Mystery of the Waratah endures — 113 years on

Details of the Australian steamer’s disappearance off the Wild Coast in 1909 remain elusive

Periodically over the past 100 years or so, a particular subject flares up in this part of the world and becomes a talking point before retreating once more into the mists of time.

One of them is the story of the SS Waratah, which disappeared without trace off the treacherous Transkei coast in 1909.

Sometime during the morning of July 27, 1909, the Waratah disappeared in the vicinity of the Mbhashe River mouth and in spite of a widespread and lengthy search was ever found.

On the staff of the Daily Dispatch was a man called Fred Croney, who had a map of the Wild Coast coastline in his office. At a point somewhere off the Mbhashe River mouth, Fred had marked with a cross, a spot with a notation which read: “Here lies the Waratah.”

How the erudite Mr Croney arrived at this conclusion no-one knows but it was a journalistic topic of conversation for many years. The cold fact of the matter is that the steamer has never been found and apart from a few known certainties, anything ever published on the subject is pure speculation or unauthenticated.

For readers unfamiliar with coastal conditions in this part of the world, I have extracted with his kind permission, a description of ocean conditions in the area from a superb little booklet by Colin Urquhart, an Eastern Cape author, entitled Navigating SA’s Wild Coast.

Urquhart writes: “The largest stretch of unbroken water anywhere in the world lies in the Southern Ocean of Southern Africa. The prevailing seasonal easterly winds, free of any obstacle, flow in an anticlockwise direction up from the cold Southern Ocean around a high pressure system.

“Add to this fact that the continental shelf leafing off the southern tip of Africa is at its steepest and narrowest — in some places a mere five miles wide. Beyond this shelf and whipping along southwards at about four to five knots is the warm Mozambique-Agulhas current.

“The strong easterly winds, blowing for days on end, help create long, low troughs, sometimes up to a mile in length. Then during the winter months gale-force counter southwesterly winds come roaring up the coast, pushing against this flow and at times creating large and very high, steep-sided waves.

“One wave train can top another and when they meet they form an extra large wave that can be anything from 15m to 21m high, usually preceded by a very long and deep trough.

“This incredible mass of swirling green water with dense, fog-like spindrift whipping off its top is what mariners term a ‘rogue’ wave.”

This graphic description will leave you in no doubt that these conditions are extremely hazardous.

Most nautical authorities agree that the Waratah was trapped in this type of situation late on Tuesday, July 27, 1909. So sturdily built was the Waratah that she was known as Australia’s Titanic and regarded as virtually unsinkable.

On board were 211 passengers and crew and an assorted cargo of wheat, flour, butter and frozen meat and, some say, several thousand bars of gold bullion.

Things progressed smoothly until the ship ran into a violent clash of the elements off the Transkei coast.

The skipper of the Harlow reported he saw great plumes of smoke coming from a steamer on the horizon followed by two bright flashes leading him to believe the ship was ablaze. However, this was contradicted by his first mate, who said it was probably caused by brush fires on the shore so it was never officially reported.

Then at about 9.30pm the same evening, the captain of the Union-Castle liner Guelph passed a ship but because of the atrocious weather conditions was able to identify only the last three letters of her name: “T-A-H”.

The only other possible sighting, which was not disclosed at the inquiry at the time, came from a Cape Mounted Rifleman, Edward Joe Conquer who was posted to carry out military exercises on the banks at the mouth of the Xora River.

He recorded in his diary that he had observed through his telescope a steamship which matched the description of the Waratah. He said he saw the ship roll heavily to starboard and before she was able to right herself she was pulverised by a giant wave and disappeared from view, leading Conquer to believe she had gone under.

Since then many attempts have been made to find the SS Waratah but none have succeeded. The most notable being the endeavours of one Emlyn Brown, who in 2004 lamented that after 22 years of trying he had given up the search declaring: “I’ve exhausted all the options. I now have no idea where else to look.”

Perhaps that old map in the Daily Dispatch’s news editor’s office many years ago, holds the answer to a riddle no-one in 100 years has been able crack.



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