OUR COASTAL TREASURE
Bartle A Logie
The first recorded European visitor to the bay that was later to be known as St Francis Bay was Diogo Pereira Botelho in 1537. When Vasco da Gama sailed to India as Viceroy in 1524, Botelho had accompanied him. After a stay of 11 years in India he set out, in September 1535, in a fusta, or rowboat, that he had decked with planks and fitted with sails and which had four water tanks. It was about 7.5 metres long. In 1537 he called at St Francis Bay to replenish his water supplies. He arrived in Lisbon safely in May of the same year.
Mention of Botelho’s epic voyage is contained in the Roteiro of Manoel de Mesquita Perestrello. In 1576 Perestrello was ordered to explore the Cape coast from the Cape of Good Hope to Cape Correntes. In the Roteiro he described his gradual progress, noting bays and mountains to which he gave names. Eventually he reached a Cape he named “Cape Serras” (Cape St Francis) and a bay to the east to which he gave the name S. Francisco, “…which because of a storm I did not enter, but knew it from … Diogo Pereira Botelho.” It is possible that Perestrello gave the bay its name because he was reminded of, or wished to honour, the monastery of St Francisco in his home town of Santarem.
The next official expedition to the eastern Cape coast was in 1752, when Governor Rijk Tulbagh sent Ensign August Friedrich Beutler to make preliminary investigations prior to extending official administration to those territories. Beutler led a group of 71 on this exploratory trip, and on 5 May 1752, they found a small island – long since disappeared – at the mouth of the Kabeljous River. They erected a beacon on it, bearing the VOC monogram of the Dutch East India Company. On the maps that appeared after the expedition returned to the Cape are found the names Cromme Riviers Baay and Baay St Francifcus.
One of the earliest land-grants in the area, on 5 October 1765, was to Jacobus Kok, of a farm beside the ‘Zeekoe’ River. The house that he built there, though subsequently much altered, and now completely enclosed by additions, still exists on the farm Aloe Ridge between St Francis Bay and Jeffreys Bay. Most if not all of the travellers at this time stopped at Kok’s farm and he is mentioned in the accounts of their expeditions.
The arrival of the Dutch trekboers brought to an end the way of life of the Khoisan hunter-gatherers. Scattered in the dunes are the graves of the last of these people. Among the shells in their middens one sees the occasional ostrich egg-shell bead, stone tools and pieces of blackened pottery, all that remains of a way of life that had existed for centuries before the trekboers.
At first the shifting dunes between the Kromme River and Seal Point held little appeal for the Dutch stock farmers. For many years the area was very sparsely populated, and only by those who had lost their land or who were unable to claim ‘better’ land. In 1771, however, when the Gamtoos River became the eastern boundary of the Dutch settlement, no stock farmer was allowed to move beyond it, and gradually the area between the Kromme and the sea began to fill up.
During the last quarter of the 18th century the number of travellers visiting the Eastern Cape increased and many of them followed the course of the Kromme River down from the Langkloof. Among these explorers were three notable botanists, a Scot, Francis Masson, and two Swedes, Carl Thunberg and Anders Sparrman. The plants that they collected and sent back to Europe and later the books that they wrote were the first indication to the outside world of the botanical treasures existing in the area.
The arrival of the British
From 1795 to 1803 the Cape fell under British military rule. After another brief period – 1803 to 1806 – when the Cape was under the control of the Batavian Republic, the Cape became a British colony.
It was during the first British occupation of the Cape that Sir John Barrow, private secretary to Military Governor Earl Macartney, journeyed to the Eastern Cape. On the map that appeared with his account of his travels is marked the Kromme Rivers Bay. During the brief period of Batavian Republic rule, one Hinrich Lichtenstein accompanied Commissioner-General J A de Mist on a tour of inspection of the colony. He wrote a report of their travels and on the accompanying map there appear the names Kruisfontein – near present-day Humansdorp – and Welgelegen, where present-day St Francis Bay is situated.
Making a living
At the time the British took over control of the Cape, a number of families – the Watsons, Browns, Blacks, Stoedters, Schaefers, De Vosses, Mosterts and Landmans, some of them the descendants of shipwrecked sailors – were struggling to make a living in the bush-covered dunes south of the Kromme.
They made wax from the berries of the Waxberry, or Gam Bessie as it was known locally. They made slaked lime from shells. They made leather goods such as riems, saddles, harnesses and velskoens. They collected honey for sale and for the production of an alcoholic drink known as karee. But despite these additional sources of income the majority were desperately poor, for the veld was incapable of supporting sufficient stock and they were only able to cultivate small areas near the river, growing wheat for sale and sweet potatoes for their own use. Fortunately there were plenty of fish in the sea to supplement their diet.
In the 1830s Brakfontein, a farm on the Humansdorp side of the Kromme and now a part of Manie du Toit’s farm Osbosch, was farmed by Piet Uys. The ruins of the Uys house on Osbosch may still be seen. By the 1940s the old house, much altered, was in a sad state of disrepair. There was talk of it being declared a national monument and members of the National Monuments Commission visited the farm. Mr Du Toit, the owner at the time and grandfather of the present owner, was not impressed. A national monument would, in his opinion, bring tourists who would be bound to leave gates open and also, so far as he was concerned, members of the Commission showed far too much interest in the possibility of hunting his bushbuck. He called the local post office technician, Joepie de Jongh, to remove a telephone from the building and then he burned it to the ground. Joepie took a photo of the smoke rising from the doomed building.
Not far from the site of the Uys house is the grave of Jane Hartley Boys, recording that she ‘died at St Francis Bay on 27 April 1848, aged 75.’ The stone also serves as a memorial to her late husband,
‘John Paramor Boys Esq. formerly deputy Paymaster General to the forces in the Peninsula. He died at Bloise in France October 14 1821 and was buried in the Protestant cemetery there. Aged 58 years’
This records an unexpected link in this part of the world with Wellington and Napoleon and the European wars of the 19th century.
Nearby, almost completely covered by bush, is a small graveyard containing graves of the Swart family. Charles Robberts “Blackie” Swart, first State President of the Republic of South Africa, was a descendant of this family.
The Great Fire
The most tragic incident in the history of the Humansdorp district was the great fire of 9 February 1869. There had been good rains the previous year and the veld was long and overgrown. Hot berg winds had made it tinder-dry. At the time, fires were reported from the districts of George, Knysna, Oudtshoorn and even Prince Albert. And now fire started here, not in one particular place, or none that was identified.
The fire spread rapidly, fanned by northerly winds. It did immense damage. A Mr Kemp, his young son and the touleier of his oxen, together with the span of oxen and the wagon, were all engulfed by the flames on the farm Uitvlugt. At Suurbron two women were burnt to death. In all, more than 20 farmhouses were destroyed and at least 25 people, many of them children, lost their lives. The nearest the fire came to the St Francis/Kromme area was the farm Brand Plaas on the Seekoei River, which took its name from the fire.
After the building of the lighthouse goods were delivered to the keeper by ox-wagon. Because of the dunes and the difficulty of reaching the lighthouse, it was considered to be one of the most remote on the South African coast. For many years the transport contract was held by members of the Watson family, with the first of the Watsons to hold the contract being John James Watson, one of those who had helped to build the lighthouse.
A road led from Humansdorp to the banks of the Kromme. At low tide a wagon could cross the river at a spot just to the west of the existing bridge, but travellers with no wagons had to find other means. In later years a Mr Paul de Vos, who lived at Goedgeloof, the old Potgieter farm, would row one across the river for a tickey –three pennies.
It was possible to reach Goedgeloof by road from Humansdorp by taking a roundabout route. One started on the Oyster Bay road and having crossed the Kromme branched off on a rough track towards St Francis Bay. Before the arrival of the first four-wheel drive vehicles after the Second World War, Goedgeloof was the end of the road. Without an ox-wagon the only way to cross the Sand River was on foot.
Pastimes – legal and otherwise
Beachcombing and fishing were popular activities and for many years were the sole prerogative of local families, the keepers of the light and occasional visitors from the farms on the Humansdorp side of the Kromme. During the Second World War in particular local residents found many ‘treasures’ along the high-water mark.
Fishing methods were not always conventional. Mr James Melville recounted how, along the Mostertshoek coast, dynamiting fish was a popular, though illegal, pastime. A charge was thrown into the water and after the explosion the fishermen would plunge into the water with baskets to collect the fish as they surfaced. On one occasion a fisherman’s dog retrieved the dynamite before it had exploded and horrified fishermen scattered up the dunes with the dog in pursuit. There was a colossal bang which left a huge hole in the sand. The fishermen could not believe their eyes when the dog ran up to them unharmed: it had dropped the dynamite just in time.
Arrival of the Huletts
One Sunday evening in 1954 Leighton and Ann Hulett, at home in Zululand, came across an advertisement in the Farmer’s Weekly. It read, “Fisherman’s Paradise – lonely and isolated, well wooded and watered, two miles of private beach, 273 morgen – £1 750.” Leighton phoned the number given and arranged to meet the owner. The following Wednesday the couple flew down from Natal to Port Elizabeth and made their way, in a battered old ex-army jeep, to the farm Goedgeloof. They were entranced by the unspoilt beach, the blue waters of the bay and the rolling, bush-covered dunes. It was, as the owner, Norman Lovemore warned them, quite useless for farming and practically impossible to reach without an ox-wagon or one of the new-fangled four-wheel drive vehicles. He seemed eager to persuade the couple not to buy the land, but Leighton was not to be put off. The deal having been concluded, the Huletts returned to Natal, sold their cane farm and a month later returned to Goedgeloof with their daughters, Diana (4) and Philippa (3), a ski-boat and a four-wheel drive station wagon. They set up house in what was little more than a shack with a corrugated iron roof. Their belongings, having reached Goedgeloof, were brought by cart across the dunes of the Sand River to their new abode.
Leighton’s first venture was a fishing camp consisting of seven thatched roofed rondavels, a kitchen and ablution block. Twelve Zulus staffed the establishment and linen, cutlery and the likes were provided, but guests brought their own food, which was cooked for them by Rosie. Her bread, fish and chips, roasts and stews were renowned. The tariff was R1.50 per day for adults and 50c for children under the age of six. Horse riding was included in the accommodation fee. Jeep trips were by arrangement and cost 35c per mile. Ann Hulett was in charge of bookings and domestic arrangements, while Leighton cared for the fishermen.
The fishing camp was soon very popular, attracting not only fishermen but also their wives and children, and this led to the next stage of development. In 1956 a small township of 51 plots was laid out and, to tame the dunes of the Sand River – and elsewhere – Leighton began to lay down branches of Rooikrans (Acacia cyclops) and Port Jackson Willow (Acacia saligna), the same method used by Joseph Storr Lister to arrest the spread of the dunes on the Cape Flats near Cape Town, and the Driftsands area of Port Elizabeth. The new township was established and the price of the plots ranged from £300 (along what is now the western side of St Francis Drive) to £575 (next to the beach at the bottom of Ann Avenue).
The first homes were built by Leighton and from the start he insisted on a certain conformity of style which resulted in the unique character of the town. At the time a roof could be thatched for £85 and even taking inflation into account, this amount was not excessive. There was no electricity. Candles, gas and paraffin were used for lighting, heating and cooking. Water was laid on from two reservoirs above what is now Reservoir Road. If a cow stood on the plastic pipe, the supply was cut off. If one reservoir ran dry, one switched to the other, a task that was performed manually.
Early predicaments and entertainment
All supplies still came from Humansdorp, although milk was delivered by donkey cart and eggs could be obtained from local farmers. Driving to or from Humansdorp involved covering 46 km of dirt road and opening and closing 15 gates. The journey was not undertaken lightly. There was the Sand River to be crossed and at times, particularly after several days of westerly wind, it was necessary for a tractor to pull cars across. Likewise, after heavy rains, the Sand River would come down in flood, cutting off the new township completely.
The drift across the Kromme was also at times blocked by floodwaters. The late James Melville remembered being trapped between the Geelhoutboom and Kromme Rivers, which had both come down in flood. He had with him his nine month-old grandson, Robert, three cheroots and the Sunday papers. He managed to beg a bottle and some milk from a farm for Robert and eventually reached home in the Mangold family’s boat.
Neil West, a friend of long-time resident Denis Nunan, was forced on one occasion to wade across the Sand River wearing only a shirt which he clasped to his chest to prevent it getting wet. Halfway across a car came round the bend from Humansdorp, its headlights apparently focused upon the half nude West. Figuring that it was too late to be able to do much about it, he ploughed on through the water.
On Saturday evenings everyone in the village would gather at the tennis club’s practice wall where a film would be shown. Children arrived early with blankets, chairs and cushions to book a place for the family. Leighton manned the projector which was perched on an old cable drum. A collection was taken for the National Sea Rescue Institute, for in 1971 Leighton had started and become the first Station Commander of the local NSRI Station 21. The two coxswains in the voluntary crew were Duncan Lethbridge and the Huletts’ son-in-law, Peter Abrahamson.
The tennis wall also provided some shelter during the 1970s for Ted Misplon, who spent about two years building the yacht Nkwazi for the Huletts. Nkwazi, a bilge keeler, was particularly suited to shallow waters and, as such, for the passage through the mouth of the Kromme. Holiday-makers and residents alike all kept an eye on progress and everyone turned out for the launch. Shortly thereafter the Hulett family set off on an Indian Ocean cruise.
Leighton, the man of all parts, would take on another role during the summer holidays, appearing as Father Christmas, riding in a donkey cart and carrying presents for the children. Sand-castle building and fishing contests were popular with the youngsters and dune-buggy races with those a bit older.
In the 1960s fame of a kind came to the new township with the surfing documentary, The Endless Summer. Surfer photographer Bruce Brown claimed to have discovered the ‘perfect wave’ at St Francis Bay and it was not long before letters and telegrams from all over the world were landing in the Huletts’ post. Soon thereafter the first ‘pilgrims’ arrived. The Hulett daughters, Diana and Philippa took to surfing immediately and showed a natural aptitude for the sport. Diana surfed for Eastern Province and Philippa went on to become South African Champion. She also surfed for the Springbok team in the World Championships in Australia. Subsequently Hulett grandchildren have gone on to display their own form on the breakers of St Francis Bay.
In the meanwhile John Booysen had bought a section of the farm Ongegunde Vryheid adjoining the lighthouse at Seal Point. Land was cheap, and according to him he acquired a large portion in exchange for his Chevrolet car. He built a better road to the lighthouse and eventually this joined up with the road across the Sand River that Leighton Hulett had made. It was at last possible to drive all the way from Goedgeloof to the lighthouse. In 1963 Booysen established a private company, the Kaap St Francis Vuurtoringmaatskappy, in order to develop a township at Seal Point. Twelve shareholders each invested £500 for which they received a plot of their choice. A portion of land adjoining the lighthouse reserve was acquired and 160 erven were put up for sale. Water was obtained from a source at Mostertshoek and a pipeline laid to bring water to the fledging township.
In 1965 Cape St Francis was officially proclaimed a town. There was conflict regarding the names of the two developments and after a court case, Hulett’s township became known as Sea Vista.
In the same year a company, Modelwonings, acquired the remaining unsold plots at Cape St Francis and these were later sold to Volkskas. Finally, in 1978, the township came under the control of the Humansdorp Divisional Council. As time went by there were other developments, tennis courts were built, nature reserves such as the Irma Booysen Flora Reserve established, and Eskom power laid on.
For the exchange of a house and a plot Hulett acquired a further 179 morgen of land beside the Kromme. This meant that he now had 1¾ miles of river frontage. Leighton, always ready to tackle any challenge, built his first dredger and work began in 1968 on a system of canals, unique in South Africa at the time. This new development was named Marina Glades. By 1976 the initial canal system was complete with eastern and western outlets to the river.
Over the years a number of round-the-world sailing craft, from 26 foot up to 56 foot and 23 tons, were accommodated at the yacht harbour in the canal system. Leighton also skippered his own double-ended ‘Spray,’ built specially for fishing. Son-in-law David Hill and Leighton’s friend ‘Red’ McKechnie also took their turns at the helm. Later there was also ‘Moby Dick,’ a 43 foot twin diesel catamaran that also operated from the yacht harbour.
With the increased number of homes the provincial government insisted that a better water supply had to be put in place and as a result a pipeline was laid from the Churchill Dam to the township. Leighton, as enterprising as ever, constructed a trench digger by mounting the front wheels of one tractor over the back of another with a suitable attachment to dig the trench. A grader was bought to cover the trench after the pipe was in position, but the traffic authorities insisted that the grader had to be licensed to travel on public roads. Leighton, rather than comply, drove it across farm lands and winched it through the Kromme with a tractor.
Further facilities were also developed. Robert Grimsdell designed a nine-hole golf course which was laid out by Max Hulett. This was later extended by a further 9 holes. Bowling greens were built and thanks to Arthur Fennell, a community hall that doubled as a clubhouse. The inaugural president was Guy MacDonald. A shop and an airfield were established and a picturesque hotel built overlooking the beach. Even before it had been completed there were parties – organised by the Huletts – held within its unfinished walls and by the light of gas lamps.
Northern Trust and Ovenstones now became involved in the development of Sea Vista and on 1 December 1976 it became a Local Area under the township laws of the province. Neville Taylor became the Local Administrative Officer. Later a Local Council took control under the Algoa Regional Services Council. In 1979, when there were 160 houses in the township, there was yet another change of name and Sea Vista became St Francis Bay. Meanwhile work had begun on the next extension, named Santareme – after Perestrelo’s home town of Santarem in Portugal – with the architectural style of Mediterranean type houses with terra-cotta tiled roofs and walls of various muted earth tones. St Francis-on-Sea, with the same architectural style, was the next to be developed on land adjoining the nature reserve, and later Otters Landing above the rocks and overlooking the bay.
By the time of Leighton Hulett’s death at the age of 65 in 1987, the area had been transformed into one of South Africa’s most attractive towns. Development did not come to a halt. Son Nevil Hulett began the construction of further canals and two new extensions, the Moby Dick Canal and Admiral’s Passage.
It is an unfortunate fact that the Australian acacias, Rooikrans and Port Jackson Willow are exceptionally flammable and the area to the west of St Francis Bay is densely covered with these aliens. Over the years there have been a number of veld-fires and some miraculous escapes from the wall of flames whipped up by westerly gales. In January 1988 the flames jumped the road from the Kromme to the lighthouse and began to spread through the village of St Francis Bay. It took 300 emergency personnel, 14 fire engines, including vehicles from Port Elizabeth, Uitenhage, Humansdorp and Jeffreys Bay and three helicopters to bring the fire under control. In addition there were ten ambulances on stand-by and 350 people were treated for minor injuries. Six houses were destroyed and many damaged, with damage to property amounting to an estimated R2 000 000.
In 1992 St Francis Bay became a municipality and after the elections in 1994, eight councillors were elected with Jean Chaput as the first mayor.
Chaput was largely responsible for initiating the next major development, the construction of the first privately owned harbour in the country, Port St Francis. Work began in 1995 and tons of rock were excavated to create the harbour. ‘Coreloc’ blocks – a development of the well-known ‘dolos’ – were used for the first time in South Africa to stabilise land exposed to the sea and to protect it from wave action. These were manufactured on site. At the same time, work began on a number of apartments looking down on the new harbour. A new boathouse with the most up to date equipment was built for the NSRI, Station 21. The harbour was officially opened in December 1996 and Station 21’s new boathouse some months later.
Since 1994 Cape St Francis has been administered as a part of St Francis Bay. Four years later Oyster Bay also fell under the mantle of the same municipality. With the changes in local government that took place in 2000, all three townships became a part of the new Kouga Municipality.
The challenge for the future will be to keep alive the vision of the founders of this unique place, while coping with the needs and demands of a new generation.
Cowling, R.M, 1985. Recent History, St Francis/Kromme Trust.
Craig, Y. 1999. (December) The Story of St Francis Bay, St Francis Bay Advertiser.
Forbes, V.S. 1965. Pioneer Travellers in South Africa, Balkema, Cape Town.
Gerryts, E.J. 1985. Kaap St Francis, St Francis/Kromme Trust.
Hulett, L.B.E. 1981. A Short History of St Francis Bay, privately published.
Logie, B.A. 1999. Governor’s Travels, Bluecliff, Port Elizabeth.
McDonald, G.W. 1985, An Abridged History of St Francis Bay, St Francis/KrommeTrust.
Melville, J. 1985. Early Days, St Francis/Kromme Trust.
Our Times, Vol 2 No 27, 9 February 1988.
Raven-Hart, R. 1967. Before Van Riebeeck, Struik, Cape Town.
Simpson, R.N. The Monument Around Us, Privately published, St Francis Bay.
Turner, M. 1988. Shipwrecks & Salvage in South Africa, Struik, Cape Town.