Walking the Wild Coast (at last).

Face Book is amazing. We reconnect with old friends, get to know all sorts of interesting stuff, and some of us see posts and make instant decisions regarding those posts. My dog Hunter is at my feet because of such a decision. A friend posted a photo of him, I fell in love, and here he is.
The same instant decision making happened, when Margie, one of my few FB ‘friends’, that I hadn’t actually met, late one night posted something about Wise Women Walking. What is it? I messaged her. Her answer; ‘We’ll walk and talk, and maybe get answers to things’, interested me. ‘Do you want more participants?’ I asked. And that was it; I had signed up to walk the northern part of South Africa’s Wild Coast with a bunch of women I had never met before.
Not only had I never met the other walkers, I had never hiked for 5 days (or 2 days for that matter), carried a back pack, slept in a hut, or done without my ‘good’ binoculars for days. What had I said yes to? A bonus; I had met our guide to be, Bongani Mlotywa, of Absolute Wild Coast Tours, briefly at a tourism conference. He had seemed an OK guy. See https://www.facebook.com/absolutewildcoast/

I had moved to the Wild coast 36 years before (for a month), it really was time I walked the Wild Coast. Margie set up a WhatsApp group, and when I flippantly said that I’d drive to Port Edward, walk halfway home, get driven back to Port Edward, and then I would drive home again, it caused some confusion- huh? After all, who lives in Port St Johns?
So, the day before, I drove to Port Edward, and met up with Margie and other interesting people, had convivial conversation at supper time and at breakfast, about issues we are passionate about, and then drove off to the Wild Coast Sun, where we were meeting and starting from. I stopped at the local supermarket for must haves like chocs and snacks, and as I was walking away from my car, past 3 women, something they said, made me stop and ask if they were my walking partners – yes they were, Lucy, Cathy and Janet. We immediately hit it off, and decided that wine was a must, so the liquor store was also visited. Thank-goodness for wine in half litre cartons, they are much lighter than bottles, and I discovered that Old Brown Sherry, a must in all bush situations, was now also available in cartons. The extra weight that I was carrying? I reckoned we’d empty the cartons on the first night, so I was happy to pack it into my back pack. It was a completely wrong assumption.
We parked our cars at the hotel, met up with Bongani, got down to the beach, sat down and ate our lunch and chatted about our trip – I liked the pace of this adventure! 

Lunch on the beach.

Bongani eventually got up, so did we, put on our backpacks, and started the six kilometers which was the distance on our first day. The Wild Coast is beautiful, and it was beautiful walking past those rivers that I normally drove over, further inland.

A petrified log.

We pass the petrified tree logs on the beach and marvel at shells deposited in sediments a few million years ago to form limestone. Wood gets petrified, when silicas penetrate buried wood, and, due to rapid crystallization happening, it becomes fossilized.  

We arrived at Sigidi Village a few hours later, and gratefully sank down on the mattresses in our communal hut. Ten minutes later, our hostess served us tea and hot steamed bread. Steamed bread is a Pondo speciality, it is cooked/ baked in a cast iron pot over an open fire, and with peanut butter, it is uber delicious.

Pondo bread

Village based accommodation is not for everybody, but if you’re not fussy, when you do do a Wild Coast walk, try it, instead of the fancier tented camps that dot the coast. Your sleeping hut is large, with mattresses on the floor. Sometimes there is a separate, ‘living’ hut where meals are served. Your toilet is a long drop, with long drop smells, with a door that may or may not be wonky. Your bathroom is a shambling lean-to, where a 2 jug hot water bath in a basin becomes a brief stint in heaven. Your hostess really looks after you, having heated the water in a pot on her fire in the cooking lean-to.

Our accommodation in the hut.

Supper is yummy Pondo food. My favourite, nqush (samp and beans) is served with a stew and vegetables. Nqush is not pronounced ‘enkuushe’. In Xhosa,the ‘q’ is one those delightful tongue clicks. This one is the ‘tongue against the palate’ one.
We chat, we lighten the wine box, but far from empty it. We go to sleep at about 8.00pm, feeling quite silly, because it is so early.
In the morning, some of us are up with the sun. Since it is winter, sunrise is after 6.30am – not exactly early. Lucy makes proper filter coffee, she has opted to even bring a along a French Coffee plunger in her back pack. I have brought good quality instant coffee along; some things cannot be given up, even on a Wild Coast hike, and I know that tea is the Pondo beverage of choice. Breakfast is maize porridge and more steamed bread. We are given lunch packs, and off we go.

On day two, we will walk 9km. We leave Sigidi, and head over the hills, cutting diagonally across to the sea. We walk along the beach, and see oxen pulling a sleigh, something that I think only happens in Transkei, but I have never seen one on a beach. Firewood gets collected on to it. The children accompanying their grandfather are delightful,
and a photo session with them is held. We stop for lunch, plonking ourselves down on dune in a row, facing the sea. The sandwiches are steamed bread and jam, they get eaten very fast.   
Later on, we arrive at Matholane village. As it was at Sigidi, our hostess makes us comfortable. We attack the hot steamed bread with gusto. Steamed bread was the reason why none of lost any weight during the 50 something kilometre walk. Dinner was again delicious, and we had the children of the village entertain us with song and dance. The youngest couldn’t have been 3 years old yet, and the oldest was about 17 years old; she was baby-sitting a very young child, of maybe a few months, and the baby was danced with, sleeping through the loud singing, all the while being passed between the children.

The children dance for us.

Matholane village is near the edge of a magnificent gorge, where I found the last resting place of Chief Pynnokiatus. As you can see in the photo, the stone formation does look like a reclining person with a very long nose. As all of us on the walk are against the N2 Wild Coast Toll Road and the mega bridges, that are being proposed by the SA Government’s Department of Transport, and their agency SANRAL ( note: I am not against a decent upgraded road), I thought it apt to say he was related to the story spinning Chief Sanralliatis.

‘Stonehenge’ on the Wild Coast
The stone effigy of Chief Pynnokiatus.

About a hundred meters from the homestead we were staying in, is the most amazing collection of standing stones, sort of reminiscent of Stonehenge. Archaeologist Len van Schalkwyk  thinks they may be  ‘naturally occurring Msikaba Sandstone boulders possibly dispersed by a a higher Mio-Pliocene sea level stand’. Which is gobbledegook to me – I just can’t grasp the reality of things that are between 23 million and 5 million years old. I wandered around them at sunrise, and imagined all sorts of scenarios of how they had come to be. Natural weathering and changing sea levels didn’t feature in my thoughts; I liked my thoughts about ancient peoples creating the formations for an unknown purpose.

The rare Mkambati Palm.

Wednesday morning, day 3, had us heading towards the Mtentu River, the only place other than the Msikaba River, where the Mkambati Palm,  Jubaeopsis caffra , also known as the Pondo coconut or Dwarf Pondoland palm, is found. This endemic species, because of its small size has become a popular house plant in the USA, so much so, that there are probably more of these palms in Florida than what there are on The Wild Coast. Which is good to know, should some tragedy happen to the naturally occurring palms. Tragedies happen, just as Uganda’s rhinos were all shot out during ‘the Troubles’, and became extinct in Uganda. When it was decided to reintroduce rhino to Uganda, new breeding stock came from Disney Land, Florida.

But first we had to cross the red sand dunes of Xolobeni. These amazing red sand dunes are rich in heavy minerals, especially titanium and ileminite. The South African government, had given an Australian company the right to mine these minerals, but in their arrogance and greed, had not thought it important to ask the local people, the Amadiba, a Pondo Clan, if they thought it was ok to mine their ancestral lands. Most of the Amadiba objected strongly, but a few, having been bought by the mining company, wanted the mining to happen. This has resulted in many years of strife, with the result that the dunes have not been mined. Yet. The proposed toll road would provide much needed access to the sands.

It is as if you have suddenly been transported to Namibia; the dune area is extensive, with high dunes in the richest of colours. I pick up what looks like stone age tools, and later ask Erich Fisher, a palaeoanthropologist, who has studied the area about them. He is quite sure that one item is an ancient tool. It is an ancient site; it was studied by Kathy Kumon in 2006, and Len van Schalkwyk has also  done research there. I quote Len’s comments:

‘The stone tools you are observing probably span some 300 – 400 000 years of early human interaction on the landscape. Their provenance within the dune sands is the subject of ongoing research (Kuman, K. 2006; Fisher et.al. 2013) but suffice to say that their appearance on the hard pan indicates the winnowing effect of the aeolian sands as the latter are removed.
In papers published by Prof. Oliver Davies (Natal Museum) in the early 1950’s and later in the 70’, ancient stone artefacts were reported from a number of localities where red dunes are distributed along the KwaZulu-Natal and Pondoland coast. Those described by Davies are of the late Early Stone Age industry known as the Sangoan. Kuman and I have observed that the bulk of the stone artefacts at Xolobeni are of the Sangoan Industry but that possible early Middle Stone Age artefacts (250 -300 kya) may also occur at Xolobeni. Kuman has also described stone tools with elements from the preceding Acheulian Complex dated at possibly 500-600 kya.’

Two of the rocks were ancient tools.

Kya means ‘thousand years ago’ in archaeology and palaeontology speak. I had picked up some seriously ancient tools. I put them down again and photographed them. How can anyone entertain the thought of ruining an ancient site? I can only imagine the outrage that would ensue, should there ever be thoughts of mining at Stonehenge or Ayers Rock; so why is it ok to ruin this site? Because it is ‘just’ in Africa? Is it because the Amadiba Clan is very happy to pursue their ancient traditions and life style, and are therefore considered as uninformed / uneducated peasants by the investors?  Why is the area not being a declared a heritage site? That people can even fleetingly consider messing up the culture and heritage of an indigenous people, is arrogant to say the least.

Bongani points out a midden, which has been newly uncovered by the winds, a midden with shells and bones. Who were these ancient people who messily left their tools and rubbish lying around? We spend a long time speculating on a subject that we know very little about, and then carry on to the homestead where we will spend the night.

The ancient red sand dunes of Xolobeni

The homestead at Mtentu, was the only one I was disappointed with.  Hopefully the lady in charge has realized that not picking  up the litter around her huts, and treating her dogs badly, will not get her more customers. The children also performed here, but as they leveled kicks and clouts at their dogs, they didn’t get money for sweets.

On our own, a bit later, we did finish the last of Old Brown Sherry eventually, and my ruck sack was now nearly 3 kilograms lighter!

 We walked to Mtentu Lodge, a 15 minute walk away, to charge our very flat phones. The hosts there are delightful, and while our phones got some life into them, we had drinks and chatted with Chris, an economist who had chucked in city living, and was now teaching the local kids science and maths. Sadly, quality education is not the norm in rural areas, and the children of Mtentu are very lucky to have Chris as their teacher.

Day 4 dawned, and I was very happy to leave, possibly our hosts were glad to see us go too, as we let our feelings be known and shouted every time a dog was abused.

 We made our way down to the river, where our canoe man ferried us one by one across the Mtentu River, over to the northern border of the Mkambati game reserve. The Mkambati Game reserve has several beautiful waterfalls, we stopped at Horseshoe Falls. The brave amongst us (everyone but me), went for a swim in the icy winter water. I think Mkambati Falls, which fall directly into a small bay at high tide, is the world’s prettiest sight. Unfortunately for us, the herds of antelope had gone inland, so all we saw were two eland, and spoor of various animals, including leopard.
This was a 19 kilometre trek, and we walked the length of the Mkambati Reserve, stopping frequently for photos and chats. One site was where at the wreck of the Weolmi 303, a ship which went up on the rocks , and not down to Davy Jones’ locker – a good example that drinking and sailing do not mix well.

We lay in the sun after our lunch –yep, you’ve guessed it – steamed bread sandwiches, but sophisticated ones today: cheese, lettuce and tomato! I think we were disappointed that it wasn’t peanut butter. We dipped in the very refreshing turquoise sea, picked up shells, admired plants and birds, and then, with a bit of speed, because Bongani was worried about missing the chap who was to take us across the river, got to the Msikaba River. At the Msikaba River, it was quite funny, we became a bit disorientated, because the tide was out, and the river was a mere few inches deep, spreading  across the sand, so we walked across, and we didn’t recognise it as the mouth of one the deepest river gorges in South Africa. Bongani had to confirm where we were, and that the ferry boat wasn’t necessary.

A typical Transkei ‘Africanis’ dog at a homestead. Sleighs pulled by oxen are a common sight in rural Pondoland

The last 3 km was uphill, and not what was wanted at the end of a long hike. First we popped into the Drifters’ Camp at Msikaba ( https://www.drifters.co.za/tours-and-lodges/greenfire-camps-wild-coast/ , and said hello to the manager, Lumka, and then we walked the last stretch up to the homestead, which was to be our home for the next two nights. Our hostess greeted us with tea and the hugest loaf of steamed bread we’d seen to date. Hot water for our jug baths was also ready. This village had electricity, so we happily charged our phones, not because we wanted to call anybody; we needed the phones charged to take photos.

A beautiful secret pool.

An assortment of animals; cows, goats, chickens, dogs and a cat milled around, the chickens and goats were shoo’ed out of our hut, and the dogs and cat were given titbits to eat. Here we saw a perfect example of a ‘Transkei Dog’. This breed, essentially of the Africanis land race, is the tough mongrel that survives, despite everything that is thrown at it (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPcEenJypp0 ).One of the dogs had a hole through his palate, so every time he breathed, you could hear the air gurgling. Other than being a bit ugly and a bit skinny, he was ok, and hopefully, as I contacted the Transkei Animal Welfare Initiative (TAWI), about it, a vet, when in the area, will have looked at it.

Being silly under a waterfall.

Friday, day 5 was our chill day, just a 7km walk. 3.5km to a lovely river at Mbaxeni (the ‘x’ is another click, sort of like sorting out saliva on your molars), and back again. The lovely unspoilt wilderness had two houses on it. The first one, is an illegal cottage built on the most beautiful spot imaginable; the second one, about a kilometre further away, was the beach cottage of the famous Khotso   (http://www.museum.za.net/index.php/imvubu-newsletter/100-khotso-legendary-herbalist). It is said that the whole area is protected by spirits requested by Khotso to do so. We were careful not to do anything that might have upset the guardians. We had lunch on a rocky ledge overlooking a crystal clear pool, and sat under a small waterfall, giggling and squealing like children.

Mary had a little calf.

On the way back we had a lesson in how not to mess with nature. A cow was calling her calf. We found the calf , asleep in a shallow river bed; nearly stepping on it, as it blended in so well, and thought we’d help the mother by guiding ‘her’ calf back to her. Margie and I spent a good while being inept calf herders, until we realized that we were attempting to get it to the wrong mother. Local kids walking past thought us hilarious and had their laugh of the day at our antics.

Saturday dawned, with a chill in the air. We had been so lucky with the weather, only having had a little bit of rain on day 3. Breakfast was served, and afterwards we said good bye to our hostess. We got into our taxi and started the trip back to our starting point at the Wild coast Casino at Mzamba.
We took a short detour to the vulture colony viewing deck which overlooks the Msikaba gorge, several kilometres from the sea. This is a colony of Cape Vultures, a species which was fairly common right across Southern Africa, but which is now extinct in Swaziland, and is critically endangered in Namibia. We spent a good while marveling at them swooping in and around the cliffs, before getting back in our taxi and making our way back to ‘civilization’. 

Viewing the Cape vultures.

As with the rest of tourism in the Wild Coast area, hikers doing the different Wild Coast hikes, became fewer and fewer in the last 12 years, due to lack of marketing, and therefore lack of word of mouth advertising. Where the villages had about 10 different hosts each, now they only have one. Hopefully, the tide will turn again, and hikers will once again become plentiful, adding much needed revenue and job creation to the Pondo people who live here, in their culture rich environment. 
Sustainable tourism is what the people need, not toll roads, mega bridges or mining activities, that will destroy their heritage.   https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2017-07-20-op-ed-resistance-is-0fertile-amadiba-agriculture-challenges-elite-mining-agenda/#.WX3paBV97IU .    

The beautiful Pondoland Wild Coast, South Africa.

By Kathryn Costello

I travel. I read. I get up to mischief. I write about what I have been up to. I also have fun writing down the stories that I told my daughter when she was little about a dolphin named Michaela. I am a tourism consultant. Owning and managing a successful guesthouse, working for tourism organizations and travelling has given me a lot of insight about what makes a tourism orientated business successful.


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