Mule train

A natural feature of Port Elizabeth since time immemorial was a band of drift sands stretching from Gulchways near Schoenmakerskop across the bush to Algoa Bay between Shark River and Bird Road.

To protect the town, in the 1870s it was decided to prevent the sands’ possible movement over the town by planting bushes and trees over the sand dunes. This process took 30 years. Apart from remnants of these dunes, none of this natural feature remains except the sandy soil. The consequences of tampering with nature always results in unintended consequences. In a separate blog I have addressed those negative effects on the ecological system.

This blog has been based upon an excellent article by Ivor Markman which was published in the Herald on Monday 20th July 2009

Main picture: Mule train dumping trash on the drift sands

In the 1870s, Port Elizabeth was menaced by a very real threat from the environment. Although it is not known if it was due to overgrazing, bush clearing or simply a natural cycle of nature, the delicate dune vegetation was slowly disappearing and a giant swath of land, extending from the western edge of Schoenmakerskop, past the border of Walmer and South End , right to beaches between Humewood and the beacon in Summerstrand was threatening to engulf the fledgling town of Port Elizabeth. Without the covering vegetation, sand drifted towards Port Elizabeth through the area known as Drift sands. Every time the wind blew, fine sand particles engulfed and killed all vegetation in its path.

The source of the never-ending supply of sand started at a point near Schoenmakerskop known as the Gulchways, a series of rocky ravines running outwards from the sea. There, huge quantities of sand were deposited on the land where, before the next high tide, the wind took the dry sand to a ridge 45 metres above sea level before it started its journey across the promontory.

The menace of the drifting sand was acknowledged soon after the arrival of the 1820 Settlers. An Ordinance published in 1826 stipulated that a fine of “£2 or £5” would be imposed on anyone “who shall cut, etc., any bushes or brushwood on the waste lands lying along the coast of Port Elizabeth”. The prohibition was intended to “prevent the loosening and drifting of the sand over the adjacent country“.

In 1870, the first warnings about the drifting sands went out when Sir John Goode, the harbour engineer engaged by the Port Elizabeth Harbour Commissioners , reported: ” It is to be apprehended that the sand proceeding from the great drift which has recently crossed the promontory at the fisheries to the north ward of Beacon Point may increase the quantity of sand so conveyed along the coast .”

The sudden increased amount of sand pouring into the sea posed a threat to the new harbour plans. In 1873, work began at the Gulchways with the construction of an artificial sand dune along the coast. An old farmstead, which used to stand at the Fisheries, near the present Humewood slipway, was completely engulfed by the encroaching sand in 1876.

Reclamation work began under the direction of William Stephen Webber. With the assistance of 300 labourers, branches and scrub cut from felled bushes on the Lovemore farm were transported in mule and ox-wagons to the drift sands. Webber’s sons, using special aprons with seed pockets, spread willow and waxberry seeds over the sands. Eighteen years later, at a cost of £32 000, 950 acres had been reclaimed. Fences and a road giving access to the dunes were built.

In 1887, the driftsands covered an area of 29 square kilometres but three years later the area had increased to 35 square kilometres. In many areas the sand had worn down to the underlying limestone. When small· drift of 39 acres opened up on the southern outskirts of town, the sand interfered with the harbour works. It covered tram tracks and destroyed rolling stock. Then another drift opened in Walmer and started spreading in the direction of South End, to the south of present day Walmer Boulevard.

By 1890 Webber had reached the vicinity of the Willows, but the main drift was still untouched, and the sand was creeping into Walmer and South End. The harbour commissioners were anxious to speed up work and wanted to stabilise the main drift sands and so they contacted Joseph Storr Lister, of the Cape Forestry Department, who had been successful in stopping a similar problem at the Cape Flats. Lister’s technique entailed spreading the town’s garbage on the sand, thereby providing a fertile seed bed for vegetation.

The affected area in Port Elizabeth was estimated at 9 700 acres. By depositing the town’s daily garbage output of 80 tons on the sands, two acres could be covered each day. Webber was pensioned off and the project was handed over to Lister and the Forestry Department. A railway line was laid with two tipping stations where refuse was loaded into the trucks. This line entered the drift sands where the Boardwalk Casino is now situated.

Working on the exposed drift sands was extremely unpleasant. Between November 1897 and October 1898, the south-westerly wind blew at more than 32km/ h for 183 days. On 78 of these days, the wind blew at more than 65km/ h. By 1897 the whole shoreline had been contained. The railway then travelled with its stinking freight right into the heart of the desert. Refuse was transferred at the railhead into small side-tipping wagons and hauled along light railway tracks by mules to the sand dunes. Then it was placed into wicker baskets and transferred by convicts who spread it over the sand. Two convict stations were specially built to house the convicts who worked on the project.

A seed cocktail of nearly 16 kg per acre, black wattle, rooikrans, Port Jackson willow, and pine trees, was scattered on the sands. Apart from being vigorously invasive, these plants have now been shown to impact negatively on our valuable water resources. Rye and Pyp grass , a sand binding plant native to South Africa, were also planted on the  dunes.  In  some sections,  sunflower and lucerne grew as well as a variety of seeds from the household refuge. These included pumpkins, tomatoes and oat-hay, sweepings from  all  the  stables  around  town.  Some  enterprising entrepreneurs found it profitable to harvest the wild oats as it cost just over one penny per bundle to collect. The market  price  was  sixpence per bundle.

In addition to this, the Forestry Department planted as many as 60 000 seedlings per year . The work was finally completed during the late 1910’s.

Known  as  the  “Driftsands Special,”  the  refuse train eventually chugged off into the sunset and its lines removed to make way for the  beachfront  suburb of Humewood.


Heroes of Yesteryear who saved city from ‘possible extinction’ by Ivor Markman in the Herald dated 20th July 2009

EP Dimble in Looking Back.


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