27 Nov 2020
Tales of adventure and lost treasure are woven around the desolate coastline of Namibia, which early sailors avoided in favour of more promising shores. Kilometres of barren desert coastline, often enshrouded in mist, did little to lure mariners of old. The intrepid Portuguese explorers navigated this coastline in the fifteenth century in small fleets of caravels, discovering new worlds and trade routes, stopping at points along the coast.
One of these spots Diego Cão called Port d'Ilheo (Point of the Island) in 1486 when he sailed into the lagoon, 50 kilometres south of Walvis Bay. Ancestors of the ≠Aonin or Topnaar people wandered along the coast, surviving on the ocean’s bounty, and myriad bird species gathered at this auspicious spot where fresh water from the Kuiseb River’s aquifer trickles through the dunes.
Constantly changing over the years, the lagoon was once accessible to ships and attracted entrepreneurs. Whalers began to travel down the West African coast in the late 1700s exploiting the Atlantic’s marine life, followed in the 1840s by guano-collectors who flocked to offshore islands like Ichabo to harvest bird droppings valued in Europe as fertiliser and dubbed ‘white gold’. The natural harbour of Port d'Ilheo became known as Sandwich Harbour, the name either stemming from the German word sandfisch meaning sand fish/sand shark or from the HMS Sandwich, sent on an expedition to explore the west coast of Africa, before coming to grief in the bay in 1792. Sandwich Harbour attracted various industries from the 1850s such as fish-processing and later, beef-canning.
Amidst the intriguing tales of shipwrecks, their flotsam washed up onto the beaches, is the tale of the eccentric German hermit who arrived at the fishing settlement of Sandwich Harbour in the late 1880s. Dressed in French military uniform, he arrived with a Cape Town merchant who had picked him up in Walvis Bay. He had a case of medical instruments and was accompanied by Otto, his Fox Terrier. From his various accounts, it was assumed that he had spent time in the French Foreign Legion.
Shy and introverted, the hermit erected a hut from driftwood and shipwrecked planks, a distance from the settlement. Although he was called the ‘silent Mr Doctor’ by local fishermen whom he treated, he was conversant in German, French and English. He became highly respected and was even said to be knowledgeable about the zodiac and geology. He obtained medicine for his patients from passing ships and treated and assisted the local community with medical matters.
As often occurs with the mysterious, rumours spread not only about his origins but also about his intentions. Some thought he was seeking the fabled treasure of a lost East Indiaman. According to legend, it held the riches of the Great Mogul on board, before being wrecked in the thick coastal fog after rounding the Cape of Good Hope. Surviving sailors and passengers were said to have buried the treasure on the beach above the high-water mark.
Although the hermit apparently had no luck finding the treasure, the local fishing community recalled a favourite story which added to the intrigue surrounding him. While on a walk one day along the dunes, the hermit’s dog uncovered an intact skeleton with several British coins dating from before the 1850s. The hermit recovered all the bones and reconstructed the skeleton with wire. He named him Festus and assembled him in the corner of his hut as a bodyguard. He fitted the eye-sockets with pieces of old mirror, placed an antique clay pipe in his mouth, used seal skin on his skull for hair and positioned shells for ears. He also dressed him in boots and a discarded khaki jacket, adorned with coins as if a decorated warrior. He adopted the habit of transferring Festus outside his hut during full moon where his mirror eyes would glitter in the moonshine and his arms would quaver in the breeze, keeping even the brave away.
The hermit lived out the remainder of his days at Sandwich Harbour, walking the beaches and dunes, aiding the local community and receiving supplies in kind from them. His legacy and that of his bodyguard Festus, however, survived long after his demise. Diamond mine workers and policemen en route to Conception Bay used to overnight at his hut, which became known as the übernachtungspontok. Not brave enough to share the quarters with the skeleton of the drowned mariner, adventurer, pirate or whaler, they would place Festus outside on their monthly visits. After repeated complaints by workers who believed in wandering ghosts, police commander Van Coller eventually issued orders in 1929 for Festus to be removed. Two desert camel-patrol constables were assigned the job. The one, on hearing of his undertaker duties, developed a stomach complaint and disappeared for three days, leaving the other to lay Festus unceremoniously to rest after thirty hard years of guard duty. He ensured that his spine was broken before he did so to prevent the dead person from visiting in the night. A wooden cross was erected and an empty Boegoeberg brandy bottle and a few shells marked the resting place. The grave disappeared into the desert sands in 1935.
Sandwich Harbour was eventually abandoned to the whistling wind, the birds and jackals. In 1890, the sand spit protecting the natural bay broke off, making the harbour too shallow for ships to enter, forcing people to make their way overland across miles of desert. Today, it is part of the Namib-Naukluft Park. Only a few ruins and shell middens remain, and a rich history of entrepreneurship, adventure, mystery and intrigue, the hermit and Festus included.
Von Schumann, Gunter E: Sandwich Harbour’s hermit and his strange skeletal guard known as ‘Festus’, 1990
Green, Lawrence: The coast of treasure, Howard Timmins, Cape Town, 1932
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