Port St Johns is quite a run down little town and one’s first inclination is to quickly marvel at the setting (which is spectacular), but then move on to greener pastures. But don’t succumb to this temptation before you have explored the bit of town, or more correctly, the dirt road that runs on the other side of the river.
Drive out of town and then take a right over the Umzimvubu River, as if you are heading back towards Port Edward. Immediately over the bridge, turn right again. This little dirt road runs parallel to the river for about 3.5km before it veers left and then follows the course of the coastline for another 9km. You will soon come across a small cluster of houses (a fair number of which offer decent accommodation). You can park in the shade here, less than a stone’s throw away from your own private beach.
Alternatively, you can follow the road as it meanders along the coastline. It remains in good condition for at least another 3km, and then becomes a bit more challenging. The road terminates at Poenskop (which is the name of a local fish and translates as “Bald head”). From here you can explore the area along numerous foot and cattle paths, or simply drop down onto the beach in front of you for your own piece of paradise. You will need at least 3 hours, if not a whole day to make the most of this excursion.
Exquisite, breathtaking, rural, pristine, rustic, laid-back, authentic, natural and wild are words frequently used to describe this incredible 280-kilometre stretch of coastline. However, when stuck on a remote Wild Coast road (in other words, a patchwork of potholes), other choice adjectives may spring to mind: hellish, disastrous, interminable, rudimentary, challenging, character-building, bone-shaking and backward. As the locals like to say, it’s not called the Wild Coast for nothing.
The Wild Coast stretches from just north of East London to the Mtamvuna River - the border between the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Visiting its smaller destinations can be a real adventure. Livestock on the N2 highway play dodgem with cars, and the rainfall between spring and autumn that renders the land so lush, green and fertile, creates deep potholes on the tar and gravel roads. These challenging roads are key to the remote and untouched beauty that is a primary characteristic of this area – hence the outcry about plans to build another highway here. Currently most of the coastline is best explored on foot or horseback, as even 4x4s find some areas impenetrable.
The Wild Coast’s rivers are legion. In the south, the rivers have wide flood plains, while northern rivers spill over cliffs into the sea (as with Waterfall Bluff near Mbotyi). Rocky shores predominate, estuaries are plentiful and sandy bays, coves and long, spacious beaches occur near large river mouths. Large white, red and black mangrove communities survive at some estuaries - home to rare mangrove kingfishers and distinctive crabs. Indigenous forests such as Umtamvuna, Mkambati, Cwebe and Dwesa blanket a large portion of the coastal area.
Access to coastal areas between Kei Mouth and Port Edward is monitored by the Green Scorpions and infringements are fined R2500. Driving, horse-riding, motor-, quad- or mountain-biking in exclusion zones (within one kilometre of the high-water mark) is prohibited without a permit. The balance between sustainable habitation and use of natural resources is a delicate one that conservationists continually work on with local communities.
The colourful Xhosa huts that dot the landscape are central to its beauty.The San and Khoi people originally living here integrated and added their characteristic clicks to the language of the Xhosa, who had migrated from the north. There are different Xhosa groups in the Wild Coast - the southern Gcaleka, the Tembu and Bomvana, and the northern Pondo and Mpondomise, as well as smaller groups that include the Cele, Xesibe and the Mfengu.
When Europeans settlers sought to expand their territory, Khoi, San, and Xhosa land was colonised, inciting wars with the Xhosa in the 1770s. Later in the 19th century, British colonialists took on the Trekboers and the Xhosa.Dick King’s famous rescue mission of 1842, when he rode from Port Natal (Durban) to Grahamstown in 10 days, was to obtain aide for a Natal colony besieged by the Trekboers. The Eastern Cape became the frontier of the conflict between the British and Xhosa.
Probably the most iconic image of the Wild Coast is cows on the beach, where they wander en route to graze the rolling green hills. Cattle are an important form of wealth in Xhosa culture, determining social status and used as bridal dowry (lobola). Infamously, Xhosa elders supported the visions of the prophetess, Nongqawuse, prompting the “cattle killing” of 1856. She foretold that all who did not destroy their cattle and crops would be swept into the sea along with the whites in February 1857. The subsequent famine devastated the Xhosa and their resistance to colonial forces.
The Eastern Cape is the birthplace of many of South Africa’s most celebrated anti-apartheid leaders – Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Chris Hani, Govan and Thabo Mbeki and Robert Sobukwe.
Under apartheid, the South African government consigned the independent Transkei and Ciskei “homelands” to the Xhosa, many of whom were forcibly relocated there and denied South African citizenship. The Transkei state remained politically unstable until the “homelands” were abolished in 1994.
Infrastructural neglect of the area during apartheid resulted in the Eastern Cape remaining the poorest of South Africa’s provinces, and yet, despite overgrazing, it is amongst the richest in coastal wilderness and pristine beaches. Although poverty is not enviable, the lack of roads and modernisation is part of the Wild Coast’s appeal for tourists.
Xhosa communities all along the coastline welcome tourists and educate them about Xhosa culture. The faded, run-down grandeur of former colonial buildings contributes to the sense of a place left alone, attracting those thirsty for seclusion from so-called “civilisation”. The land is infused with the haphazard serenity of rural living, and when passing or visiting Qunu it is easy to see why Nelson Mandela loved coming home to this restful place.
Fascinating cultural stories originate with the shipwrecks scattered on rocky Wild Coast shores by strong winds and heavy seas. Stranded European castaways often trekked hundreds of kilometres to find a ship to transport them home. In 1782, the Grosvenor, an East Indiaman, was drawn closer to shore by the red glow of fire on a Pondoland hillside and ended up on the rocks. Of the 123 survivors, only 18 reached Cape Town.
The abelungu (“white people”) are a Xhosa-speaking Mpondo group so named because shipwreck survivors were absorbed into their community and ancestry. Hazel Crampton’s The Sunburnt Queen tells the story of a seven-year-old white girl named Bessie who survived a shipwreck in the 1730s, was raised by the Amampondo, grew up to be very beautiful and married into Xhosa royalty.
Along with the shipwrecks came lingering rumours of treasure. Bead Beach is so named because carnelian beads and fragments of Ming porcelain still wash up there, possibly from the 16th-century wreck of the Portuguese Santo Espirito. Some wrecks are still visible, such as the Jacaranda at Qholora Mouth (1971). Wrecked ships’ names live on in Mazeppa, Port St Johns (Sao Jao), Port Grosvenor and Coffee Bay (named for a washed-up cargo of coffee beans).
The weather is generally mild, with average winter lows around eight degrees Celsius, summer average highs around 28 degrees and 1 000 millimetres of annual rainfall, mostly from November to March. Winter visits ensure mild weather and unpopulated beaches, while the summer months (especially the December holidays) are busier and offer beautiful butterfly and bird life.
Accommodation ranges from campsites, backpackers, bed-and-breakfast and self-catering accommodation to luxury and family hotels. There is little public transport, apart from the Baz Bus which hops between backpackers from Port Elizabeth to Durban, stopping at the larger, more accessible Coffee Bay and Port St Johns. There are petrol stations along the N2 and Jikeleza Route, in Lusikisiki, Port St Johns, Coffee Bay, Mqanduli, Elliotdale, Willowvale, Centani, Kei Mouth and Mooiplaas. Some resorts have petrol pumps. The closest airports are in East London and Durban, although many hotels along the coast have air strips and helipads.
The Wild Coast is one of the few places one can visit for an exquisite, peaceful seaside holiday and feel immersed in nature and genuinely far from the madding crowd.
Look out for
Bird Watching – Varied biozones make this a birding hotspot, with nearly 300 species. Some South African endemics are brown robin chat, bush blackcap, Cape parrot, forest canary, Knysna turaco, Knysna warbler, olive bush shrike and South African shelduck.
Hikes and nature trails – Wild Coast Hiking Trail is a five-day guided hike from Port St Johns to Coffee Bay along the coastline through exquisite rolling hills. Nights are spent in huts in rural Xhosa villages. Mbotyi is the base for the Pondo Walk – four guided one-day trails of 13 to 26 kilometres. The three- to six-day guided Amadiba trails involve camping, horse-riding and canoeing. Guide Trevor Wrigley (featured on the TV series Shoreline) offers natural and cultural history walks in the Qholora River mouth area.
Horse-riding – Almost all Wild Coast destinations offer horse trails of up to 12 days or exhilarating one-day beach rides.
Morgan’s Bay’s dolerite cliffs offer established sea-cliff climbing. Cliff-jumping and abseiling are possible near Coffee Bay.
Mountain-biking – The Pondoland MTB Trail is for single-track lovers, while Mazeppa Bay, Cwebe Nature Reserve/The Haven, Mbotyi and Mkambati Nature Reserve have established routes.
The Sardine Run is an annual winter phenomenon in which millions of sardines swim 1 000 kilometres from the Cape to Mozambique, feasted on by sharks, game fish, dolphins, seals, gannets and humans. Experienced scuba-diving companies African Watersports and Seal Expeditions are based at Mbotyi River for five to six weeks in June and July.
River, rock, surf, fly and deep-sea fishing – Myriad coastal and estuarine locations make this a favourite destination for anglers. Morgan’s Bay is well-known for game-fishing, and the Sardine Run attracts unusual species. There are many marine protected areas. Permits are required and are obtainable at post offices.
Dolphin- and whale-watching – elevated coastal vantage points afford great dolphin- and whale-watching. Humpback and southern right whales visit South African shores from winter to spring. During the Sardine Run, 15 000 – 30 000 common dolphins (and rare Haviside’s and Risso’s dolphins) follow the sardine shoal.
Surfing – There are good breaks at Mazeppa Bay, Mdumbi, Ntlonyane/Breezy Point, Coffee Bay Beach Point, Hole in the Wall, Port St Johns. Backpackers offer surf lessons and hire out wetsuits and equipment.
Canoeing – Estuaries allow for calm and enjoyable rowing. Most hotels hire out canoes.
Arts and Crafts – Xhosa women and children stationed at tourist stops sell handmade reedware, wooden sculptures, bead jewelry, shellwork, baskets, mats, blankets and unique clothing. Mzamba Craft Village is at the Wild Coast Sun south of Port Edward, and Jonopo Traditional Village and Craft Centre is in Qunu. While there, visit the Nelson Mandela Musuem (Monday to Friday from 9am to 4pm, Saturday from 9am – noon).
Hole in the Wall’s breathtaking natural stone arch was worn through by the Mpako River (or a giant sea creature, according to local legend). There is a resort at Hole in the Wall (a 10-kilometre drive or three-hour hike from Coffee Bay).
Accommodation Lis HoteGuest Houses The Dwesa & Cwebe Nature Reserves are separated by the Mbashe River. Known for exceptional forest birds, these diverse habitats support 290 recorded bird species, including narina trogon. There are walking and 4x4 trails. There is chalet accommodation at Dwesa, while the Haven Hotel is two kilometres from Cwebe.
Hluleka Nature Reserve is south of Port St Johns on the R61. This 772-hectare coastal reserve encompasses the Congwane Mtombo and Ndabeni Hluleka forest reserves. Rocky seashores, lagoons and evergreen forests can be explored via winding paths with exceptional birdlife. Hilltop clearings are perfect for dolphin and whale sightings.
Silaka Nature Reserve, a 400-hectare reserve six kilometres from Port St Johns, conserves near-pristine Eastern Cape coastal forest. An estuary, main beach, tidal pools and rock formations form a beautiful environment for birds and otters. There is excellent hiking, and accommodation in forest chalets.
The 7720-hectare Mkambati Nature Reserve between Port Edward and Port St Johns has clear pools and the spectacular Horseshoe, Strandloper and Mkambati waterfalls. Open grasslands with grazing eland and red hartebeest, and the Msikaba and Mtentu riverine forests, are ideally explored on foot. Estuary fishing is allowed, while bird-watchers will be attracted by redshouldered widow, ground hornbill, Gurney’s sugarbird and a vulture hide and colony. There is accommodation in the lodge.