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Text: Lisa Johnson. Photography: Evan Haussmann.

Source: This article is taken from the September 2011 Getaway Magazine.

The Wild Coast has shed the safety concerns of days past without losing any of the perks of rural isolation – sun, sea and untainted kilometres of pure beach bliss. Lisa Johnston took a hike on the wild side.

Cows on the beach, cows on the rocks and cows just about everywhere are a sure indication you're in the 'old' Wild Coast, the former Transkei homeland that stretches from the Great Kei River to Port Edward

‘No, seriously,’ I thought as I stared into the blank, brown eyes of the cow in front of me, ‘it can’t be true’. I was remembering a piece I’d read on the Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) website about the cognitive ability of bovines. It seems their understanding of cause-and-effect relationships is so advanced they can learn to push a lever to operate a drinking fountain.

But this old steer and his herd of gormless buddies were no Mensa understudies. Either they’d been born a bucket short in the bovine-brains department or they’d been hitting the Transkei’s famous green stuff. I could imagine what they might say, were English in their lexicon: ‘Hey, moo, bru. Have you checked the turf today?’

But, then, I’d been out in the sun for a while and the endless acres of white sand and rhythmic boof, boof, boof of the waves was twisting my mind. It’s amazing where thinking goes when all you need to ponder is kilometre upon kilometre of magical sea, undulating rock face, lengths of clean beach and, of course, cows.

This was just the beginning of an Eastern Cape epic, which had been a tailored by the good folk at Wild Coast Holiday Reservations. For starters they sent me hiking, a prime taster of the southern end of the region.

A highly recommended addition to any hike is Trevor's Trails, which depart from Trennery's Hotel. The three-hour trails are guided by Trevor Wigley, who has an extraordinary knowledge of the area. He'll take you on a walk through the forests and on his boat through The Gates, a steep-sided ravine, to a picnic spot where you can leap into crystal-clear water. Along the way, he'll fill you in on the geology as well as the bird and plant life. Most interesting is his knowledge of the history and culture, including the tragic story of Nongqawuse, a young Xhosa prophetess whose predictions catalysed the Cattle Killing and almost brought about the ruin of her people in the mid-1800s. Nongqawuse allegedly received her visions while collecting water at nearby Gxara River.Mine was a combination of portions of the Wild Coast Meander and Wild Coast Amble put together. Both are hiking trails covering the southern part of the region’s coastline. A number of local community guides lead hikers from hotel to hotel along the shore, starting at Kob Inn just north of the Qora Mouth and ending at Crawfords Beach Lodge and Cabins in Chintsa.

The details can be mixed and matched according to time and hotel availability. There’s also an option for porters to carry your gear and the money goes straight to the community – so it’s actually commendable to be lazy.

Both hikes are exhilarating and healthy options for a family holiday. The terrain is moderate and the distances doable even for the young or less-than-fit, the longest stretch being about 22 kilometres between Wavecrest and Trennery’s hotels.

Phil Foster from Mbotyi River Lodge and Milo at Angel Falls, one of many close to Mbotyi.There’s more than enough beach to experience along the way. For starters at Kob Inn, you’ll find ravines with innumerable species of plants and aloes along the Qora Mouth. You can take a six-kilometre walking trail through the coastal forest reserve bordering the estuary, which is twitching with bird life.

At Wavecrest Beach Hotel you can take a morning or evening boat cruise along the mangrove-lined Nxaxo Mouth or a guided walk in the dune forests for information on birding and the area’s ecology and history.

Just beyond Wavecrest Beach Hotel, ‘you’ll come across the rusting wreck of the Jacaranda, a 2 000-tonne Greek-owned coaster that ran aground in 1971. It’s one of innumerable ships that have met their end on the Wild Coast.

In The Sunburnt Queen (Jacana), Hazel Crampton writes: ‘It is impossible to estimate how many of the thousands of ships engaged in the eastern trade [route] ended up as wrecks, but the losses seem to have been astronomical. In the 16th century almost half of the vessels that left Portugal for the East never returned.

As all ships sailing between Europe and the East Indies had to pass South Africa, it is probably safe to assume that … men, women and children of every age and nation, who were wrecked on the particularly treacherous stretch, The Wild Coast, numbered in their thousands if not tens of thousands.’

Their fate is an often-unacknowledged part of our history and it’s fascinating to learn about the European castaways who were assimilated – into Mpondo, Xhosa, or Thembu cultures.

The book focuses on a girl named Bessie, the sunburnt queen of the title, who was taken in by the Mpondo when she washed up on the shores. She grew into a legendary beauty and eventually married a chief to become an ancestor of many of the Xhosa royal families of the 19th century.

The rock that thunders There might be places of equal beauty, but as far as iconic structures go, there's no place that booms 'Wild Coast' quite like Hole in the Wall. The detached cliff near Coffee Bay with the water-carved opening has been used in so many tourism brochures that most people can recognise it without ever having been there. According to Xhosa mythology, the hole was made after a sea person (a kind of mermaid) fell in love with a beautiful woman living in a village near a lagoon cut off from the sea. Her father wasn't too chuffed about it and, to escape his wrath, the sea people enlisted the help of a giant fish. It battered its way through the rock and the sea people (along with the fair damsel) were swept out to sea. The tale also documents the stories of many others who were washed up on the Wild Coast. My favourites are of the pampered elite, most of whom were too pompous or spoilt to adapt to their new circumstances and ended up mad, abandoned or dead. For example, Don Sebastiao Loba da Silveira. ‘Too obese to walk to salvation, he offered up his most precious jewels to anyone who would carry him to the nearest port, which lay at least 1000 kilometres away over terribly tough terrain.’ Sixteen soldiers took up the challenge, but abandoned him somewhere just past present day Port St Johns ‘without any food, for there was none, leaving him under a little tent cloth, fat and in good health, with his strength unimpaired because he would not venture to proceed on foot.’

Despite all this exercise, it’s unlikely anyone will be shedding kilograms on this holiday. Food is quite the focus, with each hotel offering full board and lunch packs. The quality varies from hotel to hotel, but one thing’s for sure, no-one is going to go hungry. Even the lunch packs, which are described as basic, are enough to feed two men. If you play your dates right, you might even hit the hotels’ legendary seafood feasts on consecutive nights, as I did, moving from Morgan Bay to Haga Haga hotels.

Travel PlannerThere are a few options that can be tagged on to the end of a hike, including a stay at Areena Riverside Resort for camping, fishing and quadbiking on the river’s edge.

There’s also Inkwenkwezi Private Game Reserve for the Big Five (and you’ll be able to brag that you’ve stayed at the site of South Africa’s ‘wedding of the year’ – the marriage between Duduzile Zuma, the daughter of South African president Jacob Zuma, and businessman Lonwabo Sambudla).

I enjoyed amazing hospitality at all nine venues, saw 1000 or more cows and covered 60-plus kilometres, but was it enough? Hell no! To make this Wild Coast trip a true epic, I needed to explore at least a little bit of the north, which is how I found myself at Mbotyi River Lodge.

Make it over the wonky bridge to Mazeppa Island and find yourself at one of the Wild Coast's most revered fishing spots for shark and game fish. Bottom: Cathedral Rock is another iconic drawcard near Mbotyi.To say I experienced two of the happiest days of my life there might sound trite, but there’s no denying that gurgle of joy that starts somewhere in the stomach and slowly bubbles to bliss. The lodge isn’t terribly frilly, but it’s inviting in a homely way. We (myself, a keen group of lodge guests and our guides) were ushered out on our adventures each morning and when we arrived back in the evening we’d be scooped back in for hours of laughter, delicious food and conversation.

Our outings took us through the Ntsubane Forest with its prolific bird life and we stopped to wonder at waterfalls and lush, untouched gorges. We hugged the coastline to get to Waterfall Bluff, an awesome cascade of fresh water falling into the sea, and the breathtaking Cathederal Rock. We scrambled over boulders and under waterfalls and took our hiking shoes off to sink our feet into soft sea sand.

Mbotyi is my new favourite South African destination and if my 10-year plan pans out, you’ll find me there, chewing the cud with the locals (and probably an oyster or two) and contemplating the surf. I’ll extend a warm welcome and ask, ‘Hey bru, have you checked those chilled cows on the beach?’

Get more online

Travel planner

Who to contact

The easiest way to plan a holiday is to let someone else do it for you. Wild Coast Holiday Reservations has been in the business of organising adventures and relaxation on the Wild Coast since the days when it was still isolated and communication was poor. The family-run business prides itself on having an intimate knowledge of all hotels and products they punt, so their advice is based on personal experience.

Tel 043-743-6181,

email, website.

Where to stay

Areena Riverside ResortCamp or stay in one of five timber chalets (sleep four each) at Areena Riverside Resort along the Kwelera River, 23 kilometres from East London. The chalets are fully equipped for self-catering and have prime position on the riverfront, some distance from the main campsite. There are also three rondavels (sleep four to six), five cottages (sleep four to eight) and double en-suite units.

Tel 043- 734-3055, email.

Haga Haga HotelHaga Haga Hotel is 70 kilometres from East London, but the 13-kilometre stretch of gravel access road means it hasn’t been marred by too much development and remains a charming coastal village. The 15 sea-facing hotel rooms each have a balcony. There’s also a wheelchair-friendly room, with a properly kitted out bathroom as well as self-catering cabanas (sleep four to six) with decks, braai facilities, lounge and kitchen.

Tel 043-841-1670, email, website.

Mazeppa Bay HotelThe best place to enjoy Mazeppa Bay Hotel is from the palm-fringed pool, which offers a great view of the cows on the beach. The bay is named after an ill-fated ship, the rusty bones of which are supposedly buried somewhere on the sandy shore.

Accommodation options include double sea-facing and family rooms and budget rondavels.

Tel 047-498-0033, email.

Crawfords Beach Lodge & CabinsCrawfords Beach Lodge and Cabins, Chintsa, is at the tamer end of the Wild Coast, so you’ll have easier access to urban amenities without sacrificing the advantages of rural living, such as fishing, birding, swimming and canoeing (although you’ll probably have to share the space with more folk than further north). The lodge and cabins are designed around the coastal contours and each of the 20 rooms has a sea view. The upmarket suites comprise double and twin units with bar fridge, coffee- and tea-making facilities and DStv. Some suites have kitchenettes for self-catering.

Tel 043-738-5000, email.

Kob Inn : Wavecrest Beach Hotel : Trennery's Hotel : Mbotyi River Lodge

If you’re lucky, you’ll get one of two sheltered coves flanking Kob Inn all to yourself for a day of tanning and swimming. There’s plenty to keep you busy, including fishing, canoeing, hiking and mountain biking. All rooms are close to the shore, the furthest being about 100 metres away. The units offer either double- or family-size layouts. There’s a bar overlooking the sea and floodlights illuminate the pounding waves in a nightly spectacle.

Tel 047-499-0011, cell 083-452-0876, email, website.

Wavecrest Beach Hotel is under new ownership and change is afoot. It remains a relaxed, family-friendly venue on the banks of the mangrove-lined Nxaxo estuary. Both birders and anglers will find diverse species of what they’re after. Accommodation in the 30 chalets is full board and family units have separate rooms for kids to share.

Tel 047-498-0022, cell 083-306-3043, email, website.

Trennery’s Hotel ranks number one for nostalgia. Situated at Qolora Mouth, north of East London, it retains its old-school looks and ways, such as the ringing of a bell to announce meal times. The thatched chalets comprise a master bedroom, separate twin room for children and shared en suite bathroom. There are also double rooms as well as single and twin rooms.

Tel 047- 498-0004, cell 082-908-3134, email, website.

Mbotyi River Lodge overlooks the mouth of the Mbotyi River tidal estuary, which means easy access to fishing and swimming. Each of the rooms has a balcony with a view of the sea or lagoon and there are several interleading family rooms.

Tel 039- 253-7200, cell 082-674-1064, email, website.

Morgan Bay Hotel : Umngazi River Bungalows : Inkwenkwezi Private Game Farm

Morgan Bay Hotel is something of an institution in this coastal village. It’s also a place that families return to year after year for its position right on the beach, perched next to awesome cliffs. The nearby lagoon is a safe place for young children to swim. Rooms are spacious and comfortable with balconies sporting views of the ocean.

Tel 043-841-1062, email, website.

Umngazi River Bungalows is a self-contained paradise within a paradise. Perched on a hillside overlooking the Umngazi River mouth, the plethora of bungalows are tastefully decorated and come in all shapes and sizes, from a magnificent honeymoon suite conveniently close to the spa to family units that open up onto gardens. Activities are also geared to a wide range of needs and include childcare activities, hikes and sunset cruises.

Tel 047-564-1115, cell 082-321-5841, email, website.

After days of beach, Inkwenkwezi Private Game Reserve makes a great diversion. The luxury, tented camps are nestled deep in the bush. Interact with elephants, take a game drive to see white lions or visit hand-reared cheetahs. There are also guided hiking, horse and quadbike tours and canoeing.

Tel 043-734-3234, email.

More info on the town of Wild Coast More info on the Eastern Cape area


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