Every year between June and November, South Africa’s humpback whales migrate north to breed in the warm waters of Mozambique – and then return a few months later to their feeding sites in the Southern Ocean. Their journey takes them right past our doorstep, and watching them every day for the past few weeks got us thinking about their relationship with the town we call home. After all, the whale is the official animal of Umkomaas. Humpback murals adorn our bridges and our restaurants, the postcards for sale in our souvenir shops, and even the uniforms of some of our local schoolchildren.
So, what is our town’s obsession with whales all about? It began in the time of King Shaka Zulu, one of the most famous figures in KwaZulu-Natal’s history. According to legend, King Shaka was on campaign with his impi when he came across the Umkomaas River. In the estuary he saw several humpback mothers using the protected waters as a calving ground – and so he named the river uMkhomazi, meaning ‘watering place of whales’. These days, the river has become too shallow for the whales to enter, and the humpback calving ground is a thing of the past. However, the whales remain deeply ingrained in our town’s consciousness, thanks to King Shaka’s discovery so many years ago. Learning about their connection with Umkomaas encouraged us to find out more about our local history – and this is what we discovered.
Umkomaas itself began as a European settlement, constructed in 1861 to facilitate the export of the region’s sugar. It was known as South Barrow until 1924, when it was renamed after the uMkhomazi river at its heart. The town’s career as an import and export harbour was short-lived, particularly after the Durban port underwent a major dredging project that established the city as the province’s major trading hub. In 1954, the Saiccor paper mill was constructed on the Umkomaas River, and replaced the sugarcane industry as the town’s major source of income. Many workers were imported from Italy, and for a while Umkomaas had the largest Italian community in proportion to its population of any town in Southern Africa.
Nowadays, Umkomaas is most famous for the fantastic dive sites that exist just offshore – and yet, it was only relatively recently that Aliwal Shoal was discovered. In 1849 a three-masted vessel narrowly escaped an untimely end after almost colliding with the shoal’s pinnacles. The incident was recorded by the ship’s captain, James Anderson, who wrote of his experiences in a local newspaper in the hope that by doing so, he would provide a warning for other seamen. He wrote that “about thirty miles to the southwest from Natal, and distant from the land about two miles, I observed a very large and dangerous rock, or shoal, with heavy breakers”. Anderson’s ship was called the ‘Aliwal’, and so the Shoal was named in honour of the ship it almost wrecked.
Unfortunately, Anderson’s warning did not prevent other vessels from coming to grief on the Shoal in years to come. In May 1884 the SS Nebo became the first ship to wreck on the pinnacles. A British steamer with a cargo full of heavy railway sleepers, she sank quickly to the seafloor where she lay in peace for almost a century before being discovered by divers for the first time. The most recent ship to wreck on the Shoal was the MV Produce, a Norwegian bulk carrier that sank in August 1974 whilst en route from Durban to London. Fishermen from Umkomaas joined the Safmarine cargo vessel SA Oranjeland in launching a rescue effort, and together managed to save the lives of all 34 crew members.
Today, the wrecks of both ships have experienced a rebirth as two of the most productive dive sites on the South Coast. Both provide a home for the endangered brindle bass, as well as a vast array of other fascinating marine creatures. Occasionally we see whales in the vicinity of the wrecks – a pairing that seems fitting, considering that both the ships and the humpbacks played a role in the history of our town. Knowing a little bit more about Umkomaas’ past helps us to appreciate the place that it is today. From a resting place for King Shaka’s soldiers, to a colonial port, to a centre of Italian industry, Umkomaas has been many things to many people. Personally, we like the town’s present-day incarnation – as a home away from home for the divers who travel from all over to experience the wonder of Aliwal Shoal.