by John H Marsh

The airmen awoke, stiff and sore, after a restless night. The sandstorm was still blowing. The continual rocking of the aircraft during the night had settled the wheels several inches deeper in the sand.
After eating sparingly of their rations, they decided to go to the survivors' camp and try and get help to dig the plane out of the sand. First, however, they wrote three messages in the sand with the aid of a stick, for any aircraft that might come over. They wrote them in huge letters on the sheltered side of a sand dune near the aircraft. The first message was: "Advise wives"; the second: "Water"; and the third: "Generator u/s" (unserviceable).
The walk to the camp was heavy going and took three-quarters-of-an-hour. They found the survivors sheltering from the sand behind the sails of the lifeboat. Hardly any of them could walk owing to blistered and swollen feet, or through general weakness due to exposure and lack of wholesome food. All were suffering from eye trouble in varying degrees. The youngest baby, 13 months old Sidney Palmer, was in the worst condition. Dr. Labib said that he feared that unless conditions improved the baby would be totally blind in another two days.
Sunburn had blistered practically everybody's face and cracked their swollen lips. One of the young women who was seven months pregnant was in a pitiable condition. One of the men was delirious, with a temperature of 105 degrees, and the young lad whose mind had become affected the previous night was still behaving queerly, though he was no longer violent.
Though most of the people were listless and despondent, there were two of the women whose example was doing much to keep up morale. Mrs. Taylor and Annabel were determined not to let circumstances get them down. They continued to give attention to their appearance and never showed themselves "in public" in the mornings without first having tidied their hair, straightened out the creases in their frocks, and made what use they could of their vanity boxes. The others chivvied them endlessly, and called them "The Parisian Twins," but the term was one of affection and not of derision. Their cheerfulness and calm acceptance of their circumstances was one of the factors that prevented some of the other women from giving way to complete despair in face of their privations and disappointments.

It was apparent to the airmen that they could expect little help from the survivors, in their present condition, in getting their plane into the air again. They therefore abandoned the project for the present and instead watched the Nerine make another attempt to float food and water to them. While she lay at anchor during the night her crew had been constructing another raft out of dan cans and staves. On this they lashed a case of biscuits, two cases of bully beef, and five elliptical floats filled with fresh water. When all was ready the minesweeper weighed anchor and again steamed some distance down the coast. Then, carefully feeling her way towards the beach until she was in 30 feet of water, she dropped the raft overboard. The current took it and began to carry it northward up the coast, as it had done the others. A search was then made on board the minesweeper for any other watertight container that would float. Nine more elliptical floats were found. They were opened up and food was put into three of them and fresh water into the others. In order to leave sufficient buoyancy for them to float, they were not filled to the top. They were then sealed again and thrown overboard.
The Nerine had now used up all the fuel, water, and provisions that she could spare, and had only enough left to get her back to Walvis Bay. Van Rensburg therefore signalled to the beach that he was regretfully compelled to depart but that more help was on the way. At eleven o'clock she steamed away southward, carrying with her as unwilling passengers the liner's captain and her two officers. The captain would have preferred to remain on the spot until the last of his passengers and crew were rescued, but he had no choice in the matter. There was no other vessel standing by, and it would have been needlessly risking life to try and put him ashore through the surf.
The castaways did not watch the last of their rescuers leave them without a return of despondency. The airmen had confirmed the news that an expedition had started overland to rescue them, but they had seen enough of this part of the country at least to realise that an overland expedition would face almost insuperable difficulties. And there was no news of how the expedition was faring, or when it was likely to reach them. If only they could get news of what was happening, this dreadful feeling of uncertainty would no longer get them down.
The airmen and a few of the crew who could still walk, set out along the beach to the north, keeping pace with the drifting raft and hoping that it would eventually come ashore. They walked for nearly six miles before they saw it cast up on the beach. The going was easier on the firm sand at the water's edge. They found that other rafts that had been dropped earlier had also come ashore in the neighbourhood. There were several 44 gallon drums of fresh water on them. At the camp these would have been gifts from heaven. Six miles away they might never have existed for all the use they were. They were too heavy to carry and there was no other means of transporting them.

The men refreshed themselves from them and then searched around for anything else that would be of use. Fortunately they found two or three five-gallon tins of fresh water, which they were able to carry back with them. They also picked up some of the packages of biscuits and bully beef. The best treasure of all, however, was the canvas that was wrapped round some of the rafts. They took all they could find, for it would provide at least some of the protection from the elements that they so badly needed. Loaded with all they could carry, they made their way slowly back to camp. They arrived exhausted, but their joyous reception did much to make them overlook their weariness.
The airmen helped the more fit survivors to rig up crude shelters from the canvas, and they decided to spend that night with them rather than trek back to the aircraft. With the food dropped to them from the air the previous day, and that recovered from the rafts, it was possible to increase the ration for the evening meal to one tin of bully beef between two persons, plus a few ship's biscuits and a cup of tea, with the luxury of milk and sugar in it, each. The airmen found that the castaways were eating their beef cold, straight from the tin. This did not appeal to Naude and his companions, and they searched around for enough driftwood to make a fire, upon which they warmed their food. They made a stew by adding onions to their bully. Others followed their example and declared the warm dish to be "quite pleasant." That was quite an admission for folk who had existed morning, noon and night for five days almost entirely upon bully beef.
Another innovation that the airmen introduced was an evening camp fire. While this cheered most, it seemed to horrify others who felt that the supplies of wood ought to be conserved. However, Naude eventually convinced them that there was enough driftwood along the beach to last them for a very long time, and a general rule was laid down that anyone who left the camp should bring back with him an armful of wood. This arrangement worked satisfactorily and solved the fuel problem. Evening fires became an institution and a reassurance to the more timid ones, who had become disturbed by the announcement that animal spoors had been discovered near the camp. Naude, who had had experience of hunting in the Kalahari Desert, identified some of them as the spoors of jackals and hyenas. The hyena spoors were the size of a man's hand, the animals having specially large pads for walking on loose sand. One heavy, catlike spoor found some distance from the camp could not be identified for certain. Dr. Burn Wood and others thought it was the spoor of a lion, but Naude was sceptical. He doubted whether lions could find enough to live on in this area. The jackals and hyenas made a poor enough living, existing mainly upon the dead seagulls that were periodically washed up by the sea.

None of these animals was ever seen by the castaways. They seemed to hide themselves among the sand dunes by day, and to reconnoitre the camp by night. During the first few days the castaways had seen no other living thing except occasional seagulls, but now bird life seemed to have learned of their presence and the curious came to inspect. First tiny sandpeckers appeared on the beach, criss-crossing the sands with their dainty little footprints. Then came black-and-white crows, more seagulls, and once even a swallow.

Copyright Michael Marsh(2020)

Return to main page