Take me to the river

Posted by Marion Whitehead on 3 June 2020

Life and leisure time in Port Alfred, jewel of the Eastern Cape’s Sunshine Coast, revolves around water.

Words & photographs by Marion Whitehead

Start a love affair with the Kowie River in the small-craft harbour at Tash’s Craft Bar (left), with sundowners and boat watching. Image: Marion Whitehead.

Talking Heads’s liquid song of love and longing may be about a girl, but I couldn’t get their lyrics out of my head as I drove into Port Alfred, a sleepy town tucked into a curve of the glassy-green Kowie River just before it greets the Indian Ocean on the Eastern Cape’s Sunshine Coast. ‘Take me to the river, drop me in the water…’ could be the anthem of the laid-back folk living here, who seem to have a love affair with all things aquatic.

Kelly’s Beach has maintained its Blue Flag status as
the town’s top swimming spot for many years. Image: Marion Whitehead.

There are plenty of great beaches here, but the river is what sets Port Alfred apart. Chilling on the terrace at Tash’s Craft Bar, guzzling fish and chips, I watched boats coming and going from the small-craft harbour. A booze cruise full of noisy tourists floated past, then a quiet man and his dog in a canoe, and a family in a speed boat chugged slowly through the no-wake zone, heading up the tidal river. The Kowie’s navigable for about 22 kilometres and passes private game reserves where wildlife is often spotted.

I started my own watery odyssey with Let’s Go Cruises. Our barge eased along a canal in the upmarket Royal Alfred Marina, where every mansion has its own private jetty, before turning into the river proper and heading upstream. We glided along at a dignified pace passing the town’s historic wharf. Cleopatra would have approved, I mused, even though there were no slaves rowing in the back, just a modest amount of horsepower as Captain Graham Reilly steered us safely past a submerged wreck.

Port Alfred’s oldest commercial building in Wharf Street is now the home of The Little Brewery on the River and The Wharf and Quay Restaurant. Image: Marion Whitehead.

After disembarking, I explored Wharf Street on foot. ‘This is the oldest street in the town,’ said Carey Webster of Never to Forget Journey, a local tour-guide company. Pointing, she continued: ‘That stone building was the harbour master’s office and three-masted schooners used to dock at the quay in the port’s heyday.’

Wharf Street is now a mini-waterfront with a number of eateries, shops, a craft brewery and an art gallery. Large sepia pictures of the town in a bygone era adorn the walls of The Wharf and Quay Restaurant, depicting Victorian beach parties and the old pontoon that operated before the bridges were built.

The town’s historic mill has a prime spot on the river and is now a private residence. Image: Marion Whitehead.

The story of the river features prominently at the Kowie Museum nearby. Wagons and early vehicles used the pontoon until a bridge was built over the river near Wharf Street in 1908.

‘The Putt Bridge was the first reinforced-concrete bridge in South Africa and had lattice sides,’ said curator Marilyn Pattenden. ‘It was later replaced by a wider bridge more suitable for cars. Today’s bridge is the third one.’

The Nico Malan bowstring girder bridge was completed in 1972. Image: Marion Whitehead.

However, the most distinctive feature on Port Alfred’s skyline is the Nico Malan, a 17-metre-high bowstring girder bridge, where the R72 coastal road crosses the river at the small-boat harbour.

Without the Kowie River, this thriving seaside resort town would not exist. Some 200 years ago, British immigrants who settled in the Lower Albany area (Albany was a district incorporating Makhanda, formerly Grahamstown, Bathurst and Port Alfred) saw its potential as a port. One, William Cock, was instrumental in getting the river mouth moved and dredged deep enough for sailing ships to enter – the pier today was built from stone quarried nearby.

A cruise on the Kowie River is the number one activity for visitors. Image: Marion Whitehead.

‘The river is the lifeblood of this town,’ declared Sandy Birch, manager of Sunshine Coast Tourism. Locals were busy gearing up to host the annual Amanzi Challenge, a 10-day festival of water sports held in April each year. It’s grown to include an international surfing competition at renowned East Beach, the SA Bodyboarding Champs, a national rubber-duck racing event and a one-mile river swim through the marina. Terrestrial events include beach handball and a trail run along Kelly’s Beach.

‘New this year is a jet-ski route. The 10-day event is great fun for spectators as well as participants and is designed to showcase what Port Alfred offers, taking place on East and West beaches, the small-craft harbour and the marina,’ she enthused.

The Kowie River mouth still requires dredging to keep it open for modern pleasure craft. Image: Marion Whitehead.

With R1-million in prize money, courtesy of headline sponsor Royal St Andrews Hotel, the event attracts top local and international competitors. One of the spin-offs is that children from local schools get sponsored to take part in swimming, surfing and bodyboarding clinics.

The following day big thunderclouds gathered overhead. I met up with birding fundi Tim Cockcroft and discovered that many lifers are easily ticked off in the area, thanks to the variety of habitats. But at the Albany Vintage Car Museum I spotted a rarity of a different kind: a 1934 Singer rally car, with leather straps to hold the bonnet closed on rough roads.

Longboard surfing champ Dave McGregor starts lessons with the basics on popular East Beach. Image: Marion Whitehead.

Surprisingly, Port Alfred has the third-busiest airport in South Africa, if you count the number of landings and take-offs, according to Marnu Pelser, my tour guide at 43 Air School. Here, there’s not a Boeing in sight – unless you count the scale model outside the flight-simulator building where trainee pilots get their first taste of flying.

As lightning forked the sky that evening, I saw the Kowie River in a dark mood from the Lily Restaurant at MyPond Hotel. The following morning, while I ate breakfast on its riverside terrace and watched the Saturday-morning park runners bounding along the riverbank under sunny skies, she was back to an alluring, glassy green.

Renae Purdon of Outdoor Focus gives first-time canoeists a safety briefing before they launch at Kiddies Beach. Image: Marion Whitehead.

I selected a canoe outing from the list of activities offered at Outdoor Focus and our flotilla of yellow craft launched in the safe shallows at Kiddies Beach before heading for deeper waters. The Kowie River began to work its magic and soon even the newbies were paddling happily.

Apparently, Father Christmas also likes to take time out on the Kowie. On the right day of the year, in the right place, and if you catch the right moment, I’m told you’ll see him, with a boat instead of a sleigh, skiing up the river sans everything but his red hat. They say he sings ‘Jingle Bells’ as he skims over the water, but I suspect that’s just a rumour…

Map: Getaway Magazine

Plan your trip

Getting there

Port Alfred is on the R72 midway between East London and Port Elizabeth.

When to go

It’s a year-round destination, as the winters are mild.

Do this

Outdoor Focus is a one-stop shop for boating activities. River cruises from R120 pp for an hour, canoe hire R100 per hour plus canoe trails, combined with hikes in Mansfield Game Reserve, for R900 pp (full-day trip) or R1,600 pp (overnight).

Scuba-diving courses and customised adventures are also offered. 061-524-6519, outdoorfocus.co.za

If you’re keen on deep-sea fishing, Blackfish Charters departs at 5am and returns at 11am. R1 200 pp includes bait and tackle. 082-818-8995, blackfishcharters.co.za

East Beach has the best waves for surfing. Polish your moves with longboard champs Dave McGregor and sons of Shaka Surf School (R350 per session). 082-335-4764, find it on Facebook.

Take a guided historical tour of town. From R350 pp (half day). 076-152-2927, nevertoforgetjourney.co.za

The museum route includes the Kowie History Museum which exhibits the story of the Kowie River, the 1820 Settlers and shipwrecks in the area. Open 9am – 12.30pm Tuesday to Saturday. Entry R20 pp. 071-288-8228, kowiemuseum.co.za

Richmond House Museum focuses on how William Cock moved the river mouth to develop the harbour. Opens by appointment, donations welcome. 082-456-7437

For motoring enthusiasts, Albany Vintage Car Museum is open by appointment (R25 pp). 082-453-2618

Displays of aviation memorabilia dating back to World War I and II can be seen at 43 Air School Museum. Opens by appointment. Free entry. 046-604-3600

See some of the 400 recorded species of birds  with FGASA-accredited guide Tim Cockcroft. From R500 (two people) for a half-day tour. 072-314-0069, timwcroft.wixsite.com, timcockcroftbirding

Play golf at the 72-par Royal Port Alfred Golf Course, where you can spot dolphins in the ocean and antelope grazing the fairways. R360 for 18 holes. 046-624-4796

For horse riding, Three Sisters Horse Trails offers short beach outrides or two-day safaris. From R400 for an hour. 082-645-6345, threesistershorsetrails.co.za

Eat here

The pick of Wharf Street’s restaurants are Bram’s on the Wharf (082-903-1641) and The Wharf and Quay Restaurant (065-916-1947).

Favourites in vibey Van der Riet Street, on the opposite side of the river, are Niche (066-206-1196), Rise at The Courtyard (071-658-4094) and Lily Restaurant at MyPond Hotel (046-624-4626).

A new coffee spot is The Swiss Corner (063-735-6283), competing for the yummiest cakes with old favourite Penny Farthing (046-624-1073), overlooking the Duck Pond at Anchorage Mall.

Tash’s Craft Bar (085-300-0255) is the place for sun- downers, while Charthouse Restaurant at Halyards Hotel (046-604-3363) across the water is famous for its Sunday
lunch buffet.

The spot to view the river surging between the piers is Guido’s at West Beach (046-624-5264). Go next door to Waffle Zone for Il Gelato’s artisanal Italian ice cream.

The Thistle at Royal St Andrew’s Hotel (046-604-5400) is the town’s top fine-dining experience. Thursday night’s set menus with paired wines is popular, so booking is essential. (046-604-5400).

Insider Secret: the freshest fish and chips are from Skipper’s Catch (071-444-9725) off Van der Riet Street.

Also read

Looking back 200 years


This article was first published in the April 2020 issue of Getaway magazine.
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All prices correct at publication, but are subject to change at each establishment’s discretion. Please check with them before booking or buying.


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