Kowie River, Port Alfred


‘Kowie’ means “rushing waters” and the word is of Khoi origin.  But in fact it is quite a slow flowing river. In the 1820s the river mouth of the Kowie was a marshy area, with a few small islands and large reed-beds. Early attempts by settlers to develop a port were unsuccessful. But in 1841, William Cock diverted the river flow to a new channel along the West Bank and the mouth became navigable in 1863.  Up to 100 ships visited the harbour annually for 20 years.

But then a new harbour was built on the Buffalo River in East London which could accommodate the new Steamships with their deeper drafts. This resulted in a decline of ship traffic into the harbour, and by the 1890’s it was no longer in use.

Happily, the building of the Royal Alfred Marina in the 1980s heralded the revival of harbour life with the opening of the small boat harbour adjacent to the Marina. There are moorings for all kinds of craft including ocean going yachts.

The early settlement on the river in the 1820’s was called Port Kowie. In 1825, it was renamed Port Francis, after the wife of the son of Colonel Henry Somerset, the governor of the Cape at that time. Then in 1860s it changed again to Port Alfred in honour of Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria’s son, who visited the Cape at this time. This beautiful seaside town that grew up around the river is fondly referred to as “The Kowie”. It is the heart of the Sunshine Coast and a very popular tourist resort. For info on the town and all that it has to offer:


Spooling inland from the mouth, the ever-changing green ribbon of the Kowie, twists this way and that between forested slopes.


This is loop of the river is aptly named “Horseshoe Bend”.

It is navigable for 22kms. Cruising up the river is a magical experience. This is our son Rob Foote’s ( delightful illustration.

We have had so many wonderful forays up the river in our boat, Footeloose, since moving to Port Alfred in 2009. I hope that you too will experience just some Kowie River magic through the photos in this blog. If you’re ever in Port Alfred, hopefully it will enchant you enough to venture upstream, There are many options for boat cruises, including sun-downer cruises, if that’s what floats your boat!:

Some years ago, barn owls resided in the caves at Rabbit Rocks. But they’ve gone now. One only hopes that they weren’t chased away by all of us ogling them every time we went by. We so hope that one day they will return. This photo is the best we could get.

Then there was Gambit the giraffe, who was often seen striding along the inside of the fence of Mansfield Game Reserve. We saw him as a friendly giant and we think he enjoyed a bit of human company too, because he used to let people stroke his nose sometimes. Sadly he died a couple of years ago. We miss him.

We do still see giraffes every now and then, quite often in the company of other animals. Wildebeest. nyala, buffalo and bontebok can also be seen on the grassy slopes of the private game reserves.

Many bushbuck come down to the water’s edge. They are so beautiful and generally quite relaxed in our presence. The males are chocolate brown with impressive horns, and the females are a beautiful toffee colour. The fawns are Bambi-like.

Even when we aren’t seeing birds or animals, the scenic river never ceases to delight and it fills one with a sense of peace and well-being. Soul food! It constantly amazes us how few people venture further up the river. So often we have it all to ourselves.

For the enthusiast or part-time fisherman, there are cob, grunter, prawns and crabs in the river.

And while your fisherman is throwing a cast net, you can admire the vegetation underfoot!

We’ve only once seen a jelly fish, so obviously they are rare visitors.

It is always a thrill to see water monitors, especially if you are lucky enough to see them swimming and then clambering out onto the rocks.


It is exceptional. This is just a selection from the many, many birds we have seen.

African Darter

African Darter with its chicks, in its very messy nest!

The very handsome Long-crested Eagle (Photo: Dudley Foote)

Long-crested Eagle spreading its magnificent wings (Photo: Dudley Foote)

African Fish Eagle. The cry of this bird will always give you goose-bumps!

Reed Cormorant – red eyes!

Cape Cormorant – blue eyes!

Goliath Heron They are 135 – 150 cm tall!

They love to perch on top of the Euphorbias.

Grey Heron – these are quite common on the river.

Yellow-billed Egret – so graceful in flight.

Yellow-billed Ducks are ever present, but we never tire of them.

They have the most amazing blue stripes on their wings.

Water Thick-knee – they used to be called Dik Kop (Thick Head). Strange names for strange birds with huge yellow eyes.

Blacksmith Lapwing – very handsome.

Black-winged Stilt – such a boring name for such a beautiful bird. Why not Red-legged Stilt?

Red-billed Teals

In winter, many of the forested slopes are lit up with the fire colours of aloes, and at other times, different plants show off their blooms and seed pods.

Aloes in winter.

We are always on the look-out for kingfishers, which, apart from the pied, are not always easy to spot. These sighting are always highlights of a river trip. We’ve come to know their preferred methods of fishing: the Pied hover and dive to catch fish, while the diminutive but exquisite Malachite fish from the reeds. You are alerted to the presence of a Half-collared kingfisher by a flash of electric blue flying low over the river. They then perch on low over-hanging branches or on rocks on the water’s edge and stare into the water below. But we’ve also seen them in the reeds. The Brown-hooded mostly perch high up on a fence-post or a leafless branch. Giants often fly from leafy tree to leafy tree, landing on high branches, but we have seen them more out in the open, as in these photos.

Pied Kingfishers. Male on the left (bra and necklace). Female on the right (just a bra!).

Malachite Kingfisher

Half-collared Kingfisher (Photo: Dudley Foote)

Brown-hooded Kingfisher

Male Giant Kingfisher with chestnut chest.. 40 – 45 cm.

Female Giant Kingfisher, with chestnut belly.

Often the river is millpond calm resulting in mesmerizing reflections.

And if you have been for an afternoon/evening cruise, you might well be rewarded with a magnificent sunset as you return to the harbour. We’ve had a few of those.

The ‘oh-so-African’ Hadeda enjoying the last of the warmth, on a jetty in the harbour.

There are Cape Clawless otters in the river too. But we have only seen them on a couple of occasions, once on the mud banks near Cob Hole and another time in the reed beds further up the river. But they are elusive and skittish and hard to photograph – we haven’t been able to get any good photos thus far. If and when we do, I will definitely add them to this post!

We’ve also seen seals and even one sunning himself on a platform in the small boat harbour, next to the old Spur restaurant – perhaps hoping for some discarded fish?!

This just a taste of the Kowie River Feast – it is most certainly food for the soul!


One thought on “Kowie River, Port Alfred

  1. Gill Smith

    What fab photos, and descriptions. We are birders in UK, and have been to SA a few times and fell in love with your wildlife !
    My brother has recently bought a house in the Port Alfred Marina, he’s there at the moment ! They’ve been out on a Malachite boat up the river, and I discovered you whilst googling about the area !
    Hoping to come out in 2023 .
    Many thanks for sharing your info !
    Gill Smith.

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