Born To Be Wild
Words Andrea Abbott, Pictures Andrea Abbott, Rob Nettleton and John Costello
Yes, second beach is notorious for shark attacks, and is pretty much a no-go area on weekends and in holidays because of unruly crowds. And this port of yore (the last vessel docked there in the 1940s) has seen better days. Standard now are potholes, litter, and a sense of things falling apart. To top it all, the stigma of the old Transkei endures, as do legends of weirdos and, some claim, a pervasive cloud of dope hovering in the air.
But we went anyway. After all, a lot sounds familiar. Potholes for one. As for sharks, they abound countrywide, on land probably more than in the ocean. And anyone who has been there will probably agree that the final approach affords among the best views along the Wild Coast. The great Umzimvubu River flows to its conclusion down a deep valley presided over by the famous ‘gates’, Mount Thesiger to the south and Mount Sullivan to the north.
According to long-time Port St Johns resident, John Costello, these mountains were once four miles under the sea. “This is an ancient area. It’s around here where Gondwanaland fractured,” he told me.
An environmentalist, John declares the area to be the most biodiverse on Earth. “In all the years I’ve been here, I’ve never come to the end of what’s here. Experts in many fields carry out research in the area and there’s good evidence suggesting this is where Homo sapiens originated,” he told me over an excellent cup of coffee in the only coffee shop in town, Jesters, run by ex-Durbanite and one-time lingerie designer, Heather Vucinovich. This delightful café was born when Heather found herself stranded and in need of a livelihood. Today, Jesters is the local hangout and a popular place for light meals.
Such entrepreneurial talent is typical of many Port St Johns residents. People like Gail Sink, whose exquisite beadworked clothing is sought after both at home and abroad, and Douglas Cele, famous for his carved walking sticks. Restaurateurs run unique establishments like the quirky Delicious Monster situated high above Second Beach, and there are more than 40 accommodation establishments ranging from upmarket lodges to homely B&Bs. Owner of one of these B&Bs, Margie Floyd, arrived in Port St Johns under duress when her husband was transferred there a decade ago. Lonely and reeling from culture shock, Margie was watching TV one day when, “Madiba spoke to me from the screen. He said no one must feel miserable. If you have a spare bedroom, you can start a B&B.” Margie took his advice and hasn’t looked back. “Things have improved a lot here,” she says. “And we have no crime.”
Owner of Umzimvubu Retreat, Elsa van der Merwe, echoes that. “Why go to Mozambique when you can come here where there’s no bribery and no crime?” she asks. “This isn’t Monte Carlo. It’s real Africa and we’re really the Rainbow Nation here. We’re a proper community and everyone is welcome. There are lots of ironies, like the song De la Rey playing over the loudspeakers in the Boxer store.” You’ve got to be South African to appreciate that one. Elsa and husband, Dries, holidayed at Port St Johns 13 years ago. At the end of the week, they’d bought property. “It’s the Pondo Fever that gets you,” she says. “You never want to leave.”
The fever has grabbed others who have opened tourism ventures that boost the local economy. Ex-game ranger, Arthur Steele and his partner, Lynda Bird, recently set up a well-oiled quad bike outfit, the first in the region, providing nature-based tours of the area. For some of us, 'quad bike' is a pair of mud-splattered, four-letter words associated with a deafening roar. But one trip with Arthur and Lynda changes that. As you ride quietly through magical forests and up established routes to headlands, from where you gaze down at the famously rugged and magnificent Wild Coast, you become hooked on quads.
There is something else though that’s just as thrilling: ocean adventures with dive masters Rob Nettleton and Debbie Smith, who worked extensively in the Aliwal Shoal area and in Mozambique and the Seychelles, and moved to Port St Johns to set up the first and only dive and ocean expedition centre along the Wild Coast. “It’s the realisation of a long-time dream,” says Debbie, whose credentials are impressive: first woman diver in Africa inducted to the Women Divers Hall of Fame, PADI MSDT Instructor, and Shark Research Institute international field agent. Rob, an outstanding skipper, is equally well qualified. A trip to sea with this dynamic couple, leaving from their base on the Umzimvubu River and launching through the pounding surf, is an unbeatable experience.
“Port St Johns is the home of the Sardine Run,” says Rob of the phenomenon that occurs in June/July when sardines migrate up the coast. In their wake come predators of all types. Simultaneously and coincidentally, whales also migrate north from the colder waters of the Antarctic to mate and give birth. “The sea pulsates with action during the run,” says Debbie. “It’s the ocean equivalent of the Masai Mara migration.”
Our ocean trip was not during sardine time but, even so, apart from views of famous landmarks like Waterfall Bluff, we were treated to close-up encounters with a rear-guard of humpback whales, a pod of more than 100 common dolphins, a sighting of a rare humpback dolphin, and a lone hammerhead shark.
Shark! What about the annual fatal attacks? In no way diminishing the horror of a shark attack, Rob explains the situation. “The seas off Port St Johns are extremely biodiverse because the continental shelf is close to shore,” he tells me. Integral to this are large numbers of sharks of all species, the most prominent the Zambezi that breeds in the Umzimvubu. “In summer, the females enter the river to drop their pups,” Rob explains.
Huge tidal fluctuations compound matters. Swimmers, many with scant understanding of the ocean, go far out when the water is shallow and suddenly find themselves in deep water beyond the back line of breakers where the continental shelf drops away. This is predator terrain. Add to that large numbers of people splashing and cavorting, giving signals to predators, and, as Rob points out, an ill-equipped, un-empowered lifesaving group, and you have a recipe for disaster.
And so there’s talk of shark nets. But many residents don’t welcome the idea because of the possible negative impact of nets on the resident dolphin population. They also query the logistics of nets, given that the coastline here is truly wild and sea conditions very robust, and nets would probably be washed away with every big storm.
What to do then? “We need to educate people about the ocean and about the dangers of swimming, especially in dirty water,” said Rob. “And lifesavers need to be given the authority to ban swimming during risky periods.”
Let’s hope the authorities are listening, for Port St Johns, despite its shabby dress, is a jewel without price. And yet it’s little known among South Africans. “During the Sardine Run, 95% of tourists are foreigners,” said Debbie. That’s largely because of documentaries shown internationally like Charley Boorman’s Extreme Frontiers - South Africa.
“South Africans need to recognise what exists in the area and put a value on it,” says John Costello. “We have to ensure this unique and irreplaceable region is preserved.”
That alone – to discover and appreciate this incomparable part of Africa – is reason enough to go there.
NSRI: 047 564 1057/1556/1741
Information booklet on Port St Johns:
Elsa van der Merwe: 047 564 1741
Source: Country Life