Shipwreck trails: a different way to discover SA’s beautiful coast

Like the lighthouses that failed to save them from disaster, shipwrecks have a strange kind of lure for many. While there’s something nostalgic and romantic about lighthouses, with shipwrecks it’s perhaps more the history, tragedy, or evidence of nature’s awesome power that draws one.

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Plus of course the awesome scenery. With a coastline of almost 3,000km and sections of our coast bearing names like Cape of Storms, Wild Coast and Danger Point, there are bound to be many shipwrecks along this coast…in fact some 3,000 of them. That’s one for every kilometre of coastline. Following the trail of shipwrecks can be a fascinating experience.

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Following the trail of shipwrecks along South Africa’s rugged and dramatic coast, opens up an entirely new world of exploration and discovery through hiking trails, 4X4 trails, kayaking and diving excursions. There are also museums containing exhibits, pictures and the stories of many of these unfortunate ships. Whichever way one chooses to explore the coast in search of these stricken vessels, it will take you to locations entirely off the beaten path, along some of the most beautiful stretches of our coast. These trails will unlock places and bits of history few of us probably know about, while you might even find a washed-up old gold coin or two.

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The shipwreck trails will lead you to some of the more famous wreck sites, like that of the Grosvenor, the Arniston, HMS Birkenhead, the Joanna, the Nolloth, the Waterloo, the Clan Stuart, the Waratah, the Oceanos, the Seafarer, the Santo Alberto, and many others. But they will also take you to some lesser known ones, yet with equally fascinating tales of disaster, heroism or treasures attached. In fact, quite a number of shipwrecks still jealously guard the whereabouts of the fabulous treasures they are known to have had on board when they went down. Some shipwrecks have never been found despite the approximate locations of their demise being known.

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It is easy to obtain a list of shipwrecks and some maps by searching online, and go off wreck-hunting on your own. Or you could let informed guides take you on any one of number of shipwreck trails. There are shipwreck hiking trails like the Cape Point Shipwreck Trail, the Diamond Coast Shipwreck Eco- Trail, the Cape Agulhas Shipwreck Hiking Trail, the Thomas T Tucker Shipwreck Trail, the Port Alfred Shipwreck Hiking and Canoe Trail, the Sandy Bay Shipwreck Hiking Trail, among more. Lists of shipwrecks and their locations dating back to the 1500s are available. All of these trails can be combined with excellent hikes in nature and marine reserves. One of the more beautiful hikes is along the Wild Coast, Eastern Cape, along a route from the Kei River mouth, past the well-known Trennery’s Hotel to where the wreck of the Jacaranda suddenly looms. The Wild Coast is also home to numerous other wrecks, such as the Grosvenor.

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A number of diving operators in coastal cities and resorts take scuba and snorkel divers to wreck sites where they can explore some of the best preserved wrecks. Within the Cape Peninsula there are literally hundreds of wrecks on which to dive. From Smitswinkel Bay to Glencairn and Miller’s Point, you can dive on well-known wrecks like the Maori, Astor, Katzu Maru, Pietermaritzburg and the Clan Stuart. Against the magnificent backdrop of the Knysna Heads on the Garden Route you can dive on Paquita, a German vessel that sank on the eastern side of the Knysna Heads in 1903. At Port Elizabeth you can dive on the wreck of the Haerlem. In fact there are wreck diving sites on just about any part of the coast between Port Nolloth on the upper West Coast and Kosi Bay on the northern KwaZulu-Natal coast.

Several maritime, shipwreck and other museums located in coastal towns and cities have fascinating displays and histories of many of these shipwrecks, complete with salvaged pieces of the wrecks, artefacts and cargo. Among these are the Maritime Services Museum at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, the Shipwreck Museum in Bredasdorp, the Mossel Bay Maritime Museum, and a section of the East London Museum.

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