The Umzimkulu River is a river in South Africa. It rises in the Drakensberg mountains at the confluence of the Ngwangwane and the Underberg River. It flows southeast towards the Indian Ocean, which it enters through an estuary at Port Shepstone. The Umzimkulu River is the second swiftest flowing river in KwaZulu-Natal
The origins of the name “Umzimkulu” river are cemented in Zulu tradition. “Umzi” means kraal or home, and “omkhulu” means which is big. The home the Zulus referred to was the river – not a home as you would perceive it. Legend has it that the river was given this name because in 1823 it swelled to such a point that the Zulus could not pursue the Bhacas who were fleeing King Shaka’s feared army. One of the Zulu warriors said, while gazing across the fast moving stretch of water that had stopped their pursuit, “Umuzi Ubumkhulu” (the kraal -of water- has been great) and so the river became known as Umzimkulu – the great river.
Towns on the Umzimkulu include Underberg and Umzimkulu. Its main tributary is the Bisi River which joins its right bank about halfway down its course, in the Harding area. In the past, the Umzimkulu formed part of the border between Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.
In the early 1900’s, the railway arrived and soon thereafter the Umzimkulu River mouth ceased to operate as a port. The Umzimkulu River is one of the widest rivers in Kwa-Zulu natal and in 1890’s sugar cane, coffee and tea were all grown on the banks.
The south bank over time became the local sport’s field and it became a place where people gathered for weekend sports and family fun.
Boat races were held and a barge called the “Umzimkulu” took people for rides up the river to see the limestone quarries and the beautiful scenery on the banks of the river.
To this day the fishing still remains good and at the river mouth lies the famous “sandspit” where huge kob are taken with garrick, rock salmon and shad caught from the old harbour wall.
The Drak Challenge
The Umzimkuku River is now home to the Drak Challenge Canoe Marathon, a two day race. It starts some 22 km outside of Underberg just off the Drak Gardens road and ends 38 km past Underberg just after the Coleford road.
The scenery is spectacular and competitors come from all over South Africa to compete in the race.
The Drak Challenge has been going each year for 20 years now and is a major event on the Southern Drakensberg sports calendar.
The Umzimkulu River in flood just outside of Underberg – September 1987
In early 1820, European traders and the Zulu’s bartered beads and guns for ivory. During this time, King Shaka (the Zulu King) undertook excursions to the Eastern Cape from his stronghold in Zululand and the Umzimkulu River played a huge roll in their navigation.
Back in 1824 one of the earliest European settlers, Henry Francis Flynn crossed the Umzimkulu and established a residence on the south side of the river.
Later, people of German and Norwegian origin settled in this area, as well as Indian indentured labourers and traders. This mix of cultures has created a unique multi-cultural and multi-lingual community
The Umzimkulu River was navigable for some 8kms up to St Helen’s Rock, and so a harbour was developed to promote trade with Durban.