We are in Angola. Sitting on the Western Coast of Africa, the port of Luanda is the capital and largest city in a nation that has been one of Africa’s most war-torn, with rival factions battling between 1962-2002. Founded by the Portuguese in 1575, the city has finally achieving peace in 2002 after a long civil war, and the country is just now beginning to recover.
About a 30-minute drive north of Luanda there is an incredible sight: a barren beach with as many as 50 rusting ships on or near the shore, and It’s like being on the set of a post-apocalyptic Hollywood thriller.
Off shore and along this stretch of beach are dozens of rusting hulks of tankers, cargo ships, and fishing vessels, and at least 50 different abandoned boats here.
Some of the ships are close enough that you can wade out to them at low tide, like the Joaquin Kavongo, a massive transport vessel that literally is on shore during low tide, while others are just a rusting bridge or masthead above the surface of the ocean. Although it’s a bit difficult to get to this beach and although it is full of litter, it’s worth the trip.
The spot is officially known as SãoTiago Beach, near the town of Santiago. But the locals simply call it cemitério de navios, or the ship cemetery. A few like to call it “Marx Beach,” after the Karl Marx, one of the largest ships there.
There are lot of stories as to the background of the ship cemetery at São Tiago Beach. Some say that prior to the construction of the Port of Luanda, Santiago Beach was the spot where ocean-going freighters would offload cargo bound for the country’s capital. According to this story, the spot was not ideal and during storms, with nothing to tie to, some ships washed to the shore. Others were just abandoned there because it was much cheaper to do so. And eventually, when the Port of Luanda was opened after the end of the Angolan Civil War in 2002, the ships that had run aground were simply abandoned.
Others say that the area has been a designated ship cemetery since the 1960s. Damaged or derelict vessels were towed to what was, at the time, an uninhabited stretch of beach and left to rust away. According to the locals, some of the ships at SãoTiago Beach were damaged or destroyed during the war.
In any case, the ships at São Tiago Beach were put or left there intentionally, which makes the place a true ship cemetery despite the different versions of its origins.