03 June 2014 by Andrea Weiss (words and pictures)

Crossing the Breede River on the pontoon at Malgas

For a unique back-road experience, take a detour to Malgas in the Cape’s Overberg region.

The Malgas pont

On a recent trip to Swellendam, I had the pleasure of fulfilling a small ambition – namely, to cross the Breede River on the pontoon at Malgas. 

A pontoon is a simple floating barge designed to get vehicles across a river, and the word is often shortened to 'pont'.

A pontoon is a simple floating barge

The Malgas 'pont' is famous for being the last hand-drawn pont of its kind in the country. There are at least two other pontoons in the country, one at the Kei River and the other at Sendelingsdrift in the Richtersveld on the Orange River, but these are motorised.

The little hamlet of Malgas

In the mid-19th century, the little hamlet of Malgas once played a much bigger role in the Overberg than it does today. 

Because the Breede is navigable for around 50km inland to Malgas, this was once an important trading port that served the whole area. 

From around 1860 onwards it was quicker to transport goods from Cape Town by ship than by ox wagon, and so this river route was a lifeline for the region.

Malgas was established in the mid-19th century

It was here that trader Joseph Barry made his fortune with his 156-ton steamer, the Kadie, which plied its trade for six years, bringing essential goods from Cape Town and, in turn, ferrying local produce like wool, wheat and aloe sap back to the city. 

Although the Kadie hit a rock and was shipwrecked in 1865, other steamers took its place until the advent of the railway line, which made the route redundant.

The pontoon can take up to three vehicles

When Malgas fell into disuse as a port, the authorities decided there wasn't sufficient traffic to justify the building of a bridge and so the pont lived on. 

Today it remains the only way of crossing the Breede by vehicle on the back roads between the N2 outside Swellendam and Cape Infanta, where the river runs into the sea.

The current pont dates back to 1914, but the stickers you can see on the back of the 10-T signpost on board are more recent.

Stickers on the back of the sign for the pont

For a fee of R48, two men use harnesses and a pulley system to draw the ferry across the water to the other side and, if you ask nicely, they might let you have a go too.

You can have a go pulling it if you like

To get to Malgas, look for the turn-off from the N2, just outside the town of Swellendam.

Some signposts also read Malagasy, the village's original name before it was shortened to Malgas. 

The reason for this is because letters intended for Malgas are said to have been mistakenly sent to Malaga in Spain by the post office!

Category: Attractions, Culture & History

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