Historic holiday village spells chilled seaside living at its best.
How it developed
It may no longer be the camping site for local farmers that it was more than a century ago, but Kenton-on-Sea is still pretty much a seaside holiday village – albeit with fancier houses now, some of them worth millions.
Described as the Jewel of the Sunshine Coast, Kenton is situated along the R72 between the Bushman’s and Kariega rivers, about an hour or 120km east of Port Elizabeth. Depending on who you ask, Kenton and next door neighbour Boesmansriviermond, also called Bushman’s, are “essentially one community”. Some residents prefer to keep things separate while business and tourism like to market the two as one.
As the story goes, the development of Kenton began with the Butt family, descendants of whom still live in the area today and drive one of the village’s longest surviving industries, ski-boat making.
Charles Butt, friends and their families trekked from Grahamstown to the Bushman’s River Mouth, where they’d spend their holidays camping. One day they rowed across the river to explore the bank on the other side, and so it was that Kenton came about, slowly but surely developing into what it is today.
Butt’s legacy remains and the family name is attached to one of Kenton’s most well-known exports – the Butt Cat, a ski boat designed by Charles’s descendent, Stanley Butt. Stanley has long since died, but the family business is now in the capable hands of granddaughter Kerry Butt, who took over from her father, John Butt. Apart from a five-year stint at university in Port Elizabeth, Kerry – the youngest of three sisters – has always lived in Kenton. “I always said I didn’t want to be like my parents, growing up and staying in Kenton, and now I’m my dad,” she smiles.
Hear from the locals
“Growing up we never went near the boats. I didn’t have a passion before, but it’s become my passion. When you become involved you hear how passionate other people are. They come here and they talk about my grandfather and my dad as if they are celebrities.”
Asked what she loves about Kenton, Kerry says:
It’s the relaxed lifestyle, but only certain people can live here. It’s not for everyone. You have to be someone who loves the outdoors and the beach. And it’s close enough to the big city for a young person like me, who needs to get away for a break.
Michael Wilmot is a third generation Kenton-on-Sea resident. His grandfather camped in the area with permission from the local farmers, and, as a child, Wilmot too spent his holidays here. He eventually moved here full-time in 1987 and is the go-to man about anything Kenton related. “Up until about 20 years ago, this was a family holiday destination with navigable rivers, namely the Kariega and Bushman’s. In the last 20 years, with the introduction of the game reserves, it’s got another dimension,” he says.
“We have more than 50km of navigable river: the Bushman’s is about 30km and the Kariega about 20km. The wind can be blowing down at the beach, but when you go upriver you can find a spot where you can get out of the wind. You can also enjoy game viewing by boat.”
Wilmot says the permanent occupancy rate is, at most, 35%, but places like Kenton fill up over the weekends and holidays. “There are more younger families moving in, but the majority are retirees,” he says.
There is a pre-primary and primary school in the area, and high schools in nearby Port Alfred and Grahamstown. Kenton and Bushman’s also have at least five churches between them, and small shopping complexes. “Grahamstown has some of the best schools and the parents of those pupils end up holidaying and buying property here. We like to think we live in a magnificent place. What you find here are the authentic Eastern Cape people, the ‘boets ’n swaers’,” says Wilmot.
He adds that it’s the area’s natural features, like Carriage Rock, Shelley Bay, the exquisite coastline and estuaries, that make it special. “Kenton is on a peninsular between two rivers. It offers a combination of beach and bush,” he says. “This is a holiday resort, so people come here to chill. It’s quite a quirky place. There’s also a strong conservation ethic here. We are very aware that we need to protect our rivers. We market Kenton as The Jewel of the Sunshine Coast and, in winter, we have a campaign called #wherethesunspendsthewinter.”
Kenton is also home to renowned artist Graeme Arnott, whose bird paintings are included in many birding books and have featured at exhibitions around the world. “The coastal features of Kenton are unique,” says the former Rhodesian teacher from his forest garden. “It’s the meeting of many habitats – birding, riverine, marine – and home to quite a diversity. It’s a pleasant climate. It’s perfect for people who don’t want the bright lights and the big city.”
Things to do in and around Kenton:
- Enjoy a day walk in the Joan Muirhead Nature Reserve. The trail is located in the 30ha reserve above the beach between the Bushman’s and Kariega rivers, just south of Kenton-on-Sea. There are three designated parking lots and a boat-launching site.
- Take a leisurely cruise up the Bushman’s or Kariega river with quirky Bushman’s resident Bevan Gardner. Contact him on 082 361 9750.
- Visit the historic Dias Cross erected near Boknes by Portugese explorer Bartolomeu Dias in 1488.
- Spend the day at Kenton’s Blue Flag beach, Kariega Main Beach.
- Hire a canoe and paddle up the Bushman’s to an overnight hut. Bookings: 046 648 1223.
This article originally appeared in Neighbourhood, Sunday Times.