Cape Agulhas is actually Africa's southernmost point) – has been famous for more than 500 years as the 'graveyard of ships'.

And sea captains of yore also talked about another danger spot: the 'mountains of water' off the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape.

Indeed, the 3000km South African coastline has claimed perhaps 3000 vessels over the centuries, with known records dating back to the 1500s and the heyday of Portuguese navigation and conquest by sail. That's about 1 for every kilometre of coastline.

And here we're not taking into account the sea-going Phoenicians who might have come earlier, or any other sailing civilisation – possibly Arab traders – that may have passed these shores and almost certainly lost some of their ships to misadventure, bad visibility and treacherous reefs.

It is believed that the ships that were wrecked came from as many as 37 nations, and that their sites are invaluable heritage and historical assets.

Everything that went down with a ship tells a story of how people lived, what they did, what they traded in, and what they achieved during their times. The modern attitude to shipwrecks – especially along the South African coastline – is to preserve the sites instead of indulging in the frenetic kind of 'treasure hunting' that took place in the 20th Century. Indeed, all shipwrecks are protected by South African law, and it is illegal to remove any part of them or object associated with them.

The names of famous shipwrecks off South Africa's coast include the Grosvenor, the Arniston, the Waratah, the Birkenhead, the Sacramento and, in more recent times, the Oceanos. Even the mythical Flying Dutchman is sometimes 'spotted' on a foggy day down at Cape Point.

Many ships that sailed these waters simply disappeared without trace – the most famous being the Waratah in 1909.

Many of these shipwrecks resulted in the installation of lighthouses along the South African coast, and thousands of castaways suddenly found themselves on forbidding African soil for the 1st time in their lives. As they wandered up and down the coastline, they were killed by starvation, animals and hostile locals, or simply assimilated into whatever village system existed in the area.

There are some colourful accounts of European castaways being integrated with local communities of people, even marrying into them, and living out their days not far from where their ships went down.

And if you wander about the various museums of South Africa, including the Maritime Services Museum at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, the Shipwreck Museum in Bredasdorp, and a section of the East London Museum, you will gather the kind of sea stories that once made Robert Louis Stephenson such a popular nautical adventure writer.

The only difference is, most of these South African shipwreck stories are true...

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