Give the friendly folk of Port Alfred half the chance and they take to the Kowie River in anything from dinky rowing boats to powerful cruisers…
Words and pictures: Marion Whitehead
This jolly bunch is always ready to party and the small Eastern Cape seaside town’s 125th birthday (2014) was celebrated with a regatta, an anything-that-floats derby, a grub crawl and a grand parade along the riverbank, joined by a fleet of antique tractors from the Bathurst Agricultural Museum nearby.
The popular holiday destination was once an important river port, with tall-masted sailing ships mooring at the wharf. When dredging the Kowie River mouth became too expensive, smaller fishing vessels dominated the port – until local fishing quotas were awarded elsewhere. These days, boating for pleasure and sport on the 22 kilometres of navigable river is where the action is. Wharf Street has become a small waterfront attraction with its own microbrewery, restaurants, a tiny theatre, antiques and collectables shops and, of course, a fish and chip shop.
“Our boat is tiny,” Maryna Shepherd, a teacher at the local high school for the last 16 years, told me over a tasty alfresco lunch at Zest Café. “It’s just got a 2HP engine, but we like to putter up the river to fish on weekends.”
The Kowie River rises in the hills around Grahamstown and meanders to the coast, eventually meeting the sea between a man-made breakwater and a pier frequented by anglers. A sunset river-cruise boat chugged along at a sedate pace past numerous private jetties, to game farms where tangled riverine vegetation tumbles down steep cliffs. I was admiring a magnificent Fish Eagle swooping down for its catch when we were overtaken by a sleek rowing boat. Powered by a team of fit young oarsmen, it sliced through the water at speed, leaving us in its wake. I had to laugh out loud.
Truth is, there’s room for whatever floats your boat on the Kowie River, posh or humble. There are millionaires’ yachts parked in the small craft harbour next to the Royal Alfred Marina, but no one minds if you launch your canoe from there. In the bar at the Ski Boat Club across the river, postmen rub shoulders with magistrates in this fishermen’s lair.
“You can also launch your boat from the public slipway just here behind the tourist info office,” said tourism director Sandy Birch. “In December, it’s also the end point of the Kowie River Mile swim. And at Christmas, just watch out for a naked Father Christmas skiing down the river in his Christmas hat.” The annual prank is supposed to be hush-hush, but Sandy laughed and admitted that everyone knew about it.
This is a town of great contrasts existing side by side, Sandy said. Shacks in Nemato settlement have the same splendid views as the grand old settler mansions high on the riverbanks. Stenden University’s Dutch and German students, together with trainee pilots from 43 Air School just up the road, have brought a new vibrancy to a town once dominated by retirees.
Naturally, water sports are big and, apart from surfing at East Beach and swimming on the Blue Flag Kelly’s Beach, at Outdoor Focus Adventure Centre you can organise anything from diving to hydrobiking and adrenaline sea cruises on which wet suits are standard issue.
One of the delights for families is Kiddies Beach, a sheltered lagoon next door to Outdoor Focus. It’s the kind of place where you can put up your umbrella for a lazy picnic and let little ones paddle, build sandcastles and swim safely while you relax with a good book.
At the heart of the Eastern Cape’s Sunshine Coast, Port Alfred claims to have one of the Cape’s highest numbers of sunshine days beaming down on its spectacular beaches. However, when the weather doesn’t play ball, Sandy sends visitors off to explore the plethora of junk shops and restaurants – many staffed by students and graduates of Stenden, the Dutch hospitality university that has its South African campus in Port Alfred.
Delroy Chipumuro, maître d’ at the Wharf Street Brew Pub, is a Stenden graduate from Zimbabwe. “Once you’re in Port Alfred, you don’t want to leave. It’s so relaxed here,” he said with a grin, placing tasters of local beer in front of me: Kowie Gold Pilsener, Coin Ale and Squires Porter.
The stone warehouse in which the pub is found is one of the oldest commercial buildings in town. “It used to be the customs house and later became the offices of the mayor and council offices. It was even the local movie house for a time,” said chef-owner Bram Coetzee, pulling a pint made in the Little Brewery on the River next door where his dad is the consultant brew master. The Kowie History Museum nearby has taken on a new life since it moved into the old railway station, and features pictures of the town before the bridges were built. “The two halves of town used to be linked only by a pont at the site of what is today Putt Bridge,” said curator Yvonne Surtees.
A historic riverside walking trail starts at the museum, where you can purchase a pamphlet to guide you along Wharf and Van der Riet streets.
Bad weather never seems to deter enthusiasts at the Royal Port Alfred Golf Course, which has an unusual team of ‘lawnmowers’ – a small herd of impala that takes little notice of birdies and eagles. It’s one of just four golf courses in South Africa to have the title ‘royal’ bestowed on it after British royalty enjoyed games there in the 1920s.
Kowie, as Port Alfred is fondly referred to by locals, is a place that exerts the same kind of pull that the tides have on fishermen. Pierre Joubert worked across the world – Botswana, Namibia and the US – after completing his internship as a field guide at Port Alfred’s Mansfield Private Game Reserve. But when the job of manager at
the small private reserve on the Kowie River was advertised, he didn’t hesitate to apply. “I didn’t think twice. I like the little town and, because it’s a small reserve, we do everything and have personal contact with the guests,” he explained.
Marianne and Rob Field, owners of Panorama B&B on a hill high above the river, landed up here because of a small advert in COUNTRY LIFE. “It showed a jetty at sunset,” said Rob, explaining that the couple were running a guest lodge in Namibia at the time and wanted to scale down. They visited and were hooked.
“We looked at lots of little coastal towns, but Port Alfred has everything you need,” added Marianne. “There are even game reserves around here, so we don’t miss out on that either. There’s lots to do, so I’m never bored.” Down by the riverside, life just couldn’t get better.