HOLE IN THE WALL HIKING TRAIL
By Fiona McIntosh.
I’ve always loved long trails, but the thought of getting together and then carrying all I need for three or four days and nights has become more and more of a deterrent as I’ve gotten older. So the idea of a portaged hike - sleeping and dining in comfortable hotels, enjoying a cold G&T and having someone else lugging my overnight pack - seemed like the perfect solution. And what better place to do it than on one of the most beautiful sections of South Africa’s coast. The magnificent stretch of the Wild Coast which culminates at one of the country’s most iconic landforms – the dramatic sea arch of the Hole in the Wall.
This is an untamed area regarded by many as the Eden of the Wild Coast. You walk along long empty beaches, over green rolling hills and past stands of aloes clinging to dramatic, precipitous cliffs. There are wide rivers to be crossed on local ferries while fish eagles soar overhead. But it’s not only the physical beauty that makes this trail so magical. Hikes are run at spring tides, so the exposed tidal platforms are alive with women and children harvesting red bait, oysters and limpets or gathering seaweed. They’ll happily show off their meagre catch and amuse you by guzzling red bait or swallowing oysters with gusto. You’ll overnight in some of the most beautifully situated accommodation that you could ever imagine. If wandering along a rugged coastline and a room with a view is your thing – this is your trail.
Day one of the trail is a straightforward hike of around 12km. When we saw the view from the deck of your pre-trail seaside cottage at Presley’s Bay, we thought twice about leaving. We’d arrived early and strolled north to a lovely beach – why hadn’t we booked to stay a couple of days I wondered? It got even better. The braai rustled up by Andy and her able assistant, Shirley, gave us a taste of what was to come. We savoured some fresh seafood as we chilled out on the timber deck.
After a hearty breakfast we packed our lunch into ultra-light daypacks, handed our overnight bags to our porters and followed Cedric, our guide, down to the beach. It’s a glorious stretch of coast - white sand punctuated by tidal pools and pulsating gullies all the way to the Umtata Mouth. On the way we passed the small hamlet of Lwandile with its map of Africa rocks. We passed the hiker’s huts at Ncibe – four little rondavels on the river where kids were bathing and sitting on driftwood.
Then we reached the wide, open sands of Mdumbi. We’d been asking Cedric where we could swim but he’d kept us waiting for this point. ‘You can swim here,’ he proudly announced, ‘this is one of the top 10 beaches in South Africa.’ I’m not sure who the accolade is attributed to – though Mdumbi was rated an ‘unbeatable beach’ by Don Pinnock of Getaway magazine – but it’s certainly a great spot. We waded across the Mdumbi River, had a most welcome swim and bodysurf, and then opened our packed lunches. Inside were crayfish sandwiches – what a treat! If I’d needed any more convincing that this was going to be an awesome trail, this was it. The afternoon stroll - we were getting into Wild Coast pace already – took us onto the rocks and around Whale Rock. We spent some time rooting for shells - cowries, baby toes and Venus ears were there aplenty. Once past the small settlement of Tshani we were yet again on a wonderful beach until, quite unexpectedly, we saw a sign directing us up to our overnight spot at the Anchorage Hotel. This is a fisherman’s resort that offers comfortable accommodation in an outstanding setting. We celebrated our efforts in the pub before the sea air and our exertions drove us to our chalets for an early night.
Day two started with a short walk along the beach from the Anchorage to the Mthatha River. As we waited for the ferry to arrive - a rowing boat, powered by a strapping young man – we checked out the mangroves and the island in the wide, muddy estuary. From the far bank you can choose your route to Coffee Bay. One can follow the gentle gradient of the road or go over the steep, green hills along the coast. The coast changes in accordance with the tides and river flow – apparently the island that we observed is a new feature following recent floods. We climbed again, past bushy aloes to a plateau that used to be an old airstrip. A gaggle of young men sat outside a wooden shack and beckoned us in. The shebeen had only warm beer, which the storekeeper clearly thought we would baulk at, but I assured him that this was the norm in my native Britain and shared a bottle with my fellow hikers. As we drank we chatted to the curious youngsters outside. A youth stuck his head out of a nearby rondavel, white clay covering his face and naked torso. Cedric explained that he was ‘Abakhwetha’ -an initiate who was undergoing the rite of passage from boyhood to manhood. This is a traditional practice of circumcision, education and survival in a hostile environment that is still an important part of a boy’s life in this part of the world.
The trail then clings to the hillside offering dramatic views the whole way. The adventurous can scramble down to some caves cut into the dolerite cliffs by the waves. This is where Umkhonto we Sizwe (ANC) cadres used to stash their arms caches during the liberation struggle. If you don’t fancy the scramble, stay high and keep your eyes peeled for whales and dolphins until the lunch spot at the tranquil Mapuzi Point. You climb again and round the hills on a contour path until can see the way down to the sands of Coffee Bay. It’s a steep, slippery descent, followed by a scramble over a wave cut platform and round the headline to the beach, if the tide is low enough. Alternatively, the high route brings you out behind your home for the night: the family-run Ocean Bay Hotel at Coffee Bay. It’s one of the most luxurious and popular hotels on the Wild Coast. This is deservedly so, as you’ll appreciate from the awesome setting, warm welcome, spacious rooms and top-notch food.
The next morning we stepped out of Ocean View straight onto the beach - the final leg of this scenic trail. We were greeted by a classic Wild Coast sight: a herd of Nguni cattle with a couple of young herd-boys relaxing out on the sand, and surfers waiting for the waves to start working. Once over the river the trail led through a dune forest on the leeward side of Sugar Loaf Hill down to an even more secluded, even more beautiful beach. It’s one of those trails that just make you want to stop and swim all the way – so plan accordingly. You pass Coffee Shack and Bomvu Backpackers, and then climb across and around the hills to Hole in the Wall. Keep looking out to sea - particularly if you’re there, as we were, in June/July during the annual Sardine Run. As the vast slicks of silvery fish cruise by the Cape gannets fall like snow into the water, dolphins frolic in the waves, whales blow. The dense shoals of sardines and predatory game fish result in spectacular feeding frenzies. Recognised as the world’s biggest migration, the Sardine Run is an awesome time to be on this part of the coast.
The trail descends to Black Rock, and from then on you’re on the wave cut platform or on the beach all the way to the recently renovated Hole-in-the-Wall Hotel. Dump your bags, grab a beer then hike round to check out the awesome sea arch before returning to the beach for a final dip in the Indian Ocean and the end of an amazing hike.
In a nutshell: This is a luxury guided hike. Overnight stays are in hotels. Dinner, bed & breakfast and packed lunch are provided. Porters are included in the package rate.
Trail details: Duration: 3 days; total distance 31km; longest day 12km; shortest day 8km.
Degree of difficulty: Moderately fit hikers will take this in their stride. Distances are short and although there are a few steep hills, it’s never unduly strenuous.
Top Tip: Stop and talk to the locals along the way. The Wild Coast is incredibly special. There is little privately owned land so people still live off the coast, collecting the fruits of the sea and grazing their animals on the adjacent hills. Liberally apply tick repellent.
Wild Coast Holiday Reservations can arrange transfers to and from Coffee Bay, Umtata or East London and offer a number of other luxury guided hikes on the Wild Coast. These include the Wild Coast Meander, Wild Coast Amble and Pondo Walk.