Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Making Room For the Past: Umkomaas

Ocean Park Guest House under construction 2007

Our guest house is situated in one of the most beautiful towns in South Africa. However it seems that it is also quite the unknown little gem too. So Ocean Park Guest House has decided to make accommodation to share a bit of the town’s history with you, and some of its most famous events. It may not be on the scale of the big cities, but in its own way our quaint town of Umkomaas has such a flavourful past that it has contributed to the establishment of a fiercely loyal local community, one that holds a great sense of love for the town and its surroundings. We introduce to you our town, Umkomaas, love it like a local, we know you will.

In 1861 a harbour was built on the KZN South Coast primarily as a place to ship the local harvests of sugar; with all the activity surrounding the harbor, the town of Umkomaas formed around it. The local people named the river uMkhomazi, which means “The Place of Cow Whales” because of the large number of whales that used the shallow estuary as a place to give birth to their calves. Unfortunately with the development of the ports in Durban and Port Shepstone, the Umkomaas harbor fell into disuse, but the town itself, as you can see, continued unhindered.

Named ‘South Barrow’ until 1924, the river itself was literally teeming with wildlife, including hippos and crocodiles well up until the mid-1860s when attempts to establish a harbor in the river mouth began.

In the 1860s a Mr. Greenacre established a general dealer store and small inn on the hill overlooking the uMakhosi River in order to capitalize (as did his family years later in West Street Durban) on the passing trade.

Aside from the sugar trade, Umkomaas is known for a few interesting historical events such as the WW2 Kitty Hawk that was involved in a mid-air collision and crashed in the Umkomaas river as well as the establishment of the local chemical cellulose manufacturing business in the 1950s. An Italian group invested in the business, attracting many Italian people to the area; because of this it is said that the Italian community in Umkomaas is the largest in South Africa.

At the age of 17 (around 1870), Sir Cecil John Rhodes who was diagnosed with a lung disease, possibly consumption, and was sent to stay with his brother, Herbert Rhodes who was attempting to farm cotton in the Umkomaas Valley. (The land was later considered unsuitable for cotton farming, and the farming venture failed.)

Umkomaas has also attracted a few more modern celebrities; among these is PGA golfer, Tim Clark who is credited with designing Umkomaas golf Course. The course proved to be quite a challenge as it was set in the middle of a densely forested area that features a delightful waterfall and a number of bush walks.

Then we have Swedish-born tennis player Mats Wilander, who although not originally from South Africa, is rumored to have invested in a well known property in Umkomaas.

Literary reference to the Umkomaas river valley is found in an early chapter of Alan Paton's 1948 novel Cry, The Beloved Country.  “From Ixopo the toy train climbs up into other hills, the green rolling hills of Lufafa, Eastwolds, Donnybrook. From Donnybrook the broad-gauge runs to the great valley of the Umkomaas.”

We all know that Umkomaas is most renowned for the superb diving opportunities created by the Aliwal Shoal, 4 kilometers off Umkomaas. Aliwal shoal is named after the sailing ship ‘Alawal’ that was almost wrecked in 1849 during a storm. Aliwal shoal is about 1,5km long and 1km wid. It’s a fossilized sand dune of soft and hard coral and sponges, which hosts an astounding variety of marine life, most notably the Ragged Tooth Shark.  Aliwal shoal also sports few adventurous wreck dives on the 'Produce' and the 'Nebo' and great reef drift dives.  The local dive scene is not only famous for these but also baited open water shark dives where divers can get up close and personal with Tiger sharks, Black Tips and Bull Sharks - locally know as Zambezi Sharks,  which are abundant in the area.

Umkomaas is also honored by the South African Navy with the naming of a mine countermeasure vessel being named after it, the SAS Umkomaas.

Rich with history, and a future filled with interesting activities, Ocean Park Guest House looks forward to sharing our beautiful town with you.

Bookings can be made online or by emailing our guest house manager, Lana on
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