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Arniston: The story of a shipwreck town

Arniston: The story of a shipwreck town

First published in our January 2010 issue, take a trip back in time to the Arniston of a decade ago and beyond that, through history, to its very beginning. 

Gazing over the ocean from Willeen’s Restaurant and Guesthouse at Kassiesbaai near Cape Agulhas, we contemplated the countless ships to have been wrecked along this piece of coast. Our reverie was broken by a quad bike speeding past, the driver spraying gravel as he slid the machine to a stop on the edge of a cliff. Letting out a collective gasp, we expected the noisy vehicle to topple over the edge. No wonder the passengers were clinging to each other for dear life – the driver was around six years old and the three of them weren’t much older.

Arniston gets its name

Impressively rustic, the white-washed and thatched cottages of Kassiesbaai make it one of the most photographed and painted places in the country. Backed by towering white dunes, the entire place is a National Monument – yet it’s anything but a museum. As we watched, three boys climbed steps from the beach armed with fishing rods, buckets and surfboards. Others flew kites from a brick structure. Diana Murtz looked on while telling us she’d lived here all her life.

“Only people who are born in Kassiesbaai or who grew up in it can own or build a house in the village,” she said, leading me inside the restaurant cum shop to show me her paintings. Also for sale were curios made from shells, and crocheted or knitted items.

Kassiesbaai actually forms part of Arniston and provides the latter village with much of its old-world charm. Records from 1820 show that the area was inhabited by fishermen, and Kassiesbaai remains partly a fishing village. Legend has it that many years ago, paraffin boxes (kassies) washed up on the beach and the fishermen used these to build homes for themselves. Later, sandstone was used.

Pointing along the coast, Diana told us how Arniston got its name. “The British transport ship HMS Arniston was travelling from Sri Lanka to England with 378 passengers on board, mainly wounded soldiers, but also women and children, when it hit a reef here on May 30, 1815,” she said.

Traditional South African dishes

Willeen de Villiers of Willeen’s Restaurant and Guesthouse in Kassiesbaai, the National Monument hamlet where she was born. Picture: Jane Mulder

As with most of South Africa’s history, very little is known about the area prior to the arrival of the first European settlers. Strandlopers inhabited the shores, but next to nothing remains of them besides a few shell middens and some paintings and artefacts. Sadly, their contact with Europeans proved fatal as they succumbed rapidly to the smallpox and measles the newcomers brought with them. The last surviving Strandloper is documented as spending her final days in a cave at Hermanus, now named Bientang’s Cave in her memory.

Willeen’s was opened as a shop in 2003 by Willeen de Villiers, who was born in Kassiesbaai. She later added the restaurant, which concentrates on traditional South African dishes such as bobotie, pickled fish, lamb shank and chicken pie.

Next door, Lorna Agnew, opened the bed and breakfast section in September 2008 after being encouraged to do so by tourists. She says most of her guests are from Finland, Switzerland and Italy, plus a few from Cape Town.

Many people come after seeing her advertisement in the Tourism offices in Bredasdorp, other learn of her through word of mouth. Lorna’s husband, Edwin, was born in Kassiesbaai but Lorna herself comes from Kuils River.

Oldest monument in SA

Arniston Hotel

This huge old anchor outside the Arniston Hotel bears testimony to the role of ships and shipwrecks in the history of the area.

Walking along the coast and greeting elderly men with weatherbeaten faces, we came to a monument in front of the Arniston Hotel. It’s the oldest monument in South Africa and was erected in memory of the 372 victims of the wreck of the Arniston. A Mrs Giels, who lost her children in the tragedy, put it up after getting permission from Lord Charles Somerset, the Governor of the Cape at the time. We learned that bodies were still being washed up on the beach 90 days after the tragedy. Local people buried them 10-deep in the dunes.

Nowadays Arniston is a place of holiday and retirement homes and, as on previous visits, we came across a group of residents playing petanque (aka boules) on the top of a cliff. The games were started by Ian Wyllie, nicknamed ‘the Admiral’ because he hoists and lowers a flag every day, after he picked up the sport in France. We all agreed that the cliff top venue was the best in the world. Every evening Arniston locals flock here to enjoy the view, the sunsets, the camaraderie, the chilled libations and the jovial competitiveness.

Continuing along the coast between the houses and over and around the sand dunes, we glimpsed whales breaching in the bay, surfers riding the waves and fishermen waiting for a catch. This part of the Overberg coast is dotted with rocks and hectic surf, so no wonder it has seen countless shipwrecks – around 250, in fact. It lies on the historic sea route to the East and was a chilling challenge for seafarers in the past.

Tide coming in


Waenhuiskrans cave.

Arniston is also known as Waenhuiskrans after an enormous limestone cave in a cliff close to the town. The cave can only be accessed at low tide. While making our way towards it, we watched sand-boarders on the dunes, then came across a fisherman with some dogs. Two of our party, Maré Ascott and her daughter Melany, recalled seeing them on television. “He uses the dogs to catch fish,” said Melany as the man, whose name we later learnt is John ‘Apples’ Claasens, walked past.

Descending steps to the shore we negotiated slippery rocks around pools containing purple and pink sea anemones. Crawling through a hole, we entered the cavern. Inside the huge space, we recalled the claim that early settlers were able to turn a wagon still attached to a span of oxen around in it, hence the name Waenhuis.

We wanted to boulder-hop back to the beach but, with the tide rising rapidly, we couldn’t and had to retrace our steps instead. Wanting to know more about this hazardous stretch of coast, we then went to nearby Bredasdorp and the only shipwreck museum on the continent.


The tales of some of the ships wrecked on the Agulhas coast make for fascinating reading.

The luxurious Queen of the Thames came to grief on the rocks near today’s Skipskop during her maiden voyage when, because of a wild party on board, the watch mistook a fire on the Potberg for the Agulhas Light. Fortunately, all 200 passengers were saved – plus a stowaway found playing the piano in the saloon of the stranded ship a day or so later.

Then there was the Meermin, whose cargo of 140 slaves seized control of the ship while it was off the Overberg coast. Hoping to sail to Madagascar and freedom, they were tricked by the sailors into remaining off the Overberg coast instead. By a further ruse, involving messages floated to farmers on the beach, they were all recaptured or killed. In the meantime, the ship was wrecked.

For the full stories of these and other wrecks, read Tales of Shipwrecks at the Cape of Storms by John Gribble and Gabriel Athiros, published by Historical Media, or visit SAhistory.org for more on South Africa’s shipwrecks.

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