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TThere is a village at the eastern edge of the Agulhas Plain on South Africa’s southern coast called Arniston – a popular spot for whale-watching and enjoying the scenic natural vistas to be found in this part of Western Cape.
With its romantic old fishing-village ambience and its long white beaches, the little community is a popular weekend resort. It was originally called Waenhuiskrans (‘wagon house cliff’ in Afrikaans – named after a cave in a seaside cliff large enough to accommodate an ox-wagon), but a tragedy at sea prompted a name change.
On the night of 30 May 1815, a vicious storm off the Agulhas Bank spelled doom for a British transport ship called the Arniston, bound for England from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and carrying 378 passengers and crew.
When the East Indiaman was blown into the eye of the tempest, Captain George Simpson headed his vessel for land, thinking he was actually just off Table Bay – sailing without one of the newly invented chronometers, the captain had no way of calcuating longitude accurately, and the storm had confused his dead-reckoning. According to reports, the Arniston hit a reef little more than a kilometre offshore and began to break up.
Only 6 men, clinging to flotsam, reached the shore alive. The hull of the ship eventually grounded on the beach, surrounded by hundreds of washed-up bodies. The survivors took refuge in a cave and lived off a bag of oatmeal they found in the wreckage. They were discovered 2 weeks later by a farmer’s son and a shepherd and eventually made their way to Cape Town.
Nearly 2 months later, an auction was held on the beach near the wreckage, at which the surviving contents of the Arniston were distributed. Some of the goods for sale included 122 casks of wine and arrack.
In memory of that fateful night in 1815, a plaque near the Arniston beachfront commemorates the 4 eldest sons – none of them older than 13 – of Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew Giels of Her Majesty’s 73rd Regiment, who were among those drowned.
The village’s name was never officially changed, but the name ‘Arniston’ stuck as it became most well-known for the disintegrating wreck on the beach. Today, the names ‘Waenhuiskrans’ and ‘Arniston’ are both still used and are more or less interchangeable.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Tel: +27 (0)28 445 9175
Phone: +27 (0)28 445 9000
How to get here
Arniston / Waenhuiskrans lies at the end of the R316 on the southern coast of Western Cape, about 250km from Cape Town – approximately 3 hours’ drive.
Bredasdorp, which is home to the Shipwreck Museum, lies 24km inland from Arniston.
Best time to visit
Western Cape is at its greenest between May and August, because of winter rainfall – but this is also a wet, cold and windy season. From October to March, your chances of blue skies and sunny days are much more certain.
Around the area
The Agulhas Plain has several attractions, including the Elim Moravian Mission village, shark-diving at Gansbaai, and whale-watching at several lookout sites on land, including Hermanus – which is also the best shopping destination in the area.
Self-drive is the most convenient option.
Length of stay
Arniston is the perfect weekend destination.
What to pack
Sunscreen and a hat, binoculars and wet-weather gear if you’re visiting between March and September.
Where to stay
Arniston has a good hotel and several more accommodation options – see the listed websites.
What to eat
Seafood – always worth sampling in a fishing village.
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