Port Elizabeth of Yore: Sand dunes, Inhabitants and Animals

Imagine if I told you that 250 years ago a Swedish botanist by the name of Thunberg spotted a herd of 500 buffaloes in the area 20 minutes from the centre of Port Elizabeth called Kragga Kamma. First all the large animals were eliminated and then the smaller ones. Today all that remains is a recently opened small game park in the area. Apart from that, originally the area from Cape Recife to Humewood to Bushy Park was one giant field of sand dunes. Sadly this natural wonder has been replaced with Port Jackson Willows. What size was Port Elizabeth before the arrival of the Settlers?

Some of these developments were beneficial but others were disastrous. It depends upon one’s point of view. But such is the cost of progress.

Main picture: Hunting in Bushy Park

Animals & Vegetation

The following has been recorded about the local inhabitants and the wild animals in the vicinity of Port Elizabeth from the book entitled The Collegiate Church and Parish of St Mary, Port Elizabeth:

In 1772 the present division of Port Elizabeth then formed part of the territory of the Inqua Hottentots – now called Khoikhoi – who had not yet lost their lands, although they owed a nominal allegiance to the Dutch “Jan Company” who ruled in Cape Town. 

Khoikhoi

Khoikhoi

Thunberg, a Swedish botanist, made a scientific expedition in 1772 in which he skirted Algoa Bay and crossed the Zwartkops and Coega Rivers. Some days’ journey after his leaving the last Dutch Farm in the Long Kloof (sic), he came to the Van Staaden’s River. The Hottentot town which was the abode of the Inqua Chief was just across the river on the heights…

 Arrow heads and other Hottentot implements have been found there in such numbers as to show manifest traces of the former Hottentot town. Thunberg exchanged civilities with the Chief and then went forward and outspanned in the fertile and beautiful Kraggakama valley. Kraggakama is a purely Hottentot word and means “sweet water.” 

Thunberg, Oil painting by Jacob Fredrik Ek

Thunberg, Oil painting by Jacob Fredrik Ek

At Kraggakama he saw five lions and had to guard his camp very watchfully. He went forward full of admiration of the beautiful forest scenery of what is now known as Chelsea and Bushy Park and saw there a herd of about 500 buffaloes. This bushy country continued until he reached the shores of Algoa Bay which was fringed by conical sand hills covered with dense bush all the way from the Zwartkops mouth to Cape Recife

By the time that the Settlers arrived, most of the large animals were extinct in the Port Elizabeth vicinity. What remained of the elephant population was now as far as Addo. This did not mean that the locals desisting from hunting. I can still clearly recall all the stuffed animal heads on my maternal grandparent’s lounge wall. The local inhabitants still participated in animal hunting especially those on the Bushy Park property at Sardinia Bay.

 

Hunt at Bushy Park

Hunt at Bushy Park – Setting out

Bushy Park hunts became famous and were a feature of Port Elizabeth life for many years. Those invited “arrived in carts, bringing with them riding horses and dogs. There was much talking and loading of guns on the wide stoep….The women of the family were taken in carts to the place where the warriors would assemble for lunch, and there were cold chicken pies and coffee.”

After a good day's hunting

After a good day’s hunting

A fishing hamlet not yet christened Port Elizabeth

The following is from a book called “Panorama of Port Elizabeth” by Eleanor K Lorimer.

Page 11:
John Barry, who visited Algoa Bay a little later, in 1797/8, found there, besides “General Dundas’s post”, only a new but disused storehouse for wheat. Nevertheless he thought it “the prettiest situation for a small fishing village that could possibly be imagined”, and noted that the institution of the garrison had heartened the Frontier Boers and provided them with a market for their surplus soap, candles and butter. 

Jacob Uitenhage de Mist

Jacob Uitenhage de Mist

Farmer Dirk Gysbert van Reenen, who came in 1803 with General Janssens, during the Batavian regime, admired the neat buildings and the splendid English vegetable garden, but thought the site ill-chosen because of the dangerous surf. Shortly after the visit of General Janssens, in 1803, the Bay was reached in 1804 by Councillor Jacob Uitenhage de Mist, Commissary-General of the Republic, with a party of about forty persons.

The ivory trade in 1875

The ivory trade in 1875

Page 14:
De Henry Lichtenstein, German tutor to the son of Governor Janssens, who with his pupil travelled with de Mist’s party to the Eastern Cape described the Algoa Bay settlement as he saw it. “On the last hill, which goes down to the shore”, he wrote, “stands Fort Frederick, built by the English in 1799. Eight guns, 12 pounders, command the shore and protect the buildings lying near, and the barracks, guard-houses, etc. 

Henry Lichtenstien

Henry Lichtenstien

Westward of the hill on which the Fort stands, comes from a deep gully a little stream called Baakens River. At the ford of the river, which is concealed between the hills that rise on each side of it, is another Block House, which under the English government was prepared in Cape Town and sent in parts by sea to the Bay. It serves at once as a prison and as a guard-house. Between the block-houses lie extensive barracks for soldiers, a magazine for provisions, and another for military stores and field [page 15:] equipages, a smith’s shop, a bake house, a carpenter’s workshop and other small buildings; a strong powder magazine, which will contain about 2000 lbs of powders, is within the fort itself. Some small houses have been run up in the neighbourhood for the officers, among which the house of the Commandant is the most distinguished”. (It had four rooms). The powder magazine still stands within the shell of the old Fort, but all the buildings outside of it have disappeared. It seems probable, however, that the houses erected in the 1830s and still standing in Cora Terrace, off Bird Street, were built upon the old foundations of those “small houses for officers”.

Entrance to Fort Frederick 1819

Entrance to Fort Frederick 1819

Page 22:

About 1812 that picturesque personality, Frederick Korsten, took possession of the farm and wooden huts at Papenkuilsfontein originally owned by Ferreira [on land just north of the present Port Elizabeth], and gradually built up from there a flourishing circle of businesses. Having contracted
to supply the Government with salt beef for army consumption, he invested in coasting vessels to transport it and other produce of his lands to the Western Cape. He founded a whaling industry and employed natives to flense whales on North End beach. He established seal fisheries, a tannery and cooperate, and retail stores at Uitenhage and Grahamstown as well as at Algoa Bay. Naturally he acquired much extra land …. practically encircling the present Port Elizabeth.
 

Cradock Place

But the centre of it all remained Papenkuilsfontein and the beautiful and luxurious house he erected there….Many famous and illustrious visitors were entertained there during the lifetime of its owner, among them Sir John Cradock, Lord Charles Somerset, Dr James Barry, Sir Benjamin D’Urban, Sir Lowry Cole, the naturalist Lalande, Makana the Lynx, the Governor-General of India, George Eden, 1st Earl of Auckland, and his sister novelist Emily Eden.

Page 29:
Our first impression of the country at which we had at length arrived, “The shore was girt with an array of barren sandhills, behind and close to which appeared a series of rugged and stony acclivities, and in the distance behind these, the dark and gloomy range of the Winterhoek mountains frowned upon us”.

In his book “Narratives of a Residence in South Africa,” this is Thomas Pringle view of the village at the mouth of the Baakens River.

Thomas Pringle from Narratives

Fields of encroaching sand

If Port Elizabeth had not been developed at its present location, the area might well have been declared a world heritage site today as it comprised large swathes of sand dunes stretching across the whole of the southern littoral.

Much like Johannesburg was a half a century ago when on a windy day the whole city was covered with a layer of dust, so was the surrounding area which became Port Elizabeth.

Sand dunes covering the whole of what was to become Humewood and Summerstrand

Sand dunes covering the whole of what was to become Humewood and Summerstrand are discernable in this early photograph of Port Elizabeth taken from the Donkin Reserve

In order to prevent it strangling the future development it had to be brought under control. To do so, they employed the dune busters. [If Shakespeare is allowed to invent phrases, so am I]

It was in the later 1870’s that Mr Joseph Storr Lister, a Government forestry official, was first brought from the Cape to give advice on the menace. He was still a young man, but had already had experience in the arrest of drift sands in Australia. The coast in the region of Bushy Park being a danger point, Lister, who was a distant relative, was invited to stay with the Lovemores, and thus combined his serious work with a gay social life among the lively young people who made up the large family. The drift sands were gradually planted with tiny seedlings of Port Jackson willow, imported from Australia and sheltered until they had established themselves, by branches cut from Bushy Park forests. As the branches faded they provided much needed humus, and the planting went on along the coast for many years until at last the task was successfully completed.

Mr Joseph Storr Lister

Mr Joseph Storr Lister

 Assistance in binding the sand had been provided by the town’s refuse which, even as late as the early 1900’s, was still being dumped daily on the ‘desert of drifting sands’. Every day the Driftsands Special, a small train of trucks drawn by a locomotive, puffed out and dumped upward of 80 tons of rubbish in the heart of the dunes.

 Success was achieved, and the magnitude of the task can be appreciated if it is realised that the belt of sand stretched from Bushy Park, across the peninsula to the present Summerstrand, and that within a few years it had increased from 18 to 22 square miles in extent. The reclamation campaign, led by Joseph Storr Lister saved the town and harbour, and a cairn of stones, dedicated to his memory, has been erected at Summerstrand. To him the town owes not only its prosperity but its very existence as a thriving port, and those who complain that Port Jackson willow has almost ousted the indigenous vegetation should remember the debt we owe it and be thankful. In the spring of every year it makes a golden glory of roads and places round the city where we might have been faced with mounds of sand incapable of supporting any kind of vegetation.

Map showing the earliest subdivisions of farms in Port Elizabeth (J J Redgrave)

Map showing the earliest subdivisions of farms in Port Elizabeth (J J Redgrave)

The Drift Sand Bypass System

Originally this driftsand bypass system comprised three dune fields viz the Noordhoek dune field, the Driftsands and Cape Receife dune systems. These bypass systems used to take sand into Algoa Bay

The main sand bypass, known as Driftsands, covered the whole area between Schoenmakerskop and Summerstrand.  In the late 1800’s the dunes started to threaten Port Elizabeth and plans had to be made to stabilise them.  At first a steam train was used to dump the town’s garbage on the dunes and you still find areas where pieces of old bottles, plates and other objects can be found.  In the beginning of the 1900s the area was stabilised by planting Australian wattles such as Rooikrans and Port Jackson as well as Eucalyptus trees in an attempt to start a commercial forest.  This stopped the Driftsands dune field from moving sand into the bay.

In the 1960’s the municipality built sewerage maturation ponds in Cape Recife.  These fell right into the path of the moving Noordhoek dune field and a decision was made to stabilise the leading edge of the dunes by planting vegetation.

Noordhoek Dune Field

Noordhoek Dune Field

From the angle of the picture the back end of this dune field can be seen.

Before the reclamation of Driftsands, about 170000 m3 of sand got deposited into Algoa Bay and onto the beaches every year.  After Driftsands was reclaimed, the sand entering the bay from the remaining two dune systems dropped to around 78000 m3 a year.  This again dropped to only 26000m3 a year after the Noordhoek dune field was stopped in its tracks.  The only sand being deposited into the bay now is from the small Cape Recife dune field next to the lighthouse.

Seeking redemption

Like progress everywhere, progress both destroys and enhances. The prevailing consensus is still that the destruction of the natural habitat and the animals is justified if it enhances mankind’s welfare or leisure. It is a Faustian bargain for nature. It is always the loser. Always was & always will be.

Kraggakamer Game Park

Kraggakamer Game Park

In setting aside the deep rooted prejudices that mankind must always triumph in these issues, sometimes a small concession is made. In this case it was the Kraggakama Game Park which was inaugurated in October 2001. It might be a meager 250 hectares, a fraction of the historic range of these animals but it is a concession.

It covers almost 250 ha of land consisting mainly of grasslands but also an all-important tract of indigenous Alexandria Forest. The name is a Khoi name meaning “pebbly water”.

Kraggakamer Game Park#02

The farm was also the one-time property of Sir Frances Evatt of Fort Frederick fame who apparently used it for hunting purposes. Later the Governor apparently reclaimed the land – which had been a gift – and it was sold to the Botha’s. It remained – decreasing in size as the years went by – in their possession for several generations until the Whitehead’s purchased it. The Cantors bought it about 20 years ago.

Kraggakamer Game Park#03

Also of interest is the farms early history and that of the river that runs through it. The river has a French name after a party of French sailors who were sent ashore, in the days before harbours and established refreshment stations, to find water. According to the story as told to Michael Cantor,
a storm arose and after several days of waiting the ship moved on, assuming that the shore party had been drowned. They hadn’t. In fact, they camped at Kragga Kamma game park where they came into contact with the San who lived there. The River from which they drew their water was later named Franscheriverin in their honour.

 

Related Blogs:

Port Elizabeth of Yore: Russell Road

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Horse Memorial

Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Horse Memorial

The Parsonage House at Number 7 Castle Hill Port Elizabeth

What happened to the Shark River in Port Elizabeth?

A Pictorial History of the Campanile in Port Elizabeth

A Sunday Drive to Schoenmakerskop in 1922

The Three Eras of the Historic Port Elizabeth Harbour

The Historical Port Elizabeth Railway Station

The Great Flood in Port Elizabeth on 1st September 1968

The Friendly City – Port Elizabeth – My Home Town

Sources:

Books:

The Collegiate Church & Parish of St Mary Port Elizabeth by Wrigman & Mayo

Panorama of Port Elizabeth by Eleanor Lorimer

Narrative of a Residence in South Africa by Thomas Pringle

 

Internet:

Background on the establishment of the game park: Various URLs

Noordhoek Dune Field: https://portelizabethdailyphoto.blogspot.co.za/2016/03/the-noordhoek-dune-field.html

 


2 Comments

  1. I’ve only read three of your posts so far, growing to enjoy your site! Any chance you are planning to do an article about Richmond Hill soon? I’ve lived there (St Phillip’s Street) since 1985 and haven’t seen any detailed history about that area.

    Keep it up!

    Thanks! :)

    Reply
    • Hi Christina, I have been scratching around for photos and details on the history of Richmond Hill but I have found very little. Maybe I will be lucky eventually. If I find some info I will write a blog especially for you.

      Reply

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