A ship that vanished

2010-06-02 00:00

THE mystery surrounding the fate of the SS Waratah, the ocean liner that sailed from Durban harbour 101 years ago en route to Cape Town and England with 211 passengers and crew aboard and vanished without trace, is one that still exerts a fascination.

What happened? Why, despite endless searches, has no wreck ever been found? Or any wreckage, bar one lifebelt that washed up on an ­island between Australia and New Zealand, thousands of miles from where the ship was last seen. It is a story that draws treasure hunters, mystery buffs and sailors — in fact, just about everyone.

Now Cape Town-based author Marilyn Honkiman has written a children’s book about the story, The Mystery of the SS Waratah and the Avocado Tree, aimed at the nine-to- 13 age group. She offers no solution to the mystery, but shows children how to do their own research, in ­libraries and on the Internet. And the four children in the book who are drawn to the tale come up with their own ideas about what might have happened.

Honkiman’s interest in the story began when she lived in Durban’s ­Essenwood Road in the seventies. There was a huge avocado tree in their garden which produced fruit that could weigh up to a kilogram each, and were delicious. She puts two of the children in the book into the same house, and gives them the neighbour she had who tells them the story of the tree, just as he told her.

“There was a man, an engineer, called Claude Sawyer who was living in Australia — he was a New Zealander, but his wife was English and homesick. She had gone ahead to London, and he sailed from Australia on the Waratah. He took five avocados with him, and put the pips into five jam jars to grow. And he noticed that even when the sea was flat, the water in the jars was at a slant.”

Honkiman tells how none of the crew showed any interest in ­Sawyer’s concerns that the ship was listing, and so he decided to leave the Waratah in Durban and make other arrangements for his onward journey.

“He found lodgings in Essenwood Road, in what became Number 36, and planted his avocado pips in the area, leaving them to grow into trees when he left the city and went to England.”

This is the story told to the ­children, a story that Honkiman says she has told at dinner parties over the years, with great success. And in the book, she shows how the children set off on their own quest, reading books that have been written about the Waratah, including In Search of the Waratah by former Witness ­editor David Willers, finding out what happened at the official inquiry into the mystery, and eventually coming up with their own conclusions.

The result is an attractive book that should appeal to the sense of ­adventure in all children, tell them a wonderful local mystery story and show them how to research.

• The Mystery of the SS Waratah and the Avocado Tree by M. J.Honkiman, illustrated by Brice Reignier, is published by Tafelberg .

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