by John H Marsh

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 be salty.
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 similarly.
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 of biscuits.
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 and grimly.
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 sleep.
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 their feet.
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 more.
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 betrothal.
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

Copyright Michael Marsh(2020)

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