July 06, 2012
Shipwreck trails in Cape Town
Encountering the shipwrecks that litter the beaches of the Cape Peninsula can be poignant and awe inspiring in equal measure if you are interested in South Africa’s maritime history.
Their twisted, rusted, metal husks are a stark reminder that no matter how advanced naval engineering and ship building becomes, the Cape of Storms' turbulent oceans remain an unforgiving place, especially when human error and folly enter the seafaring equation.
I recently took a walk along the Olifantsbos shipwreck trail at the Cape Point Nature Reserve in search of what remains of the Thomas T.Tucker, an American ship that ran aground there in 1942 on its maiden voyage.
Walking to the wreck along the reserve's pristine natural beaches was an absolute joy, and the trail only takes one and a half hours to complete. You feel like you are a million miles from civilisation, and aside from the coastline's natural beauty, the sea is hypnotic, majestic and wild.
I was accompanied by South African National Parks (SANParks) volunteer John Stringer, a gold mine of shipwreck information and pleasant company to boot. He explained that there were dozens of wreck sites along our route, but most were buried beneath the sand, reclaimed by the sea or just worn away by the elements.
Olifantsbos is a maritime graveyard if ever there was one, it seems.
While I wholeheartedly recommend a trip to the Cape Point Nature Reserve for a spot of shipwreck exploration, there are also numerous possibilities closer to Cape Town.
For instance, no more than a few kilometres north of Clifton at Mouille Point near the mouth of Cape Town harbour, you’ll find the rusting remains of the steamship SS Thermopylae, which became impaled on the coast’s reef in 1899 during a voyage from Australia to London.
The wreck marks one of the city’s best surf spots, and when a big swell rolls in you can watch surfers in action from the car park at the nearby Radisson Hotel.
Further south of Clifton beach towards the Cape Peninsula, you’ll find two of Cape Town’s most famous shipwrecks. The remains of these vessels are located off the beaten track, so be prepared to embark on a few hours of scenic hiking to get there.
The first, the MS Boss 400, was the biggest floating crane in Africa when it was washed on to the rocks at Maori Bay in 1995 by westerly winds during a storm. Its final resting place is located virtually on top of the underwater remains of the SS Oakburn, a steamship that floundered there in 1906.
The wreck is still relatively well preserved and a spectacular sight.
Alternatively, midway between Noordhoek and Long Beach you’ll find the remains of the shipwreck Kapako buried in the sand. The walk to get there lasts about an hour, and the stretch of beach is one of the Cape’s finest.
You do not have to embark on these adventures by yourself armed only with a guide book. There are a number of tour companies offering guided walks along Cape Town’s beaches that can be found via simple internet search.