Although Witsand, a popular holiday and angling resort at the mouth of the Breede, has no harbour today, the history of the area centres on maritime activity. The first grazing rights were granted to one Adriaan Odendaal of the farm Malegaas Craal in 1791, but things started happening in 1817, when Captain Benjamin Moodie of Groot Vaders Bosch near Heidelberg enlisted the support of other farmers to persuade merchants from Cape Town to send their ships to Witsand. The Breede is one of the few navigable rivers in South Africa, and a warehouse was built at Port Beaufort 3 kilometres upstream to handle the new flow of merchandise. This system alleviated the need for the farmers to cart their wheat and wool by ox-wagon over a great distance and difficult mountain passes to the market at Cape Town.
The failure of crops in 1820 forced Benjamin Moodie to devote his efforts elsewhere, but his scheme of transporting goods by sea rather than by wagon was taken up by Joseph Barry of Swellendam, who, after an unsuccessful start trading on his own, formed a partnership with nephews Thomas and John in 1834. "Barry & Nephews" became a formidable mercantile empire, with branches in every town in the south-western Cape, as well as Cape Town and London. They operated their own ships, established warehouse facilities at Port Beaufort and at Malgas, higher up the Breede, and even issued their own bank notes. Their influence on agriculture and commerce in the area was almost unimaginable, with farm output growing by three to four times.
The pride of the Barry fleet was the SS Kadie, a screw-driven, sail-assisted steamer built to order in Scotland. This ship made over 200 voyages to Cape Town, and even once ventured as far as Mauritius, but came to a sad end at Cape Infanta in 1864. This spelt the beginning of the end for the ubiquitous Barry empire. The next year their warehouse in Swellendam burnt down, and the company soon went bankrupt. The Barry warehouse at Port Beaufort now stands abandoned, near the Barry Memorial Church (completed by Thomas Barry in 1849 and now a national monument).
Malgas was originally named Malagas (probably some reference to Malagassy, or Madagascar, from where many slaves were brought to the Cape). Because of problems with mail landing up in Malaga in Spain, the name was officially changed to Malgas, which is incidentally also the Afrikaans name for the island-breeding Cape Cormorant. The vehicle pont (hand-drawn ferry) at Malgas, established in 1860 and the last still operational in South Africa, was for many years powered by one man, Moxie Dunn, a former goat farmer who assumed the duties of ferryman in 1961 and stuck to it until 1986. Now three men do the work that Moxie did by himself. The ferry only operates during daylight hours, so trips should be planned accordingly.
From the Heidelberg/Witsand side, the pont at Malgas is the bridge to Infanta, a hamlet at the western side of the Breede River mouth, and De Hoop Nature Reserve, a World Heritage site which harbours an astonishing variety of plants, as well as fauna ranging from a breeding site of the highly endangered Cape Vulture, the rare bontebok and the Cape mountain zebra. De Hoop incorporates a marine reserve as well, and the coastline is a favourite calving area for southern right whales. All the historic buildings at De Hoop and Melkkamer (across the De Hoop Vlei) have recently been renovated and upgraded, with accommodation ranging from camping and self-catering to fully-catered luxury. A popular mountain bike race and half marathon are held at Potberg in August each year.