Port Elizabeth of Yore: The History of the Van Stadens Area

The river was named after Marthinus van Staden, one of the area’s pioneering farmers. He was also among the first to plot a rudimentary track through the valley. It is through the steep, winding gorge for which this River is renowned.  

The Van Stadens River rises in the Elandsberge and cuts through the Van Stadens Berg. Just east of the river on the N2 one may see rounded, marine gravels, dating back 30 million years BP, resting on Table Mountain quartzite.

Main picture: The Witteklip Rock which served as a scratching post for elephants and later used for a more mundane purpose as an outspan for wary travellers

Early travellers and adventurers

Numerous adventurers, mainly foreigners, moved through this area before the Dutch farmers encroached from the west. Many commented on the copious quantities of animals especially large herds of elephants and buffaloes. They also came across isolated homesteads of indigent Dutch farmers.

  • In 1752 , Ensign August Beutler was at the mouth of what was already known as the Van Stadens River. Beutler was in the employ of the Dutch East India Company and headed an epic 1752 reconnaissance expedition lasting 8 months from 29 February to November, eastward from Cape Town as far as the present-day site of Butterworth
  • In 1772, Carl Peter Thunberg noted the assegaaihout trees. During his three-year stay in the Cape Colony, the Swede managed to perfect his Dutch and delve deeper into the scientific knowledge, culture and societal structure of the “Hottentotten”, the Dutch name for the Khoikhoi, the native people of Western South Africa. During his three expeditions into the interior, Thunberg collected a significant number of specimens of both flora and fauna.
Thunberg, Oil painting by Jacob Fredrik Ek

  • In 1775, Anders Sparrman commented that the river’s mouth was blind. Sparrman, a Swedish naturalist, practiced medicine in Cape Town, earning enough to finance a journey into the interior. He was guided by Daniel Ferdinand Immelman, the young frontiersman who had previously guided the Swedish botanist Carl Peter Thunberg. Daniel and Sparrman reached the Great Fish River and returned in April 1776.

Anders Sparrman
  • In 1804, Henry Lichtenstein wrote about all of the farmhouses which had been burnt down by marauding bands of Xhosa. He even undertook an excursion to visit the fabled lead mines on Christian Vogel’s farm.
Henry Lichtenstein
  • In 1816, Christian Ignatius Latrobe noted that the trees were heavily covered with moss known colloquially as Old Man’s Beard. Latrobe
    was an English clergyman of the Moravian Church, as well as an artist, musician and composer. In 1815 Latrobe voyaged to the Cape of Good Hope to visit the Moravian mission stations there. Once there, he journeyed from Genadendal to GeorgeUitenhage, and the Great Fish River.
  • In 1820, John Wedderburn Dunbar Moodie described the forests as “swarming” with elephants and buffaloes. Moodie was a Scottish-born army officer, farmer, civil servant and writer in early Canada.

John Wedderburn Dunbar Moodie
  • In May 1839, Adulphe Delagorgue recorded that Old Man’s Beard was used by ornithologists to stuff bird skins. Delagorgue was a famous French adventurer, artist and naturalist who visited the interior of South Africa at more or less the time of the Great Trek

Adulphe Delagorgue

Van Stadens’ pass and bridges

This part of the history of the Van Stadens river is handled in a separate blog

Van Stadens’ River Mouth

This part of the history of the Van Stadens river is handled in a separate blog

Apple Express Bridge

Just upstream of the N2 bridge, the 60 cm (2 ft) gauge Avontuur Railway crosses the Van Stadens River over a 78 m (255 ft) high bridge.  The van Stadens railway bridge is the second highest (77 meters high) narrow-gauge bridge in Africa, after the railway bridge at Victoria Falls. This spindly-looking steel bridge being 156m long and 77m high was constructed using 1 112 cubic metres of concrete and 574 tons of steel is along the longest 2ft (610mm) narrow-gauge railway line in the world. The 285km line was built to ferry fruit from the Langkloof region to the harbour in Port Elizabeth. But the rise of road freight haulage in South Africa – helped by the large road bridges along the N2, no doubt – eventually put paid to the railway line’s viability and it was subsequently closed.

Railway bridge over the Van Stadens Gorge

This narrow-gauge line from Port Elizabeth was authorised in 1899 and construction commenced in 1902, reaching the town of Avontuur in the Langkloof late in 1906. The line was built to connect the scenic Langkloof with its fruit growing industry to the port of Port Elizabeth. The official opening of the line was in 1907, with a main line track length of 284km (177 miles) from Port Elizabeth to Avontuur. The 30km branch line from Gamtoos Junction to Patensie was completed in 1914 to serve this citrus producing area. The establishment of the deciduous fruit industry in the Langkloof, and the use of the narrow-gauge to transport fruit to the cooling sheds in the Port Elizabeth harbour for export, led to the popular name for the narrow gauge, namely the Apple Express.

Van Stadens Bridge on the Avontuur Line P2432_01_141

Tolls, Outspan and Railway Station

On the Port Elizabeth side of the Van Staden’s Pass through the van Stadens river a toll was erected in1870 that covered the area at the entrance to Yellowwoods farm and Woodridge school where the old Cadle’s hotel stood in the coaching days. The locals still refer to this place as “eToleni”, referring to the toll. The  building later served as a tearoom and thereafter as the house for the headmaster of a Moravian school. The old tollhouse has disappeared, but the school buildings are currently (2014) the stables of an equestrian centre.

The closest railway station of the Apple Express to the Van Stadens, is the Witteklip Siding. It is at an elevation of 244 metres above sea level and is one hour and 23 minutes travelling time from Humewood Road. It was officially opened for traffic in May 1905.

The Van Stadens River Outspan was based on the former farms High Bickington and The Gorge. Outspans were used as a gathering place where wagons were outspanned, and the oxen allowed to rest and graze while the weary travellers rested. With the demise of the ox-wagon, in November 1948, the Divisional Council made the Outspan available for the development of a flower reserve.


Gazetteer of the Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage Divisions of the old Cape Colony, compiled by Bartle Logie and Margaret Harradine (2014, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)


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