Gero Lilleike

Some 50 days after dropping anchor in Plettenberg Bay, disaster struck, and the São Gonçalo was ripped to pieces in a storm

One of the splendours of Plettenberg Bay lies tucked away in the bosom of the Robberg Peninsula, a golden beach, called Wreck.

When I’m blissfully floating in the waves at Wreck, revelling in the splendour of this beautiful bay, I ponder its remarkable history, as portrayed by the late Patricia Storrar in her book Plettenberg Bay, and the Paradise Coast.

Wreck Beach, Plettenberg Bay. Picture: Gero Lilleike

Baron Joachim Van Plettenberg, a Dutchman and Governor of the Cape of Good Hope, gave Plettenberg Bay its name in 1778.

Nearly 300 years before Van Plettenberg, Portuguese sailor, Bartholomew Diaz, set sail aboard the São Cristóvão from Lisbon in August 1487 and made his first landing in February the following year, at what is today known as Mossel Bay.

It was here that the local Hottentots or Khoikhoi first encountered the “pale men from the sea”. The Portuguese hoped to trade cloth, trinkets, bells, caps and necklaces for water and food.  The locals perceived Diaz’s goods unfit for trade and the communication barrier proved overwhelming, ultimately leading to conflict, with Diaz spilling the first blood by killing a local with his crossbow.

Knysna Heads showing the Knysna river and the Indian Ocean

Diaz moved eastwards, “discovering” the Knysna Lagoon viewed through the famous Knysna Heads. Further up the coast, Diaz found Robberg Peninsula which he named Cabo Talhado and ‘Baia das Alagoas’ or ‘bay of the lagoons’, known today as Plettenberg Bay. Diaz and his entourage kept pushing east, discovering Algoa Bay and finally reaching the Fish River in the Eastern Cape, where Diaz turned around and sailed back to Portugal.

The route to India had been realised and 10 years later Vasco De Gama set sail from Lisbon on the São Gabriel to land in Calicut, India, in 1498. Like Diaz, De Gama landed in Mossel Bay in 1497 and he, too, fired two bombards at the locals as well as taking aim at the helpless seals of Seal Island. This event marked the first sound of cannon fire to be heard along South Africa’s virgin coast. Many more ships would endure this ‘Great Trek’ to the east in years to come.

Plettenberg-Bay-with-Ponta-Delgada-on-the-horizon. Picture: Gero Lilleike

In 1630, one Portuguese ship, the São Gonçalo, captained by Fernao Lobo de Menezes, set sail from Goa, India for Portugal. Later that year, the São Gonçalo began taking on water and was forced to abandon the convoy and seek refuge in Plettenberg Bay.
Approximately 100 men set up camp in the dunes of Wreck, the armpit of Robberg, leaving close to 400 men onboard the São Gonçalo to conduct repairs to the stricken vessel. Some 50 days after dropping anchor in Plettenberg Bay, disaster struck, and the São Gonçalo was ripped to pieces in a storm in the bay with fellow countrymen looking on from the beach in horror as those on board perished, their dying screams fading away into the dark depths of the sea. To this day, no evidence of the São Gonçalo has been found.

Over the next few months, the castaways set about building two boats to escape this unforgiving paradise. They eventually succeeded and split into two parties, both sailing out of Plettenberg Bay in 1631. One boat set sail for India, the other for Portugal. The boat heading for India reached Mozambique safely while the other was rescued by the Portuguese vessel Santo Ignacio de Loyola on its return voyage from India. Almost a year after being rescued near Plettenberg Bay, the men onboard the Santo Ignacio de Loyola were almost home, but at the mouth of the Tagus River, near Lisbon, the ship sank, drowning all on board.

On the horizon I see a wave of time making its way towards me. This is my ride home. I paddle onto the wave and stand to attention as it carries me gently to the shore. Somewhere beyond these peeling waves, a dark shadow looms, forever enshrouded in the mystery that is the sea. A wreck lives here.