The way the elegant Portuguese man o’ war called the Sacramento was shipwrecked off the shores near Port Elizabeth, the dramatic 1400km journey of survivors making their way north to a Mozambican port, and the subsequent discovery of the ship’s many cannon make for a stirring South African sea tale.

Did you know?

A perfectly preserved Sacramento cannon stands at the Prince Alfred’s Guard headquarters in central Port Elizabeth.

The Sacramento was the pride of the Portuguese fighting fleet in the 17th Century. She ran aground just off Schoenmakerskop outside Port Elizabeth on 30 June 1647 in foul weather. By the time she hit the rocky coastline, she had a badly damaged rudder and her sails were in tatters.

The legend of the wreck of the Sacramento has many dramatic parts, one of which is the march of the 72 survivors up the coast towards a port in Mozambique, from where they hoped to be transported back to Portugal.

The distance from Algoa Bay (site of the modern-day Port Elizabeth) to the haven in Mozambique was nearly 1400km. The Sacramento survivors stayed on the beach near the wreck site for 11 days before beginning their pathetic trudge up the coast. Along the way, their numbers dwindled to nine souls.

As they walked, they came across two other wreck sites of ill-fated Portuguese vessels: the Nossa Senhora de Belem and the Atalaya. More than four weeks into their trek, they met up with a large contingent of survivors of the wreck of the Atalaya. Eventually, 127 people from the wrecks of the Sacramento and Atalaya made it to Lourenco Marques (now Maputo).

The Sacramento, a highly prized man o’ war with 60 fixed cannon, was heavily loaded with a cargo of brass cannon destined for the Portuguese-held districts of India. In fact, one of the cannon carried an inscription from its maker (famous gunsmith Antonio Backer) bearing the name of Antonio Telesdemenez, the Portuguese governor of India at the time.

The many cannon of the Sacramento lay undisturbed on the ocean bed for 330 years until most of them were salvaged in 1977. One brass cannon had been totally submerged under the sea sands and was brought up in perfect condition.

One of the original Sacramento guns stands at a special site on Schoenmakerskop, pointing out in the general direction of where the warship met her fate. A plaque briefly tells the story of the wreck of the Sacramento.

Visitors to the Sacramento memorial site also have the option of embarking on the Sacramento Hiking Trail between Schoenmakerskop and Sardinia Bay. It’s a lovely mix of attractive coastal and ocean sights: gannets and dolphins at sea and large displays of wild flowers on land.

And as you walk, spare a thought for others who left their footsteps here in more perilous circumstances.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism
Tel: +27 (0)41 582 2575
Email: info@nmbt.co.za

Alan Tours
Tel: +27 (0)41 378 1486
Cell: +27 (0)72 358 4634
Email: info@alantours.co.za

How to get here

From Port Elizabeth Airport you take the M18 on Victoria Road through the suburb of Walmer and follow the signs to Schoenmakerskop. The drive out should take you no longer than 30 minutes.

Best time to visit

It’s a year-round destination, so pick a clear day with good visibility and pleasant walking conditions.

Around the area

There is lots to do in Port Elizabeth, including a visit to the local aquarium and museum.

There are also great day trips to the Addo Elephant National Park, Grahamstown, Port Alfred and Jeffreys Bay.

Tours to do

Try a Heritage Tour of Port Elizabeth, one of South Africa’s oldest cities.

Get around

You can hire a car from the airport and drive yourself, but a much more convenient way to see the Sacramento memorial site and possibly do the associated trail would be to hire the services of an accredited tour guide.

What will it cost

The only cost to you is the guiding fee, which is negotiable and depends on how many people are in your group. You can bank on about R400 per person for a morning’s tour.

Alternatively, just visiting the Schoenmakerskop area with its lonely cannon without a guard is free of charge.

Length of stay

A visit to the site only takes about 30 minutes, but the 8km Sacramento Hiking Trail round trip takes you at least three hours. You can do a one-way walk that lasts about 90 minutes.

What to pack

Bring binoculars in your walking daypack – you never know what you might spot out at sea.

Where to stay

Port Elizabeth has a good selection of accommodation – see the listed Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism website for choices.

What to eat

If you find yourself in Summerstrand, you’re in seafood restaurant country – just pick a place and enjoy.

What's happening

Check the events calendar on the listed Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism website for happenings taking place during your visit.

Best buys

Order a copy of Guns of Sacramento, by David and Geoffrey Allen. It’s an excellent history of the ship and the later discovery of her cannon.