Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Mackay Bridge over the Sunday’s River

The Sundays River is the Eastern boundary of the Nelson Mandela Bay metropolitan area and is situated right next to the Addo Elephant National Park’s southern boundary. The Khoisan people originally named this river Nukakamma (Grassy Water) because the river’s banks are always green and grassy despite the arid terrain that it runs through. It is said to be the fastest flowing river in the country. 

For many years, travellers to Grahamstown had to cross the river using a punt. Ultimately the need for a bridge was acknowledged. 

Main picture: The Mackay Bridge

The Sunday’s River

The source of the 250 kilometre long Sundays River is in the Compassberg Mountains near Nieu-Bethesda. The river then flows in a general south-south-easterly direction, passing the town Graaff-Reinet in the Karoo before winding its way through the Zuurberg Mountains and then past Kirkwood and Addo in the fertile Sundays River Valley. It empties into the Indian Ocean at Algoa Bay after running through the village of Colchester, 40km east of the city of Port Elizabeth.


Mouth of the Sunday’s River

The saga of the ferry

Not surprisingly, the initial river crossing had to be at a drift, the closest one being situated at Addo. Faced with the prospect of a circuitous route, there was a clamour for a more direct route to Grahamstown and the Albany District. The solution was to be ferried across on a punt. The original punt operated from a spot in close proximity to the location where the current bridge is located. It was leased from the Uitenhage Divisional Council at an annual rental of £300. This ferry service operated well for many years until the lessees became insolvent. The “lease of the waterway” as it was referred to, was then sold at a public auction to a Mr. Meterlekamp for an annual rental of £300.

Much like present day South Africa, where many changes are fought tooth and nail, so was the hand-over of the ferry to the new lessee, Mr Meterlekamp. When the previous lessee refused to give possession to the new owners, a law suit ensued. As the old owners refused to back down and surrender the ferry, the case was referred to the Supreme Court. Finally an order compelling them to surrender the waterway to the new lessee was granted.

A River Crossing by an Ox Wagon

As if matters could not get any worse, the former owners were dead set on opposing every step of the operations and hand over. The date and time of the removal of the old ferry and the new one being taken across the river was set down for 2 p.m. on Wednesday 29th September 1869. Overseeing the proceedings at the river was the Attorney, Mr. D’Urban Dyason. According to Dyason’s description of the events, this transition culminated in a “bun fight.” The former lessee refused to move their punt or to allow it to be touched. As it occupied the docking area, the new punt could effectively not be used. In desperation, the assistance of the road party was procured. They operated both as a guard and a shield as the old ferry was unmoored and moved to a location further down the river.

Sundays River in 1948

To top it all, the previous owners did not now relent. As the new punt was readied for its first voyage, the former lessee and his men charged down upon the new ferry and attempted to sever the mooring ropes. In the ensuing fracas, they were repelled by the road party who attempted to duck their opponents in the water. As the melee proceeded, the new punt swung its midstream with a few passengers on board. By traversing the Sunday’s River, legal possession of the passage was deemed to have been established.

Regardless of losing legal possession of the lease, trouble spluttered and brewed for many months thereafter. It was only when Meterlekamp instituted yet a further law suit which resulted in the former lessees being ordered to pay £500 for rental of the ferry (sic) and costs of the law suit, that matters drew to a close.

Sunday’s River Mouth

The Great Storm

In due course, the new ferry became known as the old ferry when the new ferry sank in 1874, having been washed down the Sunday’s River during a great storm, and had to be replaced by a new ferry.

Early in 1875, the Government informed the Uitenhage Divisional Council that a new pontoon would be delivered to replace the sunken ferry. This huge contraption, 100 ft long and 16 ft wide, was shipped by steamer from Cape Town. Akin to a jigsaw puzzle, all the teak pieces together with their metal sheaths were numbered so as to facilitate its correct assembly on site. The official launching ceremony was performed on Friday 21st May 1875 by Mr. Gie, the Acting-Chairman of the Uitenhage Divisional Council. It was christened the C.A. Smith.

Mackay Bridge over the Sunday’s River at Colchester. It was opened on 15 March 1895 and remained in use until the 1960s.

Far be it from me to comment whether the pontoon was jinxed but two months later when the river rose rapidly, the pontoon broke its moorings and drifted down to the mouth. On the following morning, it was found high and dry on the beach at the mouth.

The Council appointed a sub-committee to inspect the scene of the disaster and to report back. At the crossing, they found the superintendent and his assistants knee deep in mud attempting to get a heavy passenger cart onto a small pontoon. The Committee than rowed the six miles down the river to the spot where the pontoon lay beached. Upon inspection, the abandoned all hope of refloating it. Instead they recommended that it be dismantled.

In their report they attributed three reasons for its loss:

  • The treacherous nature of the river
  • The enormous length and height of the pontoon
  • The omission of the superintendent to ensure that the pontoon was securely tied up for the night.

In the meanwhile, traffic across the river was brought to a complete standstill.

A bridge is the solution

A battle of twenty years was now commenced to compel the Government to construct a proper bridge over the Sunday’s River. Through the sterling and persistent efforts of John Mackay M.L.A., the Government conceded to this request. Construction was duly commenced during February 1884 and the bridge was duly opened on Tuesday 5th March 1895. The official opening was performed by Mrs A.H. Garcia, wife of the Civil Commissioner of Uitenhage. In the presence of a huge crowd of dignitaries and members of the local community, the bridge was christened the Mackay Bridge in honour of the main proponent and supporter of its construction.

The bridge had been erected at a cost of £ 14 000, half of which was paid by the Government and half by the Uitenhage Divisional Council. The bridge was constructed entirely of steel and iron from Sheffield in England and was 700 ft in length. This type of bridge is called a steel Pratt Truss road bridge which has diagonals that slope down towards the centre of the span of the bridge. The approach from the west side is a 2 mile straight and level road and the deck of the bridge was made of wood.

As if the previous disasters were insufficient, disaster was to befall the bridge as well. The area experienced a disastrous flood on over the period 31st December 1931 and 1st January 1932 during which the bridge was completely submerged. As a consequence, the centre of the bridge collapsed. To meet the urgent needs of a replacement bridge, a temporary wooden bridge costing £ 1,075 was constructed at this location.

The construction of a replacement Mackay bridge, costing £ 25 000, was expedited. It was officially opened by the Administrator of the Cape, J.H. Conradie, on the 5th July 1938 and the wooden bridge was then dismantled.

After the construction of the new bridge over the Sunday’s River on the N2 highway, the Mackay Bridge was formally closed to traffic even though it is still standing and is still accessible on foot.







A Century of Progress. The Story of the Divisional Council of Port Elizabeth. 1856 – 1956 by J.J. Redgrave M.A. (1956, Nasionale Koerante Beperk, Port Elizabeth)

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