The East London suburb of Nahoon will always be synonymous with surfing and coastal recreation. The social history of the area is strongly linked to the sea, river mouth and general outdoor fun. The surfing history of Nahoon Reef goes back to the early fifties when local lifesavers would cautiously paddle past the point on Crocker Skis and other craft whilst on training runs to the west breakwater of East London harbour. Many of the paddlers would make tentative attempts to catch the edge of the swell refracting around the point. The pioneering sixties surf sessions at the Reef were made possible by the advent of boards with fins, initially skilfully crafted wooden versions known as ‘woodies’ and later the more resilient fibreglass surfboards. By 1963 about a dozen local surfers had surfed the Reef including the legendary Bob Joubert. Throughout the sixties, the group of Reef regulars steadily expanded and included some of the veteran surfers who still surf today. From 1974 to 1978 successive Gunston 500 surfing competitions were held at the Reef and other East London beaches and in 1978 the Reef hosted the World Surfing Games. Mayor Elsabe Kemp went out of her way to acclaim the city’s surfing credentials and even supported the building of a concrete walkway to allow surfers to access the water.
Contemporary Nahoon is awash with surfers, runners, cyclists and paddlers. Today’s exercise and outdoor junkies may not be aware of it, but they are maintaining a historical legacy that began in the Victorian era with fishing and picnic trips to Bat’s Cave and camping at the mouth of the Nahoon River. The colonists were so keen to reproduce a sense of home that they likened a hike through the Nahoon coastal bush with a walk through “an old Devonshire lane.”
But the dunes and coastal bush of Nahoon were not always such a tranquil setting. One theory, in fact, holds that the unusual name Nahoon derives from the Khoikhoi word noagu (‘river of fighting’)*. But even if you endorse the alternative theory, that it comes from Xhosa name for the river ‘Nxaruni’, based on a chief who lived nearby, there is little doubt that Nahoon was once the site of violent conflict between settlers and Xhosa warriors. In February 1878 for example, Nahoon reverberated with the rifle fire of the Buffalo Mounted Patrol and 21 Xhosa combatants perished in a hail of bulletsi.
In 1887 the East London colonists were forced to put their traditional New Year celebrations on hold when it was rumoured that a large Xhosa force were gathering at Nahoon and planning to march along the beach to seize the powder at the Railway Magazine. While the town’s volunteers mustered at Fort Glamorgan, a group of 50 horsemen rode out from Panmure but found no enemy presence – the party was nonetheless spoilt.
Nahoon was also a frontier in more positive and less violent ways. The value of land for conservation and recreational purposes was recognised at a very early stage. In 1904 the Nahoon Point area, until then regarded as Crown Land, was handed over to the municipality by King George VII on the understanding that it was to be preserved as a natural space that could be used for public recreation rather than development. This usage is reflected in the current status of the area as a nature reserve. Even in respect of the residential areas, the early classification of the land as non-agricultural, allowed it to be used for recreational purposes, namely sports grounds, parks and gardens. A 1962 map of urban usage demarcates the entire area from the Blind River to the Nahoon River, including the point, as Nahoon Race Course. The 1960s maps of land usage reflected traditional recreational uses such as camping and the Nahoon area was linked to the city via a recreational corridor through Quigney and the Esplanade.
In the mid-forties, with soldiers returning from the war, residential land in Nahoon was much sought after. In 1948 there was a rush for Nahoon land and interest in housing development remained high over the next five decades. The preservation of public open spaces and wilderness area, therefore, required steadfast action from civic groups and sympathetic public representatives. In the early 1980s for example, the Nahoon Coastal Preservation Campaign led by three Nahoon residents fought a successful campaign to resist a proposed freeway through Nahoon linked to a bridge over the river mouthii.
As an inner-city wilderness area, Nahoon Point has always presented land usage and environmental management challenges to the municipality. The benefits of conservation and non-development were off-set by risks such as the invasion of alien vegetation, illegal settlements, criminal activity and the threat of fire. From time to time, the cash-strapped council has eyed the land as an asset that could be sold off to developers to replenish the municipal coffers. Through the persistence of local conservationists, however, sanity has prevailed and the ‘the Point’ with its eco-centre, boardwalks and managed trails has clearly demonstrated its value as a nature reserve. Whereas the current development vision of the Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality may be hard to pin down, the role of suburbs like Nahoon was fairly clear in previous development plans. The City Development Strategy of 2006/2007, for example, punted the lifestyle city – a vision that embraces sports, recreation, tourism and hospitality ventures, superior retirement facilities and good schools.
*There is some indication that British Admiralty charts referred to Nahoon Point as Kahoon Point in 1913 – see http://www.naval-history.net/OWShips-WW1-05Astraea1.htm
But the real factors that give a neighbourhood its vibrancy and sense of place lie outside the reach of formal plans and zoning arrangements. The so-called Soffiantini Castle in Villa Road is a case in point. Battista Soffiantini came to South Africa from Italy in 1931 and while claiming the aristocratic title, it appears that he was more of a street-wise entrepreneur who had abandoned a family back home. A legendary womaniser with a long trail of romantic liaisons, Soffiantini dedicated the tower of the castle to a “lost love.” Soffiantini is possibly East London’s most celebrated eccentric and accumulated considerable wealth through his cosmetic / hairdressing business and property investments. His disregard for middle-class conventions and urban stricture are legendary. However, long before Soffiantini, Nahoon saw its fair share of dramatic and unsettling events.
On the 25th of July 1881, a south-westerly gale resulted in the loss of three sailing vessels at Nahoon Point. The barques Clymping, Brighton and Heimath were all wrecked along the short stretch of rocky shore that starts at the Blind River and culminates at the end of the point itself. Collectively 33 lives were lost. All three were part of a cluster of vessels that had attempted to ride out the storm at anchor in the roadstead. A Court of Inquiry held in East London on 1 August 1881 found that “…the masters of vessels on arrival at this port, are too frequently and very often unnecessarily absent on shore from their vessels.”
In general, however, the beaches and rocky shores have been an asset to the development of Nahoon. The Dolphin Hotel was Nahoon’s most iconic hospitality venture with its excellent appointment near the beach and famous pub, The Fin. The Dolphin started its life in 1951. Ironically owners Frits van Seumeren and Alf Roebert planned just a modest tearoom with rooms above, but when refused a trading licence they opted for the hotel that subsequently became a famous landmark. The Dolphin had its heyday in the sixties as a relatively luxurious holiday venue under the firm hand of manager and co-owner Frans Staal. The Dolphin was a favourite ‘warm-up’ spot for more serious weekend partying that often included East London’s famous Surf Club sessions.
By contrast, the much earlier Nahoon Hotel was a more mysterious establishment with a dark reputation. Hotelier Joseph Sage was an enterprising sawmill owner and miller who eventually made enough money to open a hotel. Sage was a hard man, prone to domestic violence. He died at his hotel in 1893, apparently of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. It required the superior investigative skills of Chief Inspector J. B. Cochrane to show that Sage had in fact been murdered and that his daughter Mary, acting under the influence of her conman lover, Job Derosier, had made two previous attempts to poison her father – one of which resulted in the death of the family dog. Derosier (one of many aliases used by dodgy Mauritian conman Leon Panin) had gone to great lengths to establish an alibi but was seen sneaking into the hotel on the fateful night by a stable hand. Derosier eventually died on the gallows but the treacherous Mary was adjudged to have been manipulated and was allowed to slip away from East London. There is evidence that the Nahoon Hotel was still operating in 1907 and hiring out boats that were rowed on the river.
If Nahoon was historically a precinct of fun, there was always a certain poignancy, a tougher side to the good times.
The family outings, picnics and fishing excursions to the point occurred in the same picturesque space as the violent frontier skirmishes and the mass drowning of sailors in the tragic winter of 1881. Its this layering of memory and history that makes a space like Nahoon so fascinating.
This article is extracted from the books “The Reef: A Legacy of Surfing in East London” and “Fighting and Fun at Nahoon – a social history”. Both are authored by Glenn Hollands. A limited number of copies are still available at the BKCOB Office, contact Candi if you would like a copy : 043 743 8438
i Webster, T.J. Some Aspects of Sport in East London a Century Ago, in The Coelacanth Vol. 19 No.2 October 1971, 31
ii Daily Dispatch 20 May 2009