The Shipwreck 4×4 Trail that runs from Koingnaas to Kleinzee in the Northern Cape is an absorbing, highly educational drive. Nicholas Yell says the pristine coastal environment is unique, endemic plants are plentiful and there is much to learn about the region’s heritage. He explores it in the new Isuzu KB300
“On your right you can see a collection of endemic succulent bushes, the vaal vygie. From a distance, the leaves look like bunches of grapes, don’t they?” said our guide, Dudley Wessels. He was speaking over the two-way radio supplied to us before we set off on the 37km Shipwreck 4×4 Trail.
We met up with Dudley in the largely deserted old mining town of Koingnaas at 09:30 and were keen to test the new Isuzu KB300 D-Teq LX 4×4’s abilities in the thick sand and rocky outcrops advertised in the trail brochure. But as we progressed along the track, we realised this trail had more to do with learning about the environment and the region’s remarkable heritage than pushing yourself or your vehicle to the limit.
The first wreck we came across was the Piratiny. In June 1943 this 5000-ton Brazilian steamer ran aground in bad weather on the rocky coast of Schulp Point, 32km north of Hondeklipbaai. Ironically, she was on her final voyage from Brazil to Cape Town, but fell just short of her final destination.
Local legend has it that the Piratiny was sunk by a German torpedo, and while there’s no evidence of this, it certainly is possible. The U-boats sank some 132 ships with a cumulative gross tonnage of 743 544 tons between October 1941 and February 1945 within 1000 miles of the South African coast.
What seems undisputed about this wreck, though, is that much of her unsalvaged cargo – a mixture of rich dress fabrics and other general cargo – washed up onto the beach after a storm, and the locals helped themselves. This was borne out by the number of churchgoers who wore fancy new outfits to nagmaal soon afterwards.
Just before we arrived at the ruins of Jan Kotze’s old stone farmhouse – he was one of the pioneering farmers in this arid region – we got a taste of the kind of tyre-arresting sand on this trail. It had been a long time since I’d driven through such thick sand, and I had to remind myself that using low range doesn’t help in these conditions. The name of the game is maintaining momentum in high range. Once I got my technique sorted out – and later, my tyre pressure – the Isuzu performed admirably.
Of course, what also helped were the trail briefs and suggestions coming in from Dudley on the radio. But just before lunch I clearly wasn’t listening closely enough. I was “giving it horns” to get over a sandy rise which – unbeknown to me – opened onto a section of ground with thick shards of granite protruding out of it, and I scraped the Isuzu’s chassis on one side. I’d liked to have blamed the vehicle’s ground clearance (up from the old 206mm to a healthier 220mm) but I had simply taken the wrong line.
“Nick, did you notice your diff’s leaking oil?” asked Dudley at our lunch stop, his wry smile thankfully alerting me that he was chiding me for my earlier misjudgment.
We had stopped at a shell-covered beach adjacent to a beautiful rocky cove. I noticed many walk-in points where you could ferret around for mussels and crayfish in season – providing you had the necessary permits, of course. And there’s always the chance you might find a diamond or two. What a moral dilemma that would be!
The northern part of the West Coast is rich in diamonds due to kimberlite pipes in the interior being eroded millions of years ago and the material being transported to the marine gravels by the ancient Karoo river system. Its mouth was roughly where the Olifants River enters the sea today. This happened in the Cretaceous Period – between 80 million and 120 million years ago.
Later, during the late Tertiary Period, the ancient Kalahari River (the proto-Gariep River) captured the headwaters of the Karoo River and, along with secondary rivers such as the Buffels and Swartlintjies (near Kleinzee and Koingnaas respectively) became the chief conduits through which the remaining diamondiferous soils reached the coast.
“Okay, there’s quite a bit of thick sand ahead of that rise, guys, so make sure you get enough momentum or you’ll bog down,” cautioned Dudley.
I hung back and watched Dudley head through the talcum powder-like sand in his Toyota Hilux Heritage Edition. (It has a 4,0-litre V6 engine producing 175 kW and 376 Nm of torque.) The big, thirsty bakkie flexed its muscles, sauntered down the track and then disappeared from view.
It was our turn in the new Isuzu. I let the clutch out smoothly, built up the revs, slipped it into second gear as seamlessly as possible and stepped on the gas. But I realised about halfway up the rise that we weren’t going to make it.
Two factors were involved – traction and engine speed. I needed to let a bit more air out the tyres. I’d kept them at around 1.5 bars to avoid punctures on the sharp, rocky stuff earlier, and I hadn’t got the revs up enough to achieve the required momentum.
Taking heed of Dudley’s advice over the radio, we let the tyres down to 1.2 bars, reversed about 40m to get another good run-in and kept the engine speed a lot higher. With these tactics, we made it quite easily at our second attempt.
“Among the biggest attractions along this route, besides the shipwrecks and plant species, are the large number of early Khoi middens,” said Dudley at our next stop.
“If you look at this limpet shell I picked up on the beach earlier, you’ll see that its edges have been worn smooth by wave action pulling it back and forth over the gravel and sand. But if you look at the one that I’ve just found here, you’ll see that its edges are still serrated. This shows it was picked off the rocks by the Khoi and brought here to eat.”
The deep sand track that led to our third and final wreck – a 285 ton British motor coaster that ran aground in 1947 – proved no problem for the Isuzu’s 130 kW turbo diesel engine and my freshly-honed sand driving skills.
Even though wind and salt had eaten away much of the wreck, the aura of tragedy was still strong as we walked around its skeletal remains.
I was amazed at the cleanliness and remarkable preservation of the site – testimony to how the De Beers mining concession had unwittingly saved this coastline from being overrun by tourists, and the collateral damage they cause.
But if Eskom has its way, this piece of coastline may see the construction of two nuclear power stations, one to be known as Brazil (between Kleinzee and Port Nolloth) and the other called Skulpfontein, located nearer to Hondeklipbaai in the south. And although this may not happen any time soon, it would be wise to experience this trail sooner rather than later.