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Cape Town, South Africa

Great Brak Estuary, Great Brak River

The estuary mouth is bounded by a low rocky headland on the east and by a sandspit on the west. Immediately inland of the periodically open mouth channed the estuary widens into a lagoon basin containing a permanent sandy island which is called The Island.

The word ‘brak’ is derived from the brackish conditions caused by tidal movement in the river

“Although the Trigonometrical Survey and the Hydrographic Office of the South African Navy use the Afrikaans name for the Groot-Brakrivier, amongst English speakers “Groot Brak” and Great Brak River” have common currency. In her book on the history of the town of Groot Brak, Margaret Franklin (1975) refers to the “Great Brak River”. The word “Brak” is derived from the brackish conditions caused by tidal movement in the rive. Another possible derivation is that the vegetated spit on the western bank of the mouth is said to resemble a brak (mongrel)”

History – “The first reference to the Great Brak River was made in 1730 when its banks were reached by pioneering trek farmers. In 1745 the river became the eastern boundary of the Cape Colony in an area known as “De Verre Afgeleegene Districten”. The eastern part of the Colony, between the Bree and Great Brak rivers fell under the jurisdiction of the Drostdy (magistrate) at Swellendam (Lowe, Simpson and Associates, 1973). Francois le Valliant described the area in 1782: “We crossed a plain, encircled with hills, beautifully covered with trees and bushes, about 5 miles in circumference. I found there thousands of pelicans and flamingos…When we left the river, we had to climb a difficult and very steep mountain. With patience and hard work the top was reached (Great Brak Heights). The scenery, which now appeared to the eye, richly rewarded our trouble. We were admiring the most beautiful country on earth. This land bears the name Outeniqua, meaning in Hottentot: “Man laden with honey” (Franklin, 1975).

As the Cape Colony expanded northwards and eastwards during the nineteenth century, Great Brak River became a well used outspan en route to George and further east. Roads were improved during the 1840’s and in 1850 a causeway was built over the Great Brak River. This consisted of thirteen stone piers with twelve openings of 20 feet (6.1 m) each and was spanned with timber. This crossing became a toll bridge in 1852 (Franklin, 1975). In 1859 Charles Searle arrived at Great Brak River and from then on the fortunes of Great Brak and the Searle family have been almost inextricably intertwined.

Initially development at Great Brak centred on the river crossing. Tolls were levied at the causeway and the task of the toll keeper included the operation of the Post Office. Accommodation for travellers and shops were established giving rise to a classic river-crossing village. To ensure that the river did not back up and close the causeway the river mouth was opened artificially. Charles Searle was paid £2 annually by the George Divisional council to perform this task (Franklin, 1975).

Despite a severe flood in 1867 and the Great Fire of 1869, development of Great Brak continued. In 1874 a 2 500 yard (2 286m) long diversion canal was built from the Great Brak River to provide water to power a corn mill (1875) and to operate the irrigation of crops in an area approximately 5 km long and until 1904 when the railway from Oudtshoorn to Port Elizabeth was completed. Thereafter it was more economical for farmers in the Little Karoo to send their wool to Port Elizabeth. The shoe factory was established in 1884 and the following year a tannery. The tannery was moved to King William’s Town in 1957. The railway line connecting Mossel Bay to George was opened in 1907 thus opening the Cape south coast to holidaymakers. Hydroelectric power generation began in 1910 and electric power was extended to the entire village in 1924″