Tuesday, 29 March 2016


Townsville Daily Bulletin, Saturday 12 October, 1933.


New Light on Mystery.

The mystery of the Waratah, which
disappeared 24 years ago on the South
African coast, may be solved at last
by discoveries made this year. A sunken 
wreck has been found that corresponds to her site.

On July 26, 1909, the Blue Anchor
liner Waratah, homeward bound to
England from Australia, left Durban.
A day later she was sighted by the
Union Castle liner Guelph to the east-
ward of East London. She was then
running eight hours late. Communication 
between the two vessels was
attempted, but the signals were indistinct. 
However, all appeared well with
her. Generally, the weather was reported clear, 
but later reports from other vessels indicated 
that there had been local gales. 

'Local gales' sounds like a gross underestimation of the storm which struck, 28 July, 1909. There are
however some sources claiming that this storm was exaggerated at the Inquiry, and weather reports for
28 July did not match the severity of the account. The log of the Clan MacIntyre was convincing, but
given the level of misdirection at the Inquiry, I would not be surprised if this storm was blown out of
proportion. After all, apart from Waratah, no other vessels large or small were reported missing.

There was nothing to occasion alarm at the time, 
however, and it was not until the Waratah was 
a week overdue at Cape Town
that reports began to appear in the
Australian newspapers. There was no
immediate anxiety. The newspapers
were occupied mainly with quite a
number of consoling theories. It was
believed that she was temporarily disabled, 
and drifting. The weather was calm. 

'Calm weather' is taking it too far.

Nothing could happen to so
good a ship. Correspondents recalled
the story of how the Boveric had
drifted for weeks in the Indian Ocean,
with a broken tail shaft in 1902, and
had turned up safe and sound.
Then more alarming reports came.
Two warships had searched the coast
in vain. Underneath a new series of
consoling theories the newspapers
printed the names of the 92 passengers 
and of the crew of 119, and particulars 
of her cargo of Australian produce, 
valued at £200,000. Reports
that bodies had been washed up were
printed, and denied. More remarkable
stories were recounted by correspondents 
as ground for hope. Rumours that she had 
been seen from the coast
became current and were found to be
false. Weeks passed. Nothing was
found. At last 15 steamers had passed
on her track, and seen nothing. Two
warships and several other craft had
searched systematically in vain. Not
a trace of wreckage reached the coast.
The owners were reported to be still
hopeful ; but the warships were instructed 
to give up the search, and
by the middle of September the Waratah 
had declined from the top of news
paper columns to obscure paragraphs
which told nothing new. The vanished
ship became one of the strangest mysteries of the seas.
In June last however, after 24
years, something turned up. Writing
on the 23rd. a South African correspondent 
to the "San Francisco Chronicle" stated:— 
"It is believed that the mystery of the Waratah has at
last been solved. .... A few days
ago the tanker Rigmor, steering round
the coast of Natal from Durban to
Cape Town, struck a submerged obstruction 
that appeared on none of the
maps issued by the British Admiralty
for the benefit of mariners."

This mishap took place at a distance
of one mile from the mouth of the
Umgababa River (Aliwal Shoal). When the vessel returned to port, 
and her damaged hull was examined, it was found that the
cut had been made, not by a rock, but
by a piece of jagged steel. Records
proved that only two vessels had ever
been lost along that coast— a small
whaler, the Norman, which disappear-
ed in 1903, and the Waratah. Under
Commander H. G. Hean, marine surveyor, 
of Durban, an aeroplane was
sent out to examine the locality.
Photographs and a cinema film were
taken over the spot described by the
captain of the Rigmor, and a large
submerged hull was clearly distinguished 
from the air.

"'Whether this belonged to the Waratah 
cannot yet be stated with certainty, but the 
facts at hand agree with the description surviving from
1909," the report continues. "The size
of the visible wreckage is too large
for the Norman. The mass estimated
to be 165 feet in length, and 45 feet
in width. Much of the remainder is
buried in the sandy bottom, which can
be seen clearly through sixty feet of
water at low tide. Divers will be sent
down to make an investigation."

It was never likely the Waratah made it this far attempting to return to Durban, and the most probable
candidate for the wreck described:

The Nebo sank in 1884 and lies inshore from the Produce. She was a 2000 ton British iron steamer carrying 4500 tons of railway materials. On her maiden voyage from Sunderland to Durban she struck the shoal and was holed. She quickly sank and lies hull-up on the sand in 25m (82 ft.)


The Nebo was thought to be top heavy and overloaded at the time - let's not go there... She was carrying materials for the construction of the Amanzimtoti railway bridge. Her wreck is still recognisable, 132 years later - giving us hope for the wreck of the Waratah.  

Nebo wreck


Stuart Flood said...

How common were shipwrecks along the east coast of South Africa? Just thinking of this from a New Zealand Perspective in which coastal shipping played a large role in the 19th century and early 20th. Not to mention ships from overseas especially trans Tasman liners which would often do a Tasman crossing from Sydney or Melbourne and then travel along the coast and back to Australia from Auckland or Bluff. From memory the total number of wrecks exceeds 2000 from 1795(first recorded wreck)granted some areas were more dangerous than others ie West Coast River ports and Cook Straight. The number declined in the 20th century as the rail network was completed and navigation became safer. How does the South African situation compare?

andrew van rensburg said...

Hi Stuart, thank you for drawing attention to the number of shipwrecks out there - an estimate of 3 million worldwide is quoted. I would imagine there was a decline in shipwrecks with progress and technology, accelerating from the 20th Century. The only source I have for South African wrecks comes from Wikipedia:


I would imagine that there are many dozens more which remain unidentified and lost to history. Andrew

andrew van rensburg said...

Stuart, also see: