All washed up: on the trail of South Africa's shipwreck coast

The Cape of Good Hope's fearsome reputation is justified by the abundance of ships that litter the ocean floor. Now they are being linked to create a new route for divers.
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The Independent Travel

Two minutes and twenty-seven seconds. I'm sitting by the pool, legs dangling in the water, timing how long it takes the current to carry a drowned fly's corpse around one lap and return it to a spot in front of me. Every time I kick my feet, the late-afternoon sun refracts patterns that slither like electric eels across the bottom of the pool. The only sound is water caressing stone, as the hotel's fountain babbles away in the background. There's hardly a whisper of wind to disturb the protea.

Two minutes and twenty-seven seconds. I'm sitting by the pool, legs dangling in the water, timing how long it takes the current to carry a drowned fly's corpse around one lap and return it to a spot in front of me. Every time I kick my feet, the late-afternoon sun refracts patterns that slither like electric eels across the bottom of the pool. The only sound is water caressing stone, as the hotel's fountain babbles away in the background. There's hardly a whisper of wind to disturb the protea.

It doesn't seem feasible that I'm sitting less than two miles away from the stretch of rock with such a fearsome reputation among sailors: the Cape of Good Hope. Hope, perhaps, that once it had been rounded, you could open the sails and make for the Moluccas, Australia or India. But for captain and crew alike, after conquering the Doldrums and skirting around the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, what lay ahead was the Cape of Storms, as Bartolomeu Dias christened it when he first rounded it by mistake in a gale in 1487.

It is a favourite conceit of travellers that past events still echo across the years. If such a thing were true, then the landscape of the Cape of Good Hope would be haunted by the ghosts of shipwrecks. Looking at my map of the Cape, it is incredible how many wrecks are marked. To me they are no more than names, dates and cold statistics: the Thomas T Tucker, 1942; Phyllisia, 1968; the Oakburn, 1906 - right back to the most famous ghost ship of all, the Flying Dutchman, supposedly sunk in a storm in the 17th century as the captain swore a blasphemous oath. Table Bay, the gateway to Cape Town and the sight that launched a thousand postcards, is said to have more than 450 - mostly anonymous - wrecks in its waters.

But the wrecks of previous centuries are not altogether forgotten. Maori Bay - a great spot for a picnic or sundowner - took its name from an English steamer, the Maori, sunk in the bay in 1909. Railway tracks, champagne and crockery were among the flotsam that washed ashore. The bay, remarkably, also has two wrecks that impaled themselves on the same rock at Duiker Point and two more that lie on the sea bed on top of each other. Sometimes, it seems, we really do make the same mistakes twice.

Down the coast at Noordhoek, curious beachcombers can still prod the remains of the Kakapo. One May night in 1900 the captain, mistaking nearby Chapman's Peak for Cape Point, turned the ship hard left and steamed at full tilt a hundred yards up Noordhoek beach. The following dawn at low tide, the sheepish crew stepped on to dry land.

Many of the Cape's wrecks are now popular diving sites. Among the kelp forests and the rock lobsters and the nudibranchs, spectral hulks cast eerie shadows. And in an area that has wine trails, horse trails and even a birding route in nearby Simon's Town, the Cape Peninsula wreck route is gradually appearing.

"We chose which wrecks to feature on four main criteria," says John Gribble, the marine archaeologist at the South African Heritage Resources Agency responsible for setting up the route. "Some are great dive sites, some mark important events in the history of the Cape. Some we chose because they are visible from the shore - people are always asking 'what's that?' And some are of interest purely as ships in themselves, like a small whaler we've chosen."

The route will eventually feature about 30 wrecks, with signs on shore and on underwater plinths so divers can orient themselves and learn about conservation. "The importance of our underwater heritage gets underestimated," says Gribble. "It gets written off as a colonial heritage resource. But those passing ships represented political, economic and cultural systems that changed our subcontinent, for better or worse, for ever. They made South Africa the nation it is today."

Further along the coast, towards Cape Agulhas and the Indian Ocean, wrecks still litter the map. On Grotto Beach, near Hermanus, children collect seashells and poke a jellyfish abandoned by the retreating tide. A fisherman and his wife dig for mussels to use as bait for yellowtail or kingclip. And there is a constant hum as the sea laps at my feet, churning up the champagne air that hangs over the town and drifts up the Hemel-en-Aarde valley. But, like the Cape a hundred miles away, this peace is an illusion.

South from here, the next stop is Antarctica. Two of the world's great oceans meet nearby. Less than an hour from here is Waenhuiskrans, though few call it that anymore. It's called Arniston, after the British ship that sank in heavy seas, killing 372. And at the south end of Walker Bay, visible on the horizon, is the town of Gansbaai where the most famous wreck of all took place.

Eulogised by Rudyard Kipling and painted by Thomas Hemy, the Birkenhead disaster, though only one of many to occur on the rocks off Danger Point (the clue is in the title), is still remembered in these parts. On a calm night in February 1852, the troop carrier was steaming east off Gansbaai, towards Empire and glory, when it hit Birkenhead Rock. Within 20 minutes, more than 400 men were dead - some eaten by the great white sharks that frequent the seal colony of nearby Dyer Island. Ironically, the sharks now provide the town with much of its income, as tourists come to view them up close on cage dives. Even the wreck itself is occasionally diveable in favourable weather.

There are memorials, of course, and a shipwreck museum at Bredasdorp. But most of what you need to see is out there, on the stretch of shallow sea known as the Graveyard of Ships. And as the crimson sun melts below the horizon, I can see a cormorant circling and a man walking his dog. It's all so peaceful.

Give Me The Facts

How to get there

The Africa Travel Centre (020-7387 1211; www.africatravel.co.uk/sunsation) and South African Airways are offering the Sunsation 2004 package from £899 for travel between 19 April and 10 September. The package includes six nights b&b accommodation in three and five-star hotels in two provinces, return international flights, internal flights and all transfers. A double room at the Cape Grace Hotel (00 27 21 410 7100; www.capegrace.com) in Cape Town, costs from £343 per night.

Where to go diving

The Cape of Good Hope has about 40 or 50 diveable wrecks in its waters, though the dynamic nature of the conditions means some sites can appear and disappear weekly with the shifting sands. About 15 are mainstream recreational sites, ranging from easily accessible shore dives to more advanced, deeper dives such as the Lusitania, a Portuguese passenger liner that sank in 1911, four-years before its more famous namesake was torpedoed. The Atlantic coast has some of the more spectacular wrecks, though the marine life is more interesting on the eastern, False Bay side of the Cape, where the water can be up to 10 degrees warmer.

Several companies around Cape Town offer guided wreck-diving opportunities and to get the best out of the area you need local knowledge. Unreal Dive Expeditions in Cape Town (00 27 21 4255375; www.unrealdive.com) has two-dive boat outings from £43 (£33 for two shore dives), including equipment hire. Particularly recommended are the Antipolis, the Aster and the Maori.

Two Oceans Marine Adventures in Hout Bay (00 27 21 7908833; www.two-ocean.co.za) runs daily outings at £56 and £47. It usually combines one wreck dive with one reef.

Along the coast at Hermanus, Shark Lady Adventures (00 27 28 312 4529; www.sharklady.co.za), offers shark safaris from £82 a day, including light breakfast, lunch and equipment hire.

How to get more information

South African Tourism (0870 155 0044; www.south africa.net) and Cape Town Tourism (0027 21 426 4260; www.cape-town.org). For advice on diving in the area, visit www.cybercapetown.com/DiveCapeTown.

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