6 Nov 2020
Padlangs – Manni Goldbeck
While staying at The Delight hotel in Swakopmund at the beginning of the year when Covid-19 hadn’t yet rocked the world, I took a slow drive up the coast to Cape Cross. Unknown to most, the boisterous Cape fur seal colony conceals a rich history. The headland, 130km north of Swakop, was a bustling centre in the late nineteenth century, harvesting both guano and seals. Who would have guessed?
It was first visited by Europeans centuries ago when Portuguese explorers left their homeland for years at a time, braving the vast oceans in their small wooden vessels searching for resources and new trade routes to the East. Renowned Portuguese navigator Diogo Cão went ashore to erect a cross (or padrão) amidst the rocks at a place he called Cabo do Padrão – Cape Cross. The year was 1486 and he would never return home. His fleet returned without him and the circumstances of his death remain mysterious.
It would be another four hundred years before the strip of desert coastline would attract attention of an entirely different kind. This time the cape was reached overland. In 1895 a man by the name of Walter Matthews travelled over the desert (no mean feat at the time) northwards from Swakopmund on an expedition to look for seals. On discovering a healthy population of seals congregating at Cape Cross, he also noticed that the rocks were caked in layers of guano (bird droppings), which was highly valued as a fertiliser in Europe, so much so that it was dubbed ‘white gold’.
Matthews returned excitedly to Swakopmund with the news, and with the help of a wealthy uncle established the Damaraland Guano Company. He was granted a concession to look for guano deposits and to harvest the seals in the area. As Cape Cross lies in the inhospitable Namib Desert, far from human habitation, all equipment and necessities had to be brought in by ship from Britain, including potable water.
Just a year later, the bleak coastline had transformed into a bustling operation. There were a hundred workers mining the guano and collecting seal pelts, and a cluster of buildings, which included a post office, police station, customs office and condensation plant. Ships called in regularly and men stayed on and joined the labour force.
It didn’t last long. By 1903, after only nine years of production, the rocks had been stripped bare and the seal population had dwindled. Even before the ten-year concession agreement had expired, the customs office, post office and police station had closed down.
In the short time of its existence, however, Cape Cross made history. It boasted the first strip of railway in the country, a 21-kilometre track that was constructed to transport pelts and guano to awaiting ships. And, it can also lay claim to the first ‘highway robbery’ when the postman was accosted between Henties Bay and Swakopmund while delivering mail.
All that remains today of the industry are a few weather-beaten crosses at the entrance to the Cape Cross Seal Reserve and a rusty strip of railway that peeps out unassumingly from the sand.
Bridgeford, P&M. Cape Cross: Past and Present, John Meinert Printers, 2003.
The Cape Cross Lodge Museum
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