The mere mention of a ghost town or shipwreck is often enough to trigger the interest of even the most cynical among us, writes Eben Delport. Such stories conjure up images of mystery and intrigue in days gone by, and lead us to follow in the pioneers’ footsteps
Travellers often tell tales of fortunes made and lost in remote, inhospitable places. Fortune seekers rushed there when news first emerged of prospectors finding untold riches, and departed just as quickly when no more could be found, leaving behind the haunting remains of their sojourns. This is what our last trip was all about.
Southern Africa has had its fair share of gold and diamond rushes, and it has a colourful history of explorers and seafarers. The likes of Diego Gao, Bartholomeus Diaz and Jan van Riebeeck, sent from Europe to open trade routes to the east, come to mind.
The west coast of Africa, stretching all the way from SA through Namibia to southern Angola, much of it the Namib Desert coast, has many stories to tell.
The Bushmen of the Namibian interior called the region “the land that God made in anger”, while Portuguese sailors referred to it as “the gates of hell”. The name, Skeleton Coast, was coined by John Henry Marsh as the title for his book on the shipwreck of the Dunedin Star. Today, the northern part of Namibia’s coast is generally referred to as the Skeleton Coast and is its official name on most maps.
The stories about Captain Blackbeard, the Flying Dutchman and the Pirates of the Caribbean fed the imagination, and the thought of a shipwreck fills one with a sense of wonder.
More recently, the stranding and salvaging of the Costa Concordia in Italy, and the sinking of various overcrowded ferries and refugee boats, have kept the maritime drama going. Piracy along both the east and west coasts of Africa provides a modern dimension to the scourge of the high seas.
On some of our recent trips we have come upon many examples of these historic episodes. Some 25km north of Angola’s capital, Luanda, lies a stretch of beach that is an eerie resting place for about 20 derelict and rusting ships. The 2km stretch of beach is known as Shipwreck Beach or Karl Marx Beach, named after the biggest shipwreck.
Off shore and along the beach are dozens of rusting hulks of tankers, cargo ships and fishing vessels. Many stories have been passed on about how the large ships mysteriously arrived here. Way back, we were told, ships were deliberately beached by their Portuguese owners, who fled Angola after independence.
To me, the most likely explanation is that the ships were removed from Luanda harbour after being declared unseaworthy, and simply dumped on the beach because there were no salvage facilities.
Another possibility is that the ships were deliberately run aground or that their offshore moorings rusted through and the tides and currents pushed them ashore. Whatever the reason, the wrecks provide incredible “photo opportunities”!
Crossing the Namib along the coast on overland 4×4 adventures, one still sees much evidence of the diamond rush at the turn of the previous century. At Kolmanskop near Lüderitz, a ghost town is all that remains of a once vibrant mining centre. Built at first to provide shelter for workers in the extremely harsh environment, the settlement that was abandoned so long ago is slowly being taken back by the desert.
In some places all that remains is broken shards of pottery, and at others one sees the remnants of a more permanent settlement — crumbling stone buildings, ramshackle hotels and neglected graveyards of long-forgotten loved ones.
The climate is the reason the town is so well preserved. Though the desert sands have crept into every corner of the buildings, the lack of moisture means that organic material does not decompose as quickly as it would in a more friendly environment.
When you venture farther north into the Namib “sand sea”, there is more evidence of the pioneers’ struggle against the odds. About halfway between Luderitz and Walvis Bay, close to Meab and Conception Bay, all that remains of mining settlements is the ghostly remains of surf boats, equipment and houses. One can only imagine the hardships and logistical nightmares the people endured.
Shipwrecks along the coast, to name a few, include the Otavi, the United Trader, the Eduard Bohlen, the Shawnee, the Zeila, the Winston, the Charles Eliot, the Dunedin Star and the Venesa Seafood — the latter well known to off-shore anglers in Angola.