The Umzimvubu River and Port St Johns

It was mid-winter, 24 June 1500 something – a bunch of Portuguese sailors were on the deck of their creaky, leaky ship, looking at the not so far off coastline of Africa, wondering exactly where they were, when they saw two magnificent cliffs with a gap in between them. They asked the captain if they could launch the dinghy and explore. Yeah, sure says Senhor Capitão, just be back for lunch, as we’ll be moving on soon.

The Gates of Port St Johns.

The sailors hopped into their dinghy and went exploring, and found that the cliffs they saw were more akin to gates, and between them flowed a magnificent river. Excitedly they reported their findings to Senhor Capitão, and the captain, being a good Catholic , remembering it was the feast day of St John the Baptist, named the river for that long dead saint: Rio de São João, which when the non-Portuguese seafarers started doing their Africa sail pasts, got translated into the Saint Johns River. And so, a Saint Johns river got added to the long list of places named for Saint John around the world. The river would have that name for centuries.

Map from the 1880s, showing the
River St John

What the Portuguese mariners in their arrogance didn’t think about, having arrogantly decided that they had discovered this St Johns River, was that possibly it already had another name. ‘’What? Ask the natives if it had a name? Don’t be silly, we are the masters of the oceans, we discovered the river, and therefore have a right to name it.’’ Or some such muttering was done.

Portuguese sailing ships

Meanwhile, the local residents, the Pondo people of Pondoland, named for their great chief Pondo, had watched the Portuguese come have a look see at their river, but having had some pretty lousy experiences with people coming off big ships, they stayed out of sight, and watched them eventually climb back up on the ship from their dinghy, lift anchor and sail off into the blue yonder. That night in the village, around the fire, they laughed and joked about how a bunch of strangers in funny hats had come close to their river, the Umzimvubu River. Umzimvubu means home of the hippo (hippopotamus), and the river was named that, because it was full of hippos. But, as usual, the European powers that were, had no respect for local knowledge, so the Umzimvubu River is called the St Johns River on all maps, and in all books written up until the early 1900s.

Hippos are semi-aquatic, weigh up to 1800kg and can be vicious.

Settlers, missionaries, and traders arrived in the area. The river was found to be deep enough to navigate over 15 kilometres up stream, so big ships sailed up to where the fresh water was, and filled their barrels there. Then some clever Brit who had probably come from farming stock, realized that near the fresh water source was some flat land which could be used to grow fresh vegetables to supply the ships and help stave off the dreaded scurvy, a disease one gets if one doesn’t eat fruit and vegetables. White’s landing (named for a Mr White, not the skin colour of the sailors) became a huge vegetable farm, and in time a protective stronghold was built to protect the staff there. The ruin of the building is still there, hidden from the air by the spreading branches of wild fig trees, and from the land by the stalks of the cannabis which is now grown there.

Photographs of ships in the St John River, ca 1890. On the left is the jetty of Port St Johns. The jetty was washed away in the 1977 floods.

On a slight rise, a real fort was also built, Fort Harrison, where the 1st 24th Warwickshire Regiment was stationed. Only the foundations of this fort can now be seen, as it was demolished to prevent it falling into enemy hands. The enemy in those days was the Boer forces. The Boers didn’t bother wasting their time trying to overthrow a small British garrison in the middle of nowhere, so that was a wasted effort.

The 1st 24th Warwickshire Regiment was based at Fort Harrison.

Along the pretty little shoreline, a settlement was started, and the army blokes were moved down to it, and it took its name from the river, and was named Port St Johns. Interesting characters moved in and out of Port St Johns (not be confused with other St Johnses found all over the world), and it became a real port, with a real jetty, and a real harbour master. Some of these interesting characters didn’t know their history, and imagined that their village had been named for a rock formation which supposedly looked like St John (complete with a bush growing where his hairy nostrils would be), and also the belief that a Portuguese ship, the São João had sunk off Port St Johns in 1552. The São João was real, but she had gone down way north of the São João River, near Port Edward.

The profile of St John the Baptist on the cliff face of the western gate of Port St Johns.
The tragic tale of the loss of the great ship the São João as told by Captain Manoel de Sousa.

Then some time, in the annals of history, the decision was made, maybe because the river was still full of hippos, to revert to its original name, and the river became the Umzimvubu River on naval charts and other maps.

A map showing the name change of the St John River, to the Umzimvubu River. ca 1900.

The hippos were shot out, but some tales of them are still told. Opposite the holiday resort of Cremorne Estates, a buoy floats in the river. This marks Jefferey’s Rock – a rock, which until the 1990’s was above the water level, but now it is just under the water’s surface, just at the right depth to damage a boat. Jefferey was a resident of Port St Johns, who often went fishing, but one day, for some reason, he got marooned on the rock, and spent the night on it surrounded by angry hippos, who luckily couldn’t climb up on it.

Looking towards the Umzimvubu River mouth and the Indian Ocean. Jefferey’s Rock is in the shadows on the right.

South Africa’s famous wandering hippo, Huberta, on her journey from St Lucia in Zululand, to King Williams Town, in the (now Eastern) Cape, spent a few months chilling in the river named for her kind.

Huberta became quite famous, and many books have been written about her.

Today, Port St Johns (locally called Sajonisi) is no longer a port, but it is a vibrant little village set on the beautiful Wild Coast of Transkei, Eastern Cape, South Africa.

The galavanter galavanting on the Umzimvubu River.

By Kathryn Costello

I travel. I read. I get up to mischief. I write about what I have been up to. I also have fun writing down the stories that I told my daughter when she was little about a dolphin named Michaela. I am a tourism consultant. Owning and managing a successful guesthouse, working for tourism organizations and travelling has given me a lot of insight about what makes a tourism orientated business successful.


  1. Most interesting for me as my father and his family grew up in Tiger flats, living along the banks of the river. He told me stories about the hippos that lived there. He played the forest where the Sulphur Springs are as a kid. This was between the years 1900 and 1955. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Des – did you read my blog on the Beervlei Dam? There I mention Tiger Flats.
      Hardly anyone calls the area Tiger Flats now, people only know it as Mpantu.
      But there are still of ‘tiers’ there!


  2. I have enjoyed this rather irreverent approach to history – of course we have to see it within the context of ts time, but you are right about the assumptions made by newcomers that they could simply name everything that might already have been named by the people living there 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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