Inferno on the water: how a pleasure cruise on a KZN lake turned into tragedy

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
The ill-fated ­Shayamanzi houseboat ­before it was destroyed by fast-spreading fire and a gas explosion. (PHOTO: Supplied)
The ill-fated ­Shayamanzi houseboat ­before it was destroyed by fast-spreading fire and a gas explosion. (PHOTO: Supplied)

It sounds like a safari-loving holidaymaker’s dream: cruising on a luxury houseboat, your every need catered to while you survey the lush scenery and teeming wildlife in and around the lake.

For Lesley Millan Schroeder, her time on board the 12-person Shayamanzi houseboat as it drifted lazily down Lake Jozini in KwaZulu-Natal was the experience of a lifetime.

“The crew treated us like royalty and went out of their way to make our trip memorable,” she says.

But barely a week after she set foot on it, the boat was gone, destroyed by fire in a tragic event that claimed the lives of three people.

houseboat, fire, Jozini Dam
All that’s left of the luxury houseboat is a burnt-out husk. (PHOTO: Supplied)

Among the victims was Michael Mirschel (64), a tourist who’d travelled from Germany with his two sons and their friends to savour the sights and sounds of the African bush from aboard the Shayamanzi.

Guests and crew were forced to leap into the freezing lake – the water was only about 5°C in the middle of the lake – when the fire started. Michael drowned, alongside crew chef Michael Chilizani Phiri (51).

A week later, police divers retrieved the body of deckhand Maxwell Bongani Nyawo (36), who’d also drowned.

READ MORE | Four survive tragedy at sea after 32 days adrift in South Pacific

His sister, Busisiwe Nyawo, is heart­broken.

“We are devastated,” she tells YOU. “This is the first time something like this has happened – it’s unbelievable. We’re still in shock and have so many questions about what could have gone wrong.”

Lesley is also battling to make sense of it all. Having lost a relative to drowning a few years ago, she takes water safety extremely seriously. “Before we went on board, my husband got a tour of the boat,” she says.

“The captain went through the safety protocols with us and explained how each person had a life jacket and a fire extinguisher in their cabin.”

The captain was at pains to ensure their safety, she adds, and even moved the boat to a more sheltered spot whenever the weather was rough. “There was no way we would’ve got on board if we’d felt unsafe in any way,” she says.

“Whatever happened with the fire, happened very quickly.”

READ MORE | Dad tells of harrowing boating accident that killed his daughter: 'You just can't imagine it'

Michael arrived in South Africa on 30 September for his ill-fated trip, accompanied by sons Alex (35) and Mario (30).

Alex had visited the country before and had booked the exclusive charter, inviting his best friends, Robert Verbanec and Shahsad Rahman (both 35), along for the trip.

“I brought my most important people to this country to show them the beauty,” he says.

One of the highlights of their stay was taking in the wildlife at Pongola Game Reserve near Lake Jozini.

On that fateful day, Alex, Mario and Shahsad were watching elephants from a small dinghy steered by a Shayamanzi crew member when a storm suddenly hit.

“We headed back to the houseboat where Dad and Robert were waiting with the rest of the crew,” Alex recalls.

“As we went ahead with the little dinghy, we saw a fire on the houseboat and rushed back.”

When they got to the boat, the gas tanks on board had exploded and the vessel was engulfed in flames, forcing ­Michael and Robert to jump into the ­water. Alex and Shahsad also jumped overboard when their dinghy came too close to the flames.

“Dad was already in so much shock that unfortunately he didn’t find any energy to fight independently,” Alex says.

“I was able to reach him but couldn’t keep him up alone.”

After calling for help, they somehow made it to some rocks, but by then it was too late for Michael.

The group of six survivors, which included two crew and four guests, desperately tried to resuscitate Michael, but their efforts were in vain.

houseboat, fire, Jozini Dam
German tourist Michael on the boat before the events that claimed his life. With him are his sons, Mario (middle back) and Alex. In front are Alex’s friends Shahsad ­Rahman (left) and Robert Verbanec.(PHOTO: Supplied)

Now Alex is racked by grief. “The last 48 hours have been the worst of our lives,” he said in an emotional tribute posted on social media.

“I am so sorry. I wanted to show him why I love South Africa so much and I did everything to make sure we have the most beautiful trip,” he continued.

“It hurts so much to handle these pictures and this powerlessness. We really tried everything.”

The cause of the fire is being investigated by the South African Maritime Safety ­Authority? (Samsa). Spokesperson Tebogo Ramatjie says it’s believed the vessel caught fire as it was passing Crocodile Bay.

One of the deckhands noticed smoke coming from the engine room and upon investigation discovered one of the engines was on fire, Ramatjie says. “What happened after that will form part of the investigation.

“Part of the investigation will include a maintenance log for the engine, what firefighting equipment they had on board, licences for the boat, crew and the skipper and whether the required licences held by all were valid.”

Ramatjie emphasises that for a boat ­licence to be issued by Samsa, the boat must be inspected by boat surveyors ­accredited by the ­authority.

In the wake of the accident, there were rumours that the boat owners were aware of an engine fault but didn’t think it would cause a fire.

Samsa declined to comment on the allegation, citing the ongoing investigation.

Dave Miller, who spoke to YOU on behalf of the owners of the boat, said they had nothing new to report.

On the company’s Facebook page, Shayamanzi luxury boat owners Roger and Kim Blevin say they’re devastated by the tragedy.

“We are doing everything possible to understand and support the investigation and impact on our guests, crew and their families.”

houseboat, fire, Jozini Dam
A picture Lesley Millan Schroeder took of Maxwell Bongani Nyawo as she and her husband started their trip. The crew treated them like royalty, she says. Maxwell lost his life in the disaster. (PHOTO: Supplied)

According to the same Facebook page, the Shayamanzi was a 25 x 8m double pontoon boat that has operated on the lake since 2002.

Jozini municipality’s disaster, fire and rescue manager Ayanda Gumede said the passengers wore life jackets at the time of the fire. The matter of whether they were fastened properly is likely to form part of the investigation.

Alex and Robert are planning to sue Shayamanzi Luxury Houseboats. Alex, who’s a photographer, says he also lost technical equipment such as cameras, lenses and a laptop.

The rest of the tour group also suffered damage, including the loss of possessions, passports, IDs and rental car keys.

“We are in touch with a German attorney in SA already and will soon mandate him,” Alex says.

The brothers and their friends have returned to Germany while the German embassy handles the repatriation of ­Michael’s body.

“We are safely back home. Our sister and mom are really struggling but they are trying to be strong,” Alex says.

“For now, it’s time to be there for the family and to grieve together in peace.”


We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Show Comments ()