The Ship That ‘Sailed’ From Beaufort West


In 1883 a steamer, shipped from Cape Town, arrived at Beaufort West station. Locals watched incredulously as bits and pieces of this 11m long steel-hulled ship, its 4kW engine and two propellers, were off-loaded, then packed and lashed onto two ox wagons, under the supervision of English adventurer, John Thorburn. As the wagons trundled off across the dry Karoo veld Beaufort Westers wondered what on earth he was going to do with a ship in the middle of the South African hinterland.

Thorburn had left England for America at an early age. There he tried his hand at many things. He was a planter, a slave trader and a soldier during the American Civil War. The discovery of diamonds drew him to South Africa, but he did not succeed as a miner, reports Eric Rosenthal in Shovel and Sieve.

So, at the cost of £4 000, he built a steam-powered boat, that could hold 300 tons. His aim was to ship goods down the Vaal to Kimberley, but his plan failed because the Thembe, with its 2,5m beam and 55cm draught, drew too much water.

Undaunted Thorburn set off on an incredible, 2 000km journey, fraught with immense challenges.  He set a course for the Mocambique coast, building roads where none existed.  Ever onwards he dragged the Thembe, the largest parcel ever conveyed across the South African veld. En route he painted and re-painted the vessel several times. It was tough going. One place was so rough it took four days to cover two kilometers. At another point on the epic journey a wagon overturned smashing the Thembe’s cabin to smithereens. Still Thorburn kept going. In 1886, with the end in sight, Thorburn walked to the coast, returned, built his final road, and within days launched the Thembe from the mouth of the Rio Spirito Santo.  Three years had passed since his wagons pulled out of Beaufort West’s station.


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