TODAY it is a vision of paradise. Almost 200 years ago, it was a vision of hell. It is a conundrum of the planet we live on that circumstance will dictate how we view the most spectacular of settings.
Standing on an embankment at Wavecrest overlooking Sandy Point on the Eastern Cape’s iconic Wild Coast at sunrise, you cannot quite comprehend the panoramic beauty and tranquility of it all.
It would have been little different in 1829 – apart from the 21st century luxuries of the resort where I am standing – but for the few survivors of a horrific shipwreck on this pristine stretch of coastline, the glory of a new dawn in Africa after a night of sheer torment and horror, may well have eluded them.
Lost in a strange land. More than half of those aboard dead, and no inkling of what the new day, the week ahead, or even the months stretching out before them, would bring.
This is the fascinating – and up till now little known – tale of Wavecrest and its forgotten shipwreck.
It has come to have so much more light shed on it thanks to the efforts and meticulous research by Scottish academic David Culpin, who has translated from French into English what he has described as a “forgotten book about a forgotten shipwreck”.
That French vessel was the Eole – its presumed grave now below the breakers at Sandy Point – and the subject of a book by a charismatic Frenchman living in the Cape in the early 1800s.
Charles Boniface, after meeting those survivors – eight out of a total of 20 people aboard the Eole – recounted in their words the story of their ill-fated ship and their survival and endurance against all odds.
“A sense of wonderment,” Culpin tells me, when I ask him what it feels like to have stood at the very point where those haggard, injured crew members and a passenger – whose bodies had been slammed against rocks – stumbled ashore.
“It is all so accurate – just as they described it,” said the researcher, who – through his painstaking work and the accounts of the survivors – finally laid his finger on the exact location, Sandy Point, where whatever remains of the wreck of the Eole must lie.
“Just as an example, the survivors told Boniface of how the waves had smashed them against rocks, but – because some of these rocks were flat – they had managed to cling to them as they were lifted up by the waves.
“Those are the exact rocks that are there today – you can picture all of it.”
Culpin said another intriguing aspect was how well Boniface had absorbed and then told their dramatic story.
“After reading the book, the survivors told him: ‘It is like you were there yourself’.”
It may have been a tragic and sombre day on April 12 1829, but thanks to Culpin, the Eole and her passengers and crew are now honoured with a monument, which was unveiled at the Wavecrest Beach Hotel and Spa by the French consul in Cape Town, Antoine Michon, in June.
It will be an added attraction for what has for many years been a firm favourite holiday getaway – and I mean really getting away from it all – for the whole family.
With its amazing fishing attractions – shore angling and light tackle casting in the mangrove-lined Nxaxo estuary – its stunning beaches, birdlife, and a resort that has been designed with the entire family in mind, the destination delivers on all fronts.
Don’t expect to be able to drive down the road for your favourite burger or some retail therapy – you are miles and miles from any hint of a commercial hub here.
But any fast food or mall visit craving will fly out the window. And instead you will be rewarded with an appetite-inducing sea breeze that will have you looking forward to hearty, home-cooked and mouth-watering fare.
In the two nights we spent at the hotel, we were treated firstly to a seafood spread second to none – the prawns and calamari were a delight – while on the following evening, a good old- fashioned braai with the most succulent meat and an array of the freshest salads took care of the inner man threefold. It’s got to be that sea air, I tell you.
With its pool deck – complete with Jacuzzi – and a variety of accommodation options (the fully-fitted and comfortable rondavels we stayed in were very much the right rustic option, with magnificent views as far as we were concerned), you can easily get used to this life in about 20 minutes.
One of the wow features – nay, two! – of the hotel are the bar-lounge chill-out area and a separate and immaculately appointed snooker room and library in a Tudor style that is a veritable after-dinner brandy affair, with its remarkably solid and imposing table.
The bar reminds you (if you’re old enough) of the days when cinemascope first came about.
The screen was so long you had to actually move your head to keep ahead of the antics of the Dirty Dozen as they trailblazed their way around the moviehouse.
Only here it’s all real, and the long bar counter overlooking Sandy Point offers you an uninterrupted view of estuary, dune forests and ocean, while even the kids playing area is directly in front, so you can keep an eye on them at the same time.
Other activities as diverse as spa treatments, hiking trails, canoeing or even flying if you have a plane – there’s a grass airstrip on the hotel’s doorstep – kind of complete the laid-back picture.
Fittingly, the hotel and its staff, led by Sean Pike, mirror the kind of hospitality that makes the story of the Eole – the name of which refers to Aeolus, Greek god of the winds – such a compelling one.
In Boniface’s book, the survivors relate how they were helped and warmly received by the Xhosa people and the missionaries they encountered in what must have been for them the most formidable of environments as they slowly made their way to Cape Town.
And by the way, Narrative of the Shipwreck of the French Vessel Eole was the first French book ever to be published in South Africa, with Culpin managing to locate only 10 surviving copies.
One unique version remains in the Port Elizabeth main library and the reason for it being special is that it is the only one of the remaining 10 that doesn’t have a “name and shame” list.
In seeking to have it published, Boniface had listed all the names of people who had promised to buy it in the front of the publication, but then scrawled a line through the names of those who later reneged. However, the PE copy remains – intriguingly – untouched in this manner.