Text by Hu Berry
Storm-tossed ships floundered and cast their human cargo onto a shoreline that must have seemed like a nightmare to those who reached it alive. For these wretched souls the probability of succumbing on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast became a terrible truth.
Among the many ships that floundered on this foreboding coast, two have been singled out to portray the disaster and hardships that scores of voyagers endured. One is relatively recent, the other blurred by 500 years of scouring by sea and sand.
Warning of imminent disaster came from a shrill cry of the bo’sun on watch, followed by the insistent command of the ship’s master for ‘all hands on deck!’ as the keel ground to a halt on a submerged shoal. Roused from a fitful slumber, crew and passengers of the ill-fated British cargo carrier Dunedin Star rose to meet what was to become a classical tale of modern maritime misfortune. World War II had progressed to the point of no return, and the Dunedin accordingly carried war stores, including explosives, a crew of 85 and a contingent of 21 passengers.
The setting could hardly have been more sinister – in the dead of night the ship ran aground on the Skeleton Coast.
The surf threatened to shatter the 13 000-ton hull, and several hundred metres separated the passengers and crew from the safety of the shore. As the captain gave the ominous command to abandon ship, he knew he had run aground nearly 700 kilometres north-west of the nearest port of Walvis Bay, and that a single motor-boat was all he had to ferry more than 100 passengers and crew to safety.
The lifeboat lasted three trips, taking all the passengers and half the crew ashore, leaving the remaining crew marooned on the doomed ship. What followed was a sequence of disasters that has few equals in the annals of seafaring tales.
Eight of the passengers were women, three with babies and one heavily pregnant. A crude shelter, built from the lifeboat, afforded them partial shelter from wind and sand blasts. By day the sun pulsed down on the survivors; at night clammy fogs cloaked their misery.
The meagre food and water supplies were rationed as they awaited rescue. Relief for the sailors aboard the wreck came three days later in the form of a salvage ship, which took them aboard but could not breach the surf, leaving the castaways still trapped in the pitiless desert.
A convoy of eight vehicles, manned by the South African Police and Defence Force, set out from Windhoek, while a new Ventura bomber took off from Cape Town with supplies to nourish them. At this time the salvage tug Sir Charles Elliott ran aground while attempting to reach the site, with its eventual loss, including several lives. The bomber fared little better, becoming stuck in the sand after a daring landing on the beach.
Three more Venturas took to the skies from Cape Town and Pretoria with a double mission of locating the ground team, whose whereabouts was unknown, and to attempt a landing near the survivors. A second ground convey now also joined the search, this time for the first vehicles, of which nothing had been heard.
After ten days of adversity the first convoy of vehicles reached Rocky Point on the coast, eventually locating the castaways. A month after their ordeal began, the beached survivors arrived overland in Windhoek. The stranded bomber managed to become airborne after herculean attempts to free it from the sand – only to suffer an engine failure that committed it irrevocably to the sea.
All three airmen aboard floated ashore on the fuselage. Despite their wounds, they managed to walk 50 kilometres before linking up with the ground-rescue team.
Far to the south of this epic event and five centuries earlier, the Sperrgebiet or ‘Forbidden Area’, so-named because of its diamond wealth, claimed a Portuguese merchant vessel, burying it under tidal sands. In 2008 a search for diamonds revealed a different type of treasure – that of copper ingots, silver and gold coins, crude cannons, and hundreds of elephant tusks.
The ship’s timbers withered under the scouring of wind and salt water, but still cradled in its ancient hull lay merchandise required for bartering in the Far East. International archaeologists restructured the artifacts of a bygone era, when tall ships sailed proudly across these watery wastes. No record remains of how she met her fate and so her story joins those of similar ships that floundered on this treacherous coastline. Ironically, the cargo she carried is now worth far more to science than if she had sailed safely into an oriental harbour.
Originally published in the Flamingo May 2009 print edition.
Hu Berry was a scientist, conservationist and specialist tour guide. He was one of Venture Publications' most valued authors. Sadly he passed away in July 2011. To read more about him click here.
Related story: https://www.travelnewsnamibia.com/news/shipwrecks-a-legacy-of-stricken-vessels/#.UYyzXr-0Lww