Think of famous South African shipwrecks and you can probably reel off six or so. Now add about 3 000 to that number and you’ll approach the number of vessels that have come to grief along the South African coastline. Each represents a valuable insight into world seafaring history.

Did you know?

South Africa has introduced strong legislation to protect its historical shipwrecks.

The Cape of Good Hope – the spiritual southern tip of Africa (though Cape Agulhas is actually Africa's southernmost point) – has been famous for more than 500 years as the 'graveyard of ships'.

And sea captains of yore also talked about another danger spot: the 'mountains of water' off the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape.

Indeed, the 3 000km South African coastline has claimed perhaps 3 000 vessels over the centuries, with known records dating back to the 1500s and the heyday of Portuguese navigation and conquest by sail. That's about one for every kilometre of coastline.

And here we’re not taking into account the sea-going Phoenicians who might have come earlier, or any other sailing civilisation – possibly Arab traders – that may have passed these shores and almost certainly lost some of their ships to misadventure, bad visibility and treacherous reefs.

It is believed that the ships that were wrecked came from as many as 37 nations, and that their sites are invaluable heritage and historical assets.

Everything that went down with a ship tells a story of how people lived, what they did, what they traded in, and what they achieved during their times. The modern attitude to shipwrecks – especially along the South African coastline – is to preserve the sites instead of indulging in the frenetic kind of 'treasure hunting' that took place in the 20th Century. Indeed, all shipwrecks are protected by South African law, and it is illegal to remove any part of them or object associated with them.

The names of famous shipwrecks off South Africa's coast include the Grosvenor, the Arniston, the Waratah, the Birkenhead, the Sacramento and, in more recent times, the Oceanos. Even the mythical Flying Dutchman is sometimes 'spotted' on a foggy day down at Cape Point.

Many ships that sailed these waters simply disappeared without trace – the most famous being the Waratah in 1909.

Because of the numerous shipwrecks, lighthouses were put up along the South African coast, and thousands of castaways suddenly found themselves on forbidding African soil for the first time in their lives. As they wandered up and down the coastline, they were killed by starvation, animals and hostile locals, or simply assimilated into whatever village system existed in the area.

There are some colourful accounts of European castaways being integrated with local communities of people, even marrying into them, and living out their days not far from where their ships went down.

And if you wander about the various museums of South Africa, including the Maritime Services Museum at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, the Shipwreck Museum in Bredasdorp, and a section of the East London Museum, you will gather the kind of sea stories that once made Robert Louis Stephenson such a popular nautical adventure writer.

The only difference is, most of these South African shipwreck stories are true...

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

South African Maritime Services Centre
Tel: +27 (0)21 405 2884
Email: marsh@iziko.org.za

Bredasdorp Shipwreck Museum
Tel: +27 (0)28 424 1240

East London Museum
Tel: +27 (0)43 743 0686
Email: derekh@elmuseum.za.org

4X4 Shipwreck Tour of Namaqualand
Tel:+27 (0)27 877 0028
Email: coast.of.diamonds@gmail.com

Mile by Mile Tours (Cape Agulhas day tours)
Tel: +27 (0)21 418 0907
Email: info@milebymile.co.za

Cape Agulhas Shipwreck Hiking Trail
Mobile +27 (0)83 2346 428
Email: info@awoltours.co.za

Best time to visit

The Western Cape has winter rainfall between May and August and this is when you’ll encounter whipping winds and storms – the most evocative weather in which to contemplate wreck sites from the shore.

Tours to do

There are a number of shipwreck tours available in South Africa – check with the local tourism office.

Get around

Most shipwreck tours involve walks on beaches or clambering over rocks. There are also 4x4 tours along the rugged coastlines of the West Coast.

What will it cost

Depending on the particular shipwreck tour, costs are approximately R1 000 per person per day. Museums either charge a small fee or request an optional donation. Or you could just wander along the beach close to the shipwrecks (often marked by lighthouses), which will cost you nothing.

What to pack

Take along an anorak or something warm, a sunhat and sunblock.

Best buys

There are at least eight ‘must-reads’ on shipwrecks and castaways of South Africa: Swept by Wind and Wave by WL Speight; The Sunburnt Queen by Hazel Crampton; Strange Shipwrecks of the Southern Seas by Jose Burman; Shipwreck! by Jose Burman; Survivors of Africa’s Oceans by Ian Uys; The Cape of Good Hope – A Maritime History by Robin Knox-Johnston; The Caliban Shore – The Fate of the Grosvenor Castaways by Stephen Taylor; and The Wind Makes Dust by Ben Maclennan.