30 July 2014 by Andrea Weiss

Take the kids to the Bartolomeu Dias Museum in Mossel Bay

Mossel Bay on the Garden Route is a bucket-and-spade kind of seaside town, but if the weather’s not great then there’s an excellent alternative for the kids, where they can scramble around a real caravel that once sailed from Portugal to South Africa.

Life-size replica of the Dias caravel

It's not hard to see why Bartolomeu Dias first chose to set foot on African soil at Mossel Bay, with its sheltered bay and lovely sandy beach.

The view from the museum complex The view from the museum complex

Dias is famous for having rounded the Cape in a quest to find a sea passage to India. He left Lisbon in August 1487 in a flotilla of three ships (two caravels and a larger store ship) with the objective of finding their way around Africa.

A year earlier, a Portuguese crew under the leadership of Diogo Cão made it as far south as Cape Cross, north of Swakopmund in Namibia, but Captain Cão succumbed on this journey and it was aborted.

This time, Dias was instructed to push on, and so he did.

The theory is that he was struggling to sail into the southern wind, so headed for the open sea, and when he next sighted land it was after he had inadvertently sailed around Cape Point. The first place he could safely land was in what is today Mossel Bay, on the festival day of St Blaise.

The entrance to the Maritime Museum The entrance to the Maritime Museum

So Dias called this place Aguado de São Bras (meaning 'watering place of St Blaise') because there was a fresh spring here. And thus, for a while, Mossel Bay was the main provisioning station for the Portuguese on route to the East, until the Dutch chose Cape Town as their refreshment station and dominated the trade route.

It was the invention of the caravel that gave the Portuguese the advantage, making them the first Europeans to round the tip of Africa. These robust but relatively small ships were able to sail fast and close to the wind. Nevertheless, the thought of putting to sea and heading into the unknown is quite daunting, no more so than when you come face to face with a life-size replica of this very vessel, which looks a bit like half a giant walnut!

Dias caravel replica Dias caravel replica

The Dias caravel, on display at the Bartolomeu Dias Museum Complex in Mossel Bay, really did sail to the Cape in a re-enactment of that historic voyage 500 years later. It was built near Lisbon in Portugal and sailed to South Africa in 1987/88 with a crew of 17 men. 

It took them three months to get to Mossel Bay (unlike Dias's six months) but nevertheless it was quite a feat. Once here, the ship was towed into position inside the maritime museum building where she now rests in all her glory, and visitors can clamber aboard to take a look around. 

While the caravel is the main attraction, it's not all there is to see here.

The old Post Office Tree The old Post Office Tree

There's also the famous Post Office Tree, an ancient milkwood that may well have been the same tree where a message was left in 1500 by Pedro de Ataide on his return journey from the East, warning those who came later of trouble near Calcutta. 

The letter, which may have been stored in a shoe or a pot, was found by Jão da Nova, who was heading for India. This tree is thus believed to be the site of the first post office in South Africa.

Sea-life display Sea-life display

Another fascinating display is in the Shirley Building. Here, there is a small aquarium containing some of the sea life one might encounter around Mossel Bay, along with a collection of beautiful shells and some rather quaint shell art.

Shell art Shell art

And if that's not enough to keep the little ones entertained, there's always the prospect of running into Langbeen, the museum cat, most likely to be found snoozing on the mat at the front door.

Langbeen, the museum cat Langbeen, the museum cat

All in all, a pleasant few hours, well spent!

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