In the dictionary, next to the adjective “laid back”, there should be a picture of Port St Johns – although on some days there is a fine line between laid back and run down. Nevertheless, Port St Johns has an abundance of thick, green, coastal forest, waterfalls dropping off huge cliffs on the edge of a vast lagoon and river mouth, and beaches with warm, calm Indian Ocean waves.
The relaxed, friendly locals, chilled-out atmosphere and hot, humid, fun evenings at the local backpackers are quintessential to its charm. Port St Johns is in the Pondoland area of the Wild Coast, near to where King Faku of the Amampondo Xhosa would take his enemies to be executed. Also known as Umzimvubu (Place of the Hippo), the first hippo seen in the river in written history was Huberta, in 1931, who made headlines for her explorations from Natal to the Eastern Cape, and was found midnight-snacking on grass on Port St Johns’s Market Square.
In 1842, it was also stopover for the legendary Dick King on his 10-day, 960-kilometre ride from besieged Port Natal to Grahamstown. The area is well-known for attracting wanderers and hippies because of its natural setting, great beaches, rustic and ramshackle frontier authenticity and its history of cannabis plantations.
The many shipwrecks along this region of the coast include the Sao Joao (Saint John), a Portuguese ship wrecked in 1552 near Port Edward.
Nowadays, Port St Johns is one of the more accessible places on the Wild Coast because it is on the R61, off the N2. The village has three beaches, called from north to south, First Beach, Second Beach and Third Beach.
Avid fishermen and adventure junkies enjoy the Umzimvubu River Mouth, and with 4x4 trips through the local reserves, strenuous hikes, mountain-biking, horse trails, kite-surfing, cultural village walks, spa therapy treatments, and whale-and dolphin-watching boat tours, Port St Johns has much to offer travellers.
The backpackers are excellent, catering for couples, solo travellers and small groups, and arrange activities every day - from jungle swings to trips to unusual landmarks. There are bed-and-breakfasts and self-catering accommodation, restaurants, craft shops and an airstrip. The Umzimvubu River gorge cuts between the Thesiger and Sullivan Mountains, which are seen as “the gates” of Port St Johns. Have a sundowner on top of Mount Thesiger, overlooking the ocean and forest lagoon. It will feel like a sip of heaven.
Look out for
Silaka Nature Reserve. This 400-ha reserve six kilometres from Port St Johns stretches from Second Beach to Sugarloaf Rock and 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.
Cape Hermes Lighthouse is at First Beach (the fishing beach), just at the river mouth. The 55-metre-high lighthouse was erected in 1904.
Eagles Nest – It’s an hour’s brisk walk to this cliff overlooking the town, full of forest birds and plants and home to the rare single-leaved Streptocarpus ssp. The walk starts behind the bus shelters near the Needles Hotel.
The Gap & Blow Hole – Waves pound a narrow gully, which tapers to a chimney-like chute through which water shoots, sometimes as high as 20 metres.
Isinuka Springs - The “place of the smell” has sulphur springs, which are an important part of local Pondo culture. The water is used for medicinal purposes.
Dolphin- and whale-watching - Common porpoise, bottlenosed dolphin and Haviside’s and Risso's dolphin can be seen, especially during the Sardine Run.
Cultural tourism – There are guided tours to neighbouring Pondo villages to meet locals and see traditional and modern Xhosa culture. Crafts such as reedware, walking sticks and fabrics are for sale.
Wild Coast Hiking Trail – is a five-day guided hike from Port St Johns to Coffee Bay, which leads along the coastline through the exquisite rolling hills. Overnights stays are in huts in the rural Xhosa villages along the way.