Built on the site where Portuguese explorers first met the indigenous Khoi, the Dias Museum complex in Mossel Bay includes the Maritime Museum, which celebrates the early days of discovery. Star of the show here is a life-size replica of Bartolomeu Dias’ caravel, the ship he arrived in back in 1488.

Did you know?

Using special Post Office Tree stamps, you can mail letters via the famous ‘shoe mailbox’.

Back in the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal was a seafaring colonial giant, plying the ocean lanes for trade, bounty and new territories.

Sailing around the Cape of Good Hope (often called the 'Cape of Torments' and the 'Cape of Storms') at the southern tip of Africa and up what is now the Garden Route coast was a tricky business.

In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias was the first European explorer to round the Cape of Good Hope, in search of a sea route to the East. He sailed up South Africa's east coast and on February 3, 1488, landed at the present-day Mossel Bay, where he traded with the local Khoi people.

He called it the Watering Place of St Blaize, but it was later renamed by the Dutch as Mossel Bay, in honour of the bountiful supply of mussels in the area.

Dias was followed by other Portugese sailors. In 1500, Captain Pedro Alvares Cabral led a small flotilla of storm-buffeted ships into what is now called Mossel Bay to rest up, repair and ‘re-vittle’.

One of his captains, Pedro d’Ataide, sat down and wrote a letter about their travails, stuck it in an old boot and suspended it from a milkwood tree. Thus was begun the South African postal service.

The letter was picked up and read a year later by Joao da Nova, commander of the Third East India Fleet en route to India. And so the tradition was born, in which sailors bound for the East left messages and packets for others making their way back to Portugal.

The Post Office Tree in Mossel Bay, in the Dias Museum complex, is still in operation. There’s a boot-shaped letterbox at the tree, and twice a day mail is collected from the shoe by a postman.

Later on, the Portuguese opted for Lourenco Marques (now Maputo) as their southern African coastal headquarters, and the Dutch favoured Cape Town. Mossel Bay was bypassed, until Holland annexed it in 1734 as an extension to their Cape Colony.

The Dias Museum encompasses the Maritime Museum and five heritage sites on its grounds near the beachfront – the very site where European explorers first met the indigenous Khoi.

Don't forget to visit the Dias Spring, the constant source of water that supplied seafarers of old - and the museum complex of today. It's just a little walk down the hill from the Post Office Tree.

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