Experience the Northern Cape, South Africa

Did a German torpedo really end the life of the Piratiny, a Brazilian steamship that ran aground in 1943, 32km north of the Northern Cape coastal town of Hondeklipbaai? That’s what local legend says.

The 5 000-tonne Piratiny was, ironically, on its last voyage, headed for Cape Town, when one of the mighty storms that have been responsible for many West Coast shipwrecks blew up. The Piratiny came to a rocky rest while carrying general cargo, including bolts of fabric. A few weeks later it became obvious that not only had all lives on board been saved – the next nagmaal (a church service at which Communion is celebrated) was a nattily dressed affair.

This, and several other stories, are revealed over the five or six hours it takes to complete a fascinating 37km 4x4 shipwreck route (a good soft-roader can make the trip) along the West Coast between Koingnaas and Kleinzee.

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An aerial view of the shipwreck coastline near Hondeklip Bay (also known as Hondeklipbaai) in the Namaqualand region. (Image: Google Maps)

While Cape Town is notorious as the Cape of Storms, the West Coast serves up a particularly noxious set of circumstances for those who dare take on its waves. Safe anchorage sites are few; there are many places where rocks lie just beneath the surface and icy South Atlantic water is pulled north along this coast by the Benguela Current. All this combines with the land’s hot, semi-arid conditions to form thick fog that often reduces visibility to just metres.

The trail, which involves a lot of soft-sand driving, includes visits to the wreck of a fishing trawler that apparently moonlighted as a delivery vehicle supplying dagga (marijuana) to the diamond miners and fisherfolk in the area, and to the difficult-to-see wreck of the Dunblane, wrecked in 1953 on a set of rocks fairly far out to sea and only visible at low tide.

Along the way, the trail leader offers tidbits of information, mixing up shipping news with interesting histories of the rise and fall of the fishing and copper industries, the area’s fascinating geography, social history and natural sites.

Take the tour in spring when the famous Namaqua flowers are blooming and you will be treated to Namaqua daisies in the middelmannetjie (the continuous hump between wheel ruts on the road) as well as the vaalvygie (Wooleya farinosa), which is endemic to the stretch between Kleinzee and Hondeklip Bay. If you're lucky, you'll also see dolphins and whales out at sea.

Along this untamed stretch of coastline, spring wildflowers provide a colourful contrast to the wreckage of a fishing trawler that moonlighted as a "dagga boat". (Image: Courtesy of the Welchman family)

The rocks have turned a deep red where the rust from the Aristea has seeped into their pores. This fishing trawler ran aground in 1945, just south of Hondeklipbaai.

The tour ends with the impressive wreck of the Border. The British coaster ran aground just south of Kleinzee in 1947 after losing its rudder in a rough storm. Everyone on board made it to terra firma using a shoreline. Most of the 200 tonnes of petrol, explosives and other cargo it was taking to the Northern Cape’s copper mines was salvaged and donkey teams trekked the cargo to the nearest road, 2km away.

The rocky shores of Namaqualand are a gravesite of sorts for ships such as the Aristea that were crushed by these unforgiving seas. (Image: Courtesy of the Welchman family)

The shipwreck tour takes participants along coastline that can’t be accessed without a guide. Tours depart at 9am from a prearranged starting point, and applications for security clearances from the mines must be submitted at least 48 hours prior to arrival. Adults need to produce an identity document.

Accommodation options right on the Atlantic Ocean include the Koingnaas Caravan Park, various B&Bs and self-catering establishments in Hondeklipbaai or Kleinzee and the delightful self-catering Noup Divers’ Huts.

Contact Namaqua Coastal Expeditions for details: https://www.namaquacoastal.com/.