Despite prominent images of rusting ships embedded in the hostile sands of the Skeleton Coast, the most famous shipwrecks have long since disappeared. The harsh winds and dense fog that roll off the South Atlantic are strong forces of erosion, and today there are little more than traces of the countless ships that were swept ashore during the height of the mercantile era. In addition, the few remaining vessels are often in remote and inaccessible locations.
One such example is the Dunedin Star, which was deliberately run aground in 1942 just south of the Angolan border after hitting some offshore rocks. The ship was en route from Britain around the Cape of Good Hope to the Middle East war zone, and was carrying more than 100 passengers, a military crew and cargo.
When a rescue ship arrived two days later, getting the castaways off the beach proved an impossible task. At first, the rescuers attempted to haul the castaways onto their vessel by using a line through the surf. However, as the surge grew stronger, the rescue vessel was swept onto the rocks and wrecked alongside the Dunedin Star. Meanwhile, a rescue aircraft, which managed to land on the beach alongside the castaways, became bogged in the sand. Eventually all the passengers were rescued, though they were evacuated with the help of an overland truck convoy. The journey back to civilisation was two weeks of hard slog across 1000km of desert.
Further south on the Skeleton Coast – and nearly as difficult to reach – are several more intact wrecks. The Eduard Bohlen ran aground south of Walvis Bay in 1909 while carrying equipment to the diamond fields in the far south. Over the past century, the shoreline has changed so much that the ship now lies beached in a dune nearly 1km from the shore.
On picturesque Spencer Bay, 200km further south and just north of the abandoned mining town of Saddle Hill, is the dramatic wreck of the Otavi. This cargo ship beached in 1945 following a strong storm, and is now dramatically perched on Dolphin’s Head, the highest point on the coast between Cape Town’s Table Mountain and the Angolan border. In 1972 Spencer Bay also claimed the Korean cargo ship Tong Taw, which is currently one of the most intact vessels along the entirety of the Skeleton Coast.
More accessible wrecks include South West Seal (1976), just south of Toscanini and north of Henties Bay, and the Zeila (2008), 14km south of Henties Bay; the latter is close enough to the towns to attract touts and hangers-on.