AFTER about three-quarters of an hour the aircraft stranded on a
rock among thick seaweed, 75 yards from the beach. Lowering
themselves into the water, the two mechanics found that they could
just stand. One on each side, they lifted Naude off the wing and
carried him to the beach. Then they returned to the wrecked plane,
and managed to salve a gallon tin of fresh water and two tins of
emergency rations. The tins had split open with the force of the
impact, so that everything inside was soaked with salt water except
the tins of meat. Examining them, Naude discovered with disgust
that their diet from now on would be mainly bully beef and
biscuits. The only variation from what he had been living on for
the best part of two months was that the biscuits this time would
For all that, it might just be that those biscuits would help
to save their lives. The airmen, therefore, taking off their clothes,
laid them on the sand to dry, and carefully picked out their sodden
biscuits and laid them, too, in the sun. Their matches they treated
As Rudman, despite his head injury, was the fittest of the
three, Naude sent him on ahead to try and intercept the convoy.
He left on the 32-mile tramp at half-past-three in the afternoon,
taking with him a water bottle full of fresh water, one tin of
bully beef, and half a tin of small biscuits.
It was not until three hours later that Naude felt fit enough
to walk himself. Then the two men started off up the coast,
carrying the rest of the water, three tins of bully beef, and two tins
They found it agony to walk, for every muscle in their bodies
was strained and in addition they had numerous bruises and were
suffering from severe headaches. The heat, too, was terrific. Every
hundred yards Naude had to rest, for he found it exhausting
walking in the soft sand and dragging one leg.
So they struggled on until dark, when they lay down against
a sand dune, too tired to talk, and tried to sleep. But shock, the
pain of their injuries and aching muscles, and a general feeling
of despondency, made sleep impossible. Their minds kept going
over the horrors of that dive into the sea. To add to their
discomfort, they were bitterly cold, being without blankets or shelter,
and their clothes were soaked through by the dew. There was not
even a piece of wood to be found, with which to make a fire.
Next morning they breakfasted sparingly on a few biscuits
washed down with a sip or two of water, then started on their way
again. They could hardly get to their feet because their joints were so
stiff. Actually Bloemhof had always to help Naude to his feet, as he
could not get up unaided.
The first hour was frightful, but after their muscles warmed
up walking became easier, though still far from comfortable. They
struggled on yard by yard, and about the middle of the morning
came upon pieces of aluminium from the aircraft, and Rudman's
tunic, which he had lost in the crash. They had drifted all this
way up the coast in the current.
Early in the afternoon they reached Rocky Point and climbed
to the sand ridge to look whether Uys or the convoy might by any
chance have left any food or water behind. But all they found. were
a few empty petrol drums. They were grateful of the shade they
provided, however, and slept there for three hours. Then they
carried on over the sand dunes. Once they halted with a
start when Naude's foot kicked up a grinning white human skull
out of the sand. Some poor devil who had played with death and
lost, unseen and uncared for, apparently. They trudged on silently
When darkness was falling they reached the wreck of the
Sir Charles Elliott. The tug was still lying upright and apparently
fairly intact, some hundreds of yards from the beach. They lay down
for the night in the shelter of a cairn of stones. It was the grave
of Mathias, the tug's brave native deckhand. But all they were
interested in then was finding shelter of some kind from the bitter
wind. They spent a restless and uncomfortable night, and got little
About four o'clock in the morning a bright moon arose, and
they decided to push on by its light, as they were very worried
whether Rudman had managed to get through to the river in time
to intercept the convoy. It was much cooler walking in the darkness,
but difficult to maintain direction, so they walked slowly.
At daylight they were able to see the outcrop of rock which
they knew was at the mouth of the river, some distance ahead, so
they decided to take a short cut and make direct for the water hole
four miles up the river. They reached it early in the afternoon, to
find Rudman waiting. He said he had arrived the previous night,
and had seen no signs of the convoy. There were no fresh tracks
to be seen in the river bed, so it seemed that the convoy had not
yet passed on its way home.
After a much-needed wash in the waterhole the men were
greatly refreshed. Although the brak water was too bitter to be
palatable, it was good to know that at least it would stave off death
from thirst if the worst came to the worst. Most of the food had
now been eaten, and there was enough left only for another day or so.
The airmen searched around for anything eatable that might have
been left behind when the convoy had stopped here for a meal on
the outward journey. Rudman gave a triumphant shout when he
located half a tin of peach jam wedged among some rocks. There
was a film of sand over it and it was covered in ants. It was
a precious find to Naude and his comrades. They scraped off the
sand and the ants and spread the jam on their biscuits. It made
them almost enjoyable.
While the knowledge that the convoy had not yet passed on
its return journey was reassuring, it did not dispel anxiety. what if
the expedition had taken another route home? Cogill, with his
experience of the country and the assistance of the tractor, may have
taken a short cut that by-passed the waterhole. It was fear of such
a change of route that made Naude send Rudman with his share
of the scanty store of supplies, to take up his post at the river
mouth to intercept the convoy there if it should pass down the coast.
When Rudman had gone Naude and Bloemhof, exhausted after
their two-day tramp and still feeling groggy in their legs, sought
shelter from the blazing sun in order to rest. The only shade
was that amongst the handful of reeds growing around the
waterhole. They were soon driven from there by swarms of ticks.
They had no alternative but to stand or sit, for the sand was too
hot to lie upon it, until evening brought relief. Then they wearily
sought along the river bed for enough wood to keep a fire going
through the night.
It was well they took the trouble. They had made their fire
and dozed off in the shelter of a high bank when they awoke
with a start to hear the sound of animals moving about nearby.
They threw more wood on the fire, but after a momentary pause
the noises resumed, coming closer. They heard the soft pad of
feet and the scrape of animals' bodies along the ground. Now and
again the firelight reflected upon a pair of yellow eyes staring
balefully out of the darkness.
The hungry animals came so close that one, slipping in sudden
fright, dislodged a cascade of sand and stones from the bank above,
upon the two men.
When the fire, and the occasional shouts and quick movements
of the airmen, failed to discourage the animals, which they
decided must be hyenas, Bloemhof and Naude took it in turns to
keep guard while the other slept. Once, when a daring animal
sprang to within a few feet of him, Naude had to frighten it off
with a shot from his revolver, which fortunately, was still functioning,
as he had carefully cleaned and dried it after its immersion in the sea.
So the night passed, and with daylight the hyenas went
away. But in their place came the crows. They appeared in their
dozens as from nowhere, as vultures come when they sense death
in the air, though they know their prey still breathes. The birds
followed the men's every movement, swooping low over their heads
or perching on the ground a few yards away, seemingly unafraid.
They seemed to be waiting expectantly for something to happen.
Time and again the two men's eyes strayed down-river, but
midday came and went and still they saw no sign of the convoy.
The sun blazed down again and seemed to scorch the ground under
Leaving his companion in the river bed, Naude dragged
himself to the top of a rock outcrop nearby where he could get a better
view towards the coast. Not a movement was to be seen. Except
for the screeching of the crows that had followed him the desert
was silent as the grave.
He sank down, too weak to stand, mindful no longer of the
heat of the rock that seared his flesh. Despair overwhelmed him.
It was more than three days now since the convoy men had watched
him fly away, and they must be well on their way home by this time.
He must have dozed off. He awoke with a whining in his
ears and thought he must be delirious. He opened his eyes and
saw a string of trucks rounding the bend of the river. He blinked,
then looked again. Yes, it was the convoy!
A few minutes later willing hands were helping him to the
shade of one of the trucks, while others were bringing food and
delicious, cool water, which speedily revived the two airmen. They
found Rudman on one of the trucks.
The convoy men explained that they had not started the
return journey until the morning after the plane had taken off.
They had actually deviated from the old route and tried to take
short cuts two or three times, but each time they got into such
trouble that they had to return to the original route. This had
delayed them. They described their astonishment when, approaching
the mouth of the Khurnib River, they saw the lone figure of a
man standing on top of a sand dune in the distance. They could
not make out what a man could be doing, apparently alone, in
this desolate region, nor how he could have come there. When
they reached him they found it was Rudman, almost at the end of
his tether, and overjoyed to see them. He told them of the plane
crash and of his companions waiting further up the river.
* * *
The airmen, and Naude in particular, were urgently in need
of medical attention. As there was no doctor with the convoy,
it was necessary to get them to Windhoek with the minimum of
delay. As soon, therefore, as the three men had been revived with
food and water, and their wounds were dressed, the trucks got under
way again. Being light, the track now clearly defined, and with no
mud or flooded rivers to contend against, they made good time
to Zesfontein. The only serious delay was caused by the porte
breaking an axle, which had to be replaced.
After passing through the worst section the three airmen and
Sergeant-Major Schlengerman pushed on ahead in the fastest truck.
Naude was now in the greatest pain. Trouble still dogged them,
however. They were miles from anywhere when the engine spluttered
and petered out. The carburettor was choked with water. Investigation
showed that some native, thinking the spare petrol tank was
a water tank, had topped it up with water. Under the boiling sun the
men went through the tedious job of draining the tank with the
aid of a billy can, skimming off the film of petrol floating on
top, and pouring it into the main tank. It took several hours to
separate six gallons, which was just sufficient to get them to a
trader's store 50 miles ahead, outside the prohibited zone. Late
that night they reached Outjo, to enjoy again at last the luxury of
a mixed grill washed down with cool beer. Next evening, four
days after the convoy had picked them up, the airmen were back
in Windhoek, under hospital treatment. Thankfully they shook the
dust of the Kaokoveld Coast from their feet.
Thus ended one of the most remarkable rescues of modern times.
Pitting themselves against the forces of Nature, overcoming one
misfortune after another, carrying on with unflagging determination
when the odds seemed hopeless, the rescuers had brought to safety
every one of the more than 100 castaways.
And the price that was paid for rescue?
Two lives, nearly 100,000 Pounds worth of material, a tug, an aircraft,
some trucks, and the expenditure of almost limitless brawn, sweat,
and courage on the part of some hundreds of people.
And the sequels?
The youngster whose mind had been affected while awaiting
rescue at the liner survivors' camp, and who had been found by
the search party after getting lost among the sand dunes at night,
reached Cape Town with his shipmates, apparently normal once
One day he walked into the shipping agents' office and
announced that he was mad. He wanted to be put into an
institution. He was sent to a nursing home for observation. He
escaped from it, grabbed a butcher boy's bicycle that was standing
against the pavement, dumped his load of meat into the street,
and careered away along the sidewalk. He had not gone far when
he bowled over an elderly man and his wife. Captured, he was
taken to an asylum. When the crew were repatriated he was
pronounced fit enough to go with them. But one night during the
voyage the falls of every lifeboat were found cut. Thousands
of lives were endangered. The youngster was the culprit. He
completed the voyage in a cell, under close arrest. He went straight
from the ship to an asylum when the ship reached England.
Smith, the leader of the first rescue convoy, suffered a
breakdown in health and eventually had to tender his resignation
from the police force.
Naude, the pilot who had been passed A1 physically fit by the
medical board that examined him for entry into the air force, came
back also ruined in health, to be honourably discharged from the
service a few months later, classified medically unfit.
And Annabel? She, too, became a victim of Skeleton Coast, for
she and the young fifth officer, Jimmy Thompson, fell in love with
each other there on that desolate beach while they were still castaways
awaiting rescue, and some time after their return to civilisation they
startled their relatives and friends with the announcement of their
Today, on a lonely shore where human eyes are unlikely ever
again to see them, except they be those of patrolling airmen, the
unceasing surf rolls over the wrecks of two ships whose names in
time will fade from memory. They will join the mystery ship whose
timbers lie in the sand near the skeletons of her crew, unknown
victims of the dreaded Skeleton Coast