Breakaway to the Wild Coast

When Sarah Drew, owner of Active-Escapes, asked if I’d like to join her on a 6-day breakaway slack pack down the Wild Coast , I jumped at the opportunity like a hound with a nose for hidden biltong. I have always had a keen scent for hedonistic adventure, and the urgency to break with routine was made more pronounced in the dreary shadow of lockdown restrictions. It had been a while since I had last packed for an extended self-supported hike, and the fears of discomfort become increasingly more salient as you approach the wrong end of 40. These fears, however, were quickly abated with plentiful supplies of fresh undies, sugary delights and a hip flask of illicit alcohol. Treats I would have begrudingly denied myself in my early twenties.

After a few days of planning and rushed emails, our little crusade was soon on its way with a new keen awareness of boundaries as we crossed into the Eastern Cape. Although we edged through the Umtata border town un-harassed by lockdown-imposed police patrols, the mirage of long distant travel was so unfamiliar. In a moment of panic, I suddenly clutched my pockets and turned to my sister to announce that I had forgotten my passport. “It’s not Lesotho”, she jeered smugly, “It’s only the Wild Coast”

When we finally arrived 5 hours later in Port St Johns, our hosts Vernon and Cindy, the owners of the Spotted Grunter, transported us 10 km up the coast to a remote camp on the Ntafufu river. This tented camp on stilts, was surrounded by pristine bush and there was not another soul in sight.

That afternoon we canoed up the estuary and the scenery was as surreal as it was sublime. Besides the ripple action of thousands of jumping fish, the skies were a playground of activity. Above us the Kingfishers dive-bombed into the water, giant Goliath Herons strutted the banks, whilst a Fish Eagle and rare Martial Eagle refereed.

The next morning we were met by our cheerful guide ‘Computer’ who would guide us along the dramatic coastline back to Port St Johns. Computer, a local lad to the area, gave us a detailed account of the endemic trees and plants along the route. He also opened our world to the trade secrets of effective crayfish hunting. Picking up a long fishing rod with a looped wire at the end of a length of attached string, he showed us how to lure crayfish out of the gullies. Once onto the rocks they become disorientated and are an easy catch he confessed.

Onward we walked hugging the rocky coastal path high above the rugged cliffs. Below us stretched pebbled beaches and turquoise waters. Many an opportunity to watch large pods of dolphins surfing and the occasional cannon like spray of a Hump Back whale breaking the horizon. A few hours later, we drifted in to Port St Johns to enjoy a glorious sunset with a chilled glass of wine in hand.

The next morning the weather was perfectly still. Vernon, invited us ladies on an open-sea excursion on his 4-stroke rubber ducky. The idea was to do a little whale watching and drop a line to hopefully snag some mullet that would be used as live-bait for some of the big prize game fish the area is famous for. After preparing ourselves for some bumpy wave action, we were soon crashing our way down the estuary, through the surf and into the deep blue. Not only are our Winters a fabulous time to visit the Wild Coast with stable weather and clean rivers, but between June and November whales mostly with calf, migrate from the icy Antarctic waters northward up the South African coastline. Seeing these whales (Humpback and South Right Whales) from a boat offers an intimate and untainted interaction. We were not disappointed. Within 10 minutes of reaching the open sea we were surrounded by shoals of curious dolphin and soon the massive barnacle crusted back of a Humpback whale cut through the still water. With whoops and squeals of excitement, I felt fully immersed in a David Attenborough “Blue Planet” series.

After a terrific deep sea trip, it took some adjustment to reclaim our land legs and start our second days’ hike to Delicious Monster, PSJ - second beach. Today we enjoyed a varied walk bouncing between coastal paths and dusty villages. Just before reaching second beach we tunnelled our way through a clump of coastal forest, once home to the iconic man, Ben Dekker, an eccentric castaway who has become something of a legend in these parts. Doing a little extra research and chatting to Sarah who has an extensive knowledge of the area having done her masters dissertation on community lead tourism in the wildcoast, it was fascinating to learn more about this tragic but intriguing character. After completing his training as a forester in George, he earned a Philosophy and Fine Arts Degree at Rhodes. His highly controversial Master’s thesis ‘The Buntu Philosophy’ was rejected by the apartheid institutions and his life moved into a different space as a talented actor. He even tried his hand in politics standing against Sir De Villiers Graaff, the United Party leader with the catchy slogan "Stem lekker, Stem Dekker" (Vote Well, Vote Dekker). Like many disenchanted people trapped in the conservative apartheid era, he ultimately joined the ‘long-haired revolution’ turned his back on conventional mores and chose a life as a recluse in a shabby shack on a forgotten shore. Spending his days living off the land as an ‘outsider” he did in fact cultivate his own little fan club. Rumour has many young ladies would visit Ben’s Den. In true unmaterialistic spirit of bartering he would happily exchange cold beers for services rendered. Looking out at this picture-perfect scenery and pondering my diminishing lockdown alcohol supplies, I wondered if Ben was far wiser than we gave him credit for. Sea, sandal, sex and supplies, in that moment it all made sense.

The third morning of the hike took us through the wild grasslands of Silaka Nature Reserve to our next night’s accommodation at Madisa’s homestay in Mngazana. The variety in accommodation meant something new to look forward to each day. Again, the hiking was mostly undulating fishermen paths with a few tricky sections. Our homestay,situated on a crop of land between a quiet coastal fishing cove and the Mngazana estuary, typified the “Old Wild Coast” of yesteryear. Besides a few renovations, the relative lack of job opportunities and poor road access has meant development in this area remains a challenge. Had this been anywhere else in the world, we decided, its unique charm and beauty, would have long since been discovered and exploited; its coastline broken with hotel chains.

That afternoon the wind whipped up and we decided to take refuge on the sheltered beach cove. Besides two fisherman, we had the whole beach to ourselves, and we discovered some crystal clear pools to swim in. The many shipwrecks along this coast bear testimony to its unpredictable waters but there are many wide sandy beaches with predictable waves and sheltered plunge pools to refresh yourself after a day’s hike.

That evening we all sat down with our hiking guide to a lovingly prepared vegetarian meal. I enjoyed the variety of accommodation stays along this hike and supporting authentic community tourism really helps local people to recognise the value in preserving the natural beauty of this area and the opportunities around sustainable livelihoods.

The fourth day of the hike was beaconed with a simple breakfast happily shared with a friendly pack of local dogs. We set off on the final days hike to the Kraal Backpackers in Mpande. It was a relatively easy walk on wide compact beaches, perfect for both hiking and cycling. Although we all understood that we were moving along the coast in a southerly direction, I must admit having the services of a guide did take the worry out of it. The haphazard network of footpaths connecting the local villages is complex, and having an insider’s knowledge of the places to stop for piece of fruit and a cold beer is very helpful.

It is important however to make your expectations known, as the client you set the pace and select the preferred route beforehand. Some of the coastal routes can be narrow and treacherous for the less sure-footed, while some of the inland routes are more monotonous and not as scenic. Speak to your guide to clearly to establish a route that best suits your needs.

On reaching our final nights’ accommodation – the Kraal at Mpande, we were not disappointed. Nestled on the southern bend of a slope overlooking the surging ocean was quite magnificent. The rooms were tasteful and comfortable and in true Eco-Lodge style the whole establishment was entirely off the grid making for early star filled nights and inspiring sunrise mornings.

Although Reluctant to leave the timeless shores of the Wildcoast, I was feeling like the old me. Covid, and all its restrictions, had been off my mind long enough to almost think it had all been one long bad dream. Of course at some point we have to return to reality, but with fresh memories to hold onto, life back to 'normal' feels infinitely more positive. Without a doubt, I will be planning my next Wild Coast trip, maybe on a bike next time!

Written by Julia Invernizzi - Intrepid traveller, Mountain Biker and Water-Explorer. Also sister to Sarah - Owner of Active Escapes.