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The West Bank Location

Buffalo River Mouth
in 1835

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
(Contact the Project Coordinator)

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The original Buffalo River, before humans began to change it into a harbour, consisted of a large lagoon that was about four miles in length and in places perhaps 30 feet in depth.

The banks were gently sloping towards the sea -- especially on the western shore -- but further inland the river emerged from a deep valley, steep on both sides and covered with dense natural forests.

During times of drought, the river tended to silt up which meant that it was often shallow near the sea because of an extensive, shifting sand-bar.

The Eastern Cape is a region afflicted by periodic extended droughts and, when this happens, the river stops flowing altogether.

Before the harbour was built or, rather, before the first dredger went into operation in 1886, silting caused by such droughts would result in the sand-bar becoming a regular beach, enabling people to cross without even wetting their feet.

Usually, however, the bar would be about knee deep at low tide but impassable when the tide was full.

Periodic flooding, which happened at least once every decade, would cause the river to rush down the narrow valley, scouring the floor of the lagoon and driving the sand before it into the sea.

The sand-bar would then disappear, and the channel into the sea would be scoured sometimes to a depth of 20 feet or more.

Contemporary maps and written records mention the existence of a Xhosa village at the Buffalo mouth as early as 1835. This belonged to the Gqunukhwebe people, a community which fell under the authority of Chief Phato.

Their village was situated on the western bank of the river at the spot where the Mercedes Benz ro-ro terminal now stands.

The people who lived in the village were primarily pastoralists, although they also had their gardens in which to grow their corn and other essential vegetables. Written records dating back to May 1835 mentioned these plots.

The reports also spoke of the cattle which were seen being driven over the river mouth at low tide. This, of course, was the scene before the arrival of the first Whites, after which everything would change.

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