Crossing the ‘home of all rivers’ through the decades

The old Umzimkhulu River bridge was opened in 1907, connecting the north and south sides of Port Shepstone until it was washed away by floods in 1959.

The old Umzimkhulu River bridge was opened in 1907, connecting the north and south sides of Port Shepstone until it was washed away by floods in 1959.

Published Mar 17, 2024


Durban — This week’s feature of old and new places goes down KwaZulu-Natal’s beautiful South Coast to the Umzimkhulu River, which means “home of all rivers”, and the largest of the South Coast rivers.

The area is rich in history. Thousands of years before Port Shepstone became a town, the Khoisan (Khoe and San) people were the region’s inhabitants.

The San were hunter-gatherers and the Khoe were herders. Evidence of their presence is found in stone tools and middens in the area.

About 2 000 years ago, Nguni people from north of Durban settled in the region, bringing with them iron-working skills, forming homesteads and assimilating some Khoe and San people who added clicks to the language. In the 1800s, they were consolidated as part of the Zulu Kingdom by King Shaka.

The river was once the demarcation of North and South Shepstone, which was first laid out in 1882.

When settlers arrived with sugar cane, tea and coffee, and to establish marble and lime quarries, they realised ox-wagon transport would not be enough to grow.

The river became a port in 1893, with its first dredger, the Sandpiper, bought in 1898.

Seafarers were warned of the dangerous waters of the river’s mouth by an ordinary ship’s masthead lantern that swayed atop a laddered structure from 1895 until 1905 when it was replaced with the Port Shepstone Lighthouse.

Visible from 26 nautical miles, the 8m-high circular cast iron tower (now equipped with a radio beacon) is fully automated. A revolving electric light with a power of 1130000 candela flashes once every six seconds.

On the south bank of the Umzimkhulu River, looking north-east over the position of the old bridge. The new bridge, finished in 1959 and built much closer to the sea, scuppered hopes of re-establishing the port. | Shelley Kjonstad/ Independent Newspapers

By 1901 the railways had reached North Port Shepstone, but there was only a pont to go farther south. The station was situated between the main road and the present golf club.

The port was problematic because of how shallow the water was and it was closed in 1907 when the first bridge was built between North and South Shepstone. It served as a road and railway on one carriageway and was washed away by floods in 1959.

Indentured Indians worked on the railway, in plantations and the quarries, and Indian traders soon followed. Their descendants make up a large portion of the town’s population today.

The two “halves” of Shepstone only became “Port Shepstone” in the 1920s, long after the harbour was closed.

There was talk about reviving the port in the 1950s, but the placement of the new bridge, built in 1959, so close to the river mouth scuttled those hopes.

Independent on Saturday