In the winter of 1630 a large Portuguese ship the São Gonçales broke up in a severe storm while hove to for repairs off Robberg Beach.
Plettenberg Bay, the ‘Riviera of South Africa’, has been called by many names over the past 500 years.
In 1448, Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias dubbed it the ‘Bay of Lagoons’. In 1576, his countryman, Manuel da Mesquita Perestrello, called it ‘Bahia Formosa’ – Beautiful Bay. It was also called the Bay of Content, while in 1778 Cape Governor Baron Joachim van Plettenberg took one look at this idyllic spot and ‘graced’ it with his own name.
A scant four years later the dandy traveller Francois le Vaillant came visiting, and in his records he calls it ‘Blettemberg Bay’. He also inadvertently renamed the nearby Keurbooms River ‘Queur Boom’.
Call it what you like, Plettenberg Bay has been a glamour seaside spot of South Africa for ages, and these days, every Christmas it’s the place to see and be seen. Locals will tell you that at this time the ‘air is thick with helicopters’ carrying the rich and famous to the polo fields and resorts that dot the district.
This part of the Garden Route in the Western Cape was first inhabited by Middle Stone Age people who lived in a series of caves along the coastline for more than 100 000 years. It still yields the tools, middens and ornaments of the Khoisan who followed them.
In 1630, a Portuguese merchant ship called the Sao Goncalo floundered into Plettenberg Bay. About 100 of the crew went ashore and built a camp. They are noted as the first permanent European residents of what is fondly known simply as ‘Plett’.
Unfortunately the ship sank with the remaining 400-odd souls on board. The survivors stayed for about a year, building boats that would take them in small parties to India and, eventually, back to Portugal.
Dutch settlers moved into the Plettenberg Bay area early in the 1770s, which prompted Van Plettenberg to make a rather grand road trip from Cape Town across the wilderness to this marvellous bay.
Farmers en route were instructed to prepare banquets, supplies and relief horses for the passing grandee. The party was led by explorer-soldier Captain Robert Gordon, and two months later the governor had a special memorial stone erected on a hill above the bay to mark the occasion.
Van Plettenberg’s journey was shaded by that of Le Vaillant, who at one stage found himself on the wrong end of a Knysna elephant, hurtling through thick forests to escape the enraged beast.
His time at ‘Blettemberg Bay’ was marked with a rather rich supper of elephant trunk, and an equally astounding breakfast of elephant foot. He pronounced both to be delicious and proceeded on his jaunty way.
Serious family dynasties have settled in Plettenberg Bay over the centuries, helping to set up an infrastructure that is, in fact, still a work in progress. Every year, the fleshpots of Plett surprise, delight and astound the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the beautiful bay.
Walking along a quiet beach in Plettenberg Bay, one can imagine what this area must have seemed like to the first European explorers. The Western Cape of South Africa must have seemed an almost endless expanse of open sky, beaches and mountains. It is no wonder that the first Portuguese explorers named Plett “Baia Formosa” (translates to “Beautiful Bay”) as the ocean stretches calmly towards the Tsitsikamma Mountains, the coastline is in turn sandy and rocky and the sun seems to shine perpetually on the bay.
Although the coastline was originally mapped by mariner and explorer Bartholomew Diaz in 1488, the first documented visitors to Plett shores did not occur until 1630. The almost unspoilt beauty of Plett remains and a hike around Robberg Peninsula (or Ponta Delgada to the Portuguese) is an awesome reminder of how the area must have looked to these first foreign visitors. The story of how the crew of Sao Goncalo came to these shores is not a happy one. The Portuguese ship, having loaded a cargo of pepper and porcelain in India, was on a return voyage around the Cape of Good Hope (also known as the Cape of Storms) back to Portugal via the Southern most tip of Africa.
The ship entered the bay in June of 1630 due to excessive leaking and large amounts of water in her holds. Although attempts were made to repair the leaks, a portion of the crew and passengers disembarked into this strange and wild land. Then tragedy struck – a storm sank the Sao Goncalo – taking the lives of between 130 – 400 people(accounts vary). After the shock and horror of this sad event, the truth must have set in for those that remained on shore: they were marooned, stranded.
However, those that survived did not let this deter them. They set up camp within the sheltering arm of Robberg and began the task of surviving. The area is rich in indigenous wood and they set about building a church and two ships – a task that would eventually take them 8 months to complete. In the meantime, they would need water, food and shelter. They were fortunate that Plettenberg Bay has 3 rivers and an abundance of natural food resources including herbs, fish and wildlife. The local inhabitants were prepared to trade their livestock for coveted iron and seemed to have treated the survivors with curious civility although communication must have been nearly impossible. Despite the hardships of being stranded in an alien land – these remarkable people found a way to survive.
After 8 months in Baia Formosa, the two ships were ready and set sail; one headed for India and the other, Portugal. But these first visitors to Plettenberg Bay left behind a unique piece of history for us: in 1979, the Jerling family discovered the site of the survivor’s camp almost 350 years later! The site was littered with porcelain, incense and other artefacts for the crew of the Sao Goncalo to be remembered by.
The source of this blog is “Drama at Ponta Delgada” by Patricia Storrar:
“it is an enchanting stretch of unspoilt country, a place of huge boulders tumbled by a giant’s hand, of white sands, lichen-covered rocks, carpets of wild flowers, of shell-middens, bright-eyed inquisitive dassies by the hundreds and large colonies of sea-birds.”
There has been much debate on the location of the Sao Goncalo wreck but to this day she remains lost in her watery grave.
All then on board perished. About 100 others had been encamped on the beach, becoming South Africa’s first recorded European inhabitants, who built small boats which enabled them to depart nine months later, but leaving porcelain and other relics that are now on permanent public display at the Municipality offices in Sewell Street.