Named ‘South Barrow’ until 1924, Umkomaas takes its name from the mighty uMakhosi River – Zulu for “the river of the Chiefs.” Teeming with hippos and crocodiles until the mid-1860s the Umkomaas River's area history has a lot to do with early attempts to establish a harbour in the river mouth.
An interesting point for those who knew Durban from the 1920s, a Mr. Greenacre established a general dealer store and small inn on a hill overlooking the uMakhosi River during the 1860s to capitalise (as did his family years later in West Street) on the passing trade.
The Umkomaas or Mkhomazi River is a dominant feature of the area, being the largest river on the South Coast. Occasionally, raft races, canoeing, and other sporting events are held on the river. During the winter dry season, the river mouth often silts up, but after heavy rains it carries large amounts of brown sediment into the Indian Ocean.
The Umkomaas river valley is mentioned in an early chapter of Alan Paton's 1948 novel Cry, The Beloved Country.
A large number of whales once used the estuary as a nursery, giving birth in the shallows. The Zulus named the river after this spectacle (uMkhomazi means the place of cow whales).
The settlement was originally known as South Barrow, with its suburb known today as Ilfracombe then called North Barrow. The town is located 48 km south of central Durban and is accessible by rail and by roads including the N2 Freeway and the coastal R102 or "Old Main Road."
Umkomaas is most renowned for the superb diving opportunities created by the Aliwal Shoal, a coral reef about 5 kilometres offshore. Ragged-tooth sharks, Rock Cod, and a number of other species can be found in the shoal.
Four kilometres off Umkomaas lies the world renowned dive site The Aliwal Shoal, so named for the barque ‘Aliwal’ that was almost wrecked there during a stormy day in 1849. Measuring 1,5km long by 1km wide it is a fossilised sand dune of sponges and hard and soft coral, offering a variety of wreck and other breathtaking dives.
For the adventurous there is ‘Raggie Cave’, where you can glide cheek by jowl amid numbers of large ragged-tooth sharks.
Additional tourist attractions include the Umkomaas Golf Course, home of Tim Clark and widely regarded as being one of the best in KwaZulu-Natal, and the beautiful Empisini Nature Reserve, a forested area that features a delightful waterfall and a number of bush walks.
The nearby settlement of Clansthal was the home of Conservationist Tony Pooley in the 1980s and 1990s.
Swedish tennis player Mats Wilander was a regular visitor in the 1990s, and is rumoured to have been the owner of a large hotel on the corner of Moodie and Reynolds Street.
A major spectacle occurring almost every year is the fabled Sardine Run, the annual courtship migration (contingent on climatic conditions) of sardines from the Wild Coast and other southern locales to the warmer waters of KwaZulu-Natal. Usually occurring in July, it is a spectacular sight, recently covered by Jeff Corwin on the Animal Planet television channel, and the sardines lure a large variety of predatory fish, seabirds, and sharks, on a scale rarely seen anywhere else on Earth.
A notable event in the town's history was the fatal air crash involving a Kitty Hawk Air Force plane during the Second World War. The aeroplane is believed to have sunk into quicksand on the south bank of the river between the village and the present-day location of Saiccor. A local group made numerous attempts to recover the wreckage of the craft in the 1980s, but as the precise location of the plane is still not decisively known, it has never been recovered. Subsequently much speculation exists as to where exactly the plane is buried.
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Originally a farm owned by a Mr. John Mackenzie, Craigieburn was site of the first sugar cane plantation south of Isipingo – circa 1855.
Clansthal takes its name from a farm owned there by Bernard Schwikkard, which in turn was the name of his wife’s family home in Hanover, Germany.