A trip down the Nqabara River valley

The Nqabara River mouth on the Wild Coast boasts exceptional fishing and unique natural beauty. In addition, the Nqabara River valley’s route to the coast also presents a rewarding glimpse into the area’s rich 19th century military and commercial history, as Mike Burgess discovered.

A trip down the Nqabara River valley
The Nqabarana River is a tributary of the Nqabara and offers a wide spectrum of species of fish. Visitors can hire canoes from the Nqabara Eco River Lodge for an eco-friendly fishing experience.
Photo: Mike Burgess
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The value of a holiday or trip can be much enhanced by a few local detours. Fishing trips are often characterised by rushed travel to a particular destination to get one’s line into the water as soon as possible. A recent fishing trip to the Nqabara River mouth and a few, subsequent detours was certainly time well spent.

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The area is home to the almost 200-year-old grave of a revered Xhosa king, and a forgotten trading station built before the 9th and Final Frontier War of 1877 to 1878, between the British and Cape Colony, and the Xhosa.

Chief hintsa’s grave
Beyond Willowvale in the former Transkei, a winding dirt road leads one down to the upper-Nqabara River, and to the final resting place of Hintsa, the paramount chief of the Xhosa who was slain by British and Colonial troops in 1835. “There are many people that come to look at the grave – black people, white people and even the police,’’ says local resident Mziwoke Mrasi, about the continued interest in the grave. “They come here, photograph the grave and go,’’ he adds.

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Hintsa’s death
The 6th Frontier War (1834 to 1835) saw the invasion of the Transkei by British colonial forces. The war was in response to the 1834 Xhosa invasion of the Cape Colony, in which over 100 000 head of cattle were raided. While the Rharhabe Xhosa were responsible for the 1834 Cape invasion, it was believed that many of the stolen cattle were hidden across the Great Kei River, among the Gcaleka Xhosa.

Under the command of Sir Benjamin D’Urban, the Cape Governor, British colonial mounted troops crossed the Great Kei River and marched to Hintsa’s Great Place near present-day Butterworth. D’Urban demanded that Hintsa provide 50 000 head of cattle in compensation, and that Hintsa be escorted by swashbuckling Colonel Harry Smith and 500 troops deeper into the former Transkei to gather the cattle from his subjects.

As Smith’s party made its way through the upper-Nqabara River valley, Hintsa, who was on horseback, made a dash for freedom, but was soon reeled in by Smith. Smith unceremoniously threw Hintsa from his horse, and Hintsa, in a decision that proved to be fatal, sprinted for the thick bush along the Nqabara River.

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Indeed, George Southey, the commander of Corps of Guides, had already takenaim and put a slug through the chief’s calf. Hintsa again fell to the ground, but managed to reach and wade into the Nqabara River.

However, Hintsa was already surrounded, and Southey controversially shot him through the head. His body was stripped of jewellery, and his ears sliced off as trophies of war, before his mutilated body was dumped. He was later buried by local Xhosa, and his son Sarili took over the paramountcy until the defeat of the Gcaleka in the final frontier war of 1877 to 1878.

The transkeian commercial trading legacy
The rondavel-dotted former Transkei is particularly notable for its rundown and dilapidated trading stations, some of which still bear a ‘Sunlight Soap’ or ‘Teaspoon Tips Tea’ advertising sign.

White families once owned these trading stores, but were forced to sell their businesses in the 1970s and early 1980s as part of the apartheid government’s homeland policy. Thus ended a rich commercial legacy, which had its roots in the ivory trade of the late 1700s when intrepid European frontiersmen pioneered wagon routes into the Transkeian regions.

Trading stations during the 9th Frontier War
By the 1800s, Xhosa chiefs keen for European pots, beads, implements, guns and brandy, began allotting tracts of land to traders for more permanent settlement. Subsequently, traders were caught in the crossfire between the Xhosa and settler worlds they so precariously straddled.

During times of war, trading stations were frequently looted and burnt to the ground, while some trading stations were used as military bases for invading British colonial forces. During the 9th Frontier War, the defining battle was fought at a trading station called Holland’s Shop in Centane.

The now derelict Badi trading station is located along the road to the Nqabara River mouth. The station, named after a local Gcaleka chief, was the preferred campsite of Captain Alexander Wood, who served in the Transkei Fingo Levy, during the 9th Frontier War.

While Captain Wood died of a disease contracted during the conflict, his son, Henry, returned to the Badi trading station in 1894, working as a manager for W Mills. In 1895, Henry Wood purchased the store for £250 (about R541 000 today). The store remained in the possession of the Wood family until 1983, when it was eventually sold. Today, the Badi store stands forgotten, despite its rich history.

“It’s very, very sad to see the state of all these [trading stations],’’ says Mike Thompson, author of Traders and Trading Stations of the Central and Southern Transkei. “A trader wasn’t just a trader. They were the economy of the Transkei. [They were] everything to that community.”

Nqabara Eco River Lodge

Proceeding beyond the Badi trading station, the Nqabara River dramatically increases in width and volume on its route towards the Indian Ocean. Located 50km east of Willovale, the Nqabara Eco Lodge is a community- owned facility.
The lodge’s founder and current manager, Captain Xhayi, returned from Johannesburg in the early 1990s and noted the tourism potential of the Nqabara River mouth area.

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“There was just bush here, so I tried to organise 12 villages under our chief and we established a trust [the Nqabara Community Tourism Trust and Community],’’ Captain recalls. “We then tried to get funding.’’ It would take decades for the lodge to become a reality, and it was only in 2012, with funding provided by the European Union, that the project was completed.

The lodge offers a canoe hiring service, which allows visitors to effectively fish the Nqabara River, and its tributary, the Nqabarana River. Visitors can fish kob, garrick, kingfish, spotted grunter, river bream, and snapper. The Nqabara River mouth is home to good populations of honeycomb stingrays and lesser guitarfish (sandshark). The rocky coastline on the opposite side of the Nqabara River offers good drop shot opportunities for kob.

The natural bush/forest, which contains large yellowood and white stinkwood trees, is located along the Nqabara and Nqabarana rivers, and offers excellent bird-watching opportunities. Species that may be sighted include trumpeter hornbills, African fish eagles, malachite kingfishers and, in the higher-lying grasslands, southern ground-hornbills.

A walk down the coastline, beyond the first rocky point, offers kilometres of gullies in which reef fish species, such as bronze bream and blacktail, can be targeted, while watching white-breasted cormorants, African black oystercatchers, and other coastal birds hunting for food.

To cross the river, visitors can hire a canoe. Alternatively, subsistence fisherman, Zolani Nzdombane rows visitors across the Nqabara River for a nominal fee. “When the water is high you catch especially blue fish [bronze bream] there,’’ Zolani says, pointing to a rocky point.

Although Zolani once worked in Cape Town, he chose to return to the slower-paced life along the Nqabara. Perhaps the rural way of life along the Wild Coast has the ability to relax the most stressed visitor, who will no doubt be left a little envious of Zolani’s simple rondavel overlooking the Nqabara River.

  • Contact the Nqabara River Eco Lodge on 031 207 4824 or email [email protected].
  • Sources: Field Guide to Flowers of South Africa by John Manning (2010); Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People by Noel Mostert (1992); Roberts Bird Guide by Hugh Chittenden (2007); The Edges of War by John Milton (1983); Traders and Trading Stations of the central and Southern Transkei (1st and 2nd edition) by Mike Thompson (2013); Two Oceans: A Guide to the marine life of southern Africa by GM Branch, CL Griffiths, ML Branch and LE Beckley (1994). 

This article was originally published in the 22 April 2016 issue of Farmer’s Weekly.