Hearing the precise details of how a ship went down along the Agulhas coast back in the 18th Century is a chilling experience. The Bredasdorp Shipwreck Museum is home to striking visual displays and a fascinating collection of shipwreck artifacts.

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The building that the Bredasdorp Shipwreck Museum occupies has served many purposes since it was built as a church in the 1860s. It has been a church hall, school, cinema, skating rink and shop.

As an entrée to your visit to the Bredasdorp Shipwreck Museum in the southern Cape Strandveld, you should visit a much smaller museum at Franskraal, east of Gansbaai.

There you will meet a gentleman called Jan Pyp (Pipe) Fourie, who might play you some tunes on his accordion and tell you the story of the Bulwark, a ship that went down just off the coast here in 1963.

‘Part of the cargo was barrels of sweet wine. The men who first found the barrels got rip-roaring drunk. Then their wives marched down to the beach to give them hell, had a taste of the wine and fell about on the sand. Most of Gansbaai was drunk for a week,’ Fourie will tell you.

Not all Strandveld shipwreck stories are as funny as Jan’s, however. This part of the coast, known for centuries as the ‘graveyard of ships’, has claimed more than 130 vessels.

Apart from the many lives lost, many shipwrecks spewed their cargo on the beaches, from Gansbaai to the mouth of the Breede River in the east. The Strandvelders regularly attended shipwreck auctions, where they bought up furniture and entire ranges of household goods from exotic parts of the world.

In fact, local legend has it that there’s hardly a home or a farmstead in the area that does not own some relic of an old-time local shipwreck. Timbers from the doomed ships were put to good use in building houses. Nothing went to waste.

So when you wander about the Shipwreck Museum in Bredasdorp, spare a thought for the victims who once sailed in ships that included Arniston, Wafra, Le Souvenance, Nossa Senhora de Milagros, Maori, Merestijn and Kadie.

The museum is a treasure house of figureheads and lifeboats, porcelain, cannons, anchors, old bottles and coins from a number of European countries.

The Bredasdorp Shipwreck Museum was also at the forefront of a drive to restore the historic Cape Agulhas lighthouse, which was finally recommissioned in 1988.

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