Hiking the Wild Coast

 

Really experience it:

Hike along the pristine stretch of coastline from Port St Johns to Coffee Bay, and stay along the way in traditional Xhosa huts.

Contact: Jimmy Selani, the Tour Guide from Mtumbane (PSJ) on 082 507 2256 (+27 international dialing code), or check their website for more info: www.wildcoasthikes.com.

Jimmy was voted South African Tourism's 'Best Emerging Guide of the Year 2004'. Charismatic and fluent in English, he's a fount of information on the area and its people - the perfect chaperone.

UPDATE: There is now an official website: www.wildcoasthikes.com

A walk on the wild side
By Fiona McIntosh (http://www.wanderlust.co.uk/article.php?page_id=2031)

Trekking between local settlements along the wave-bashed Wild Coast, Fiona McIntosh finds deserted beaches, shipwrecks and a very warm welcome.

Anyone for a beer?" inquired Jimmy, holding up a plastic carton. Even in the dim light of the mud hut the milky brew looked vile.

"Er, no chance of a Castle, then?" inquired Matthew nervously.

The barman pulled a young man from his 'seat' and hoiked out a big brown bottle. "It's not cold," warned Jimmy.

"That's OK - I'm English," Matthew assured him. "We drink our beer warm."

The shebeen - the local pub - was somewhat lacking in amenities: no fridge, beer crates for bar stools and a paraffin lamp flickering in the corner. But it was more than we'd been expecting. We were on a trail, out in the wilds in a hilltop village on South Africa's Eastern Cape, miles from the nearest road. Just to get a beer was a treat.

THE REALLY WILD SHOW
The Wild Coast, or Transkei, is one of the country's most remote and inaccessible stretches of seashore - and prime hiking country. It was an independent homeland until 1994 and is still a very separate, distinct part of South Africa, full of tradition and local colour. Nelson Mandela is its most famous son.

The scenery is spectacular. Empty white-sand beaches are separated by steep green hills, dramatic cliffs and rocky headlands while little villages - clusters of circular mud huts - dot the hillsides. A marked hiking trail once ran the length of the Transkei coast from the Umtamvuna River just south of Port Edward to the Kei River near East London. Sadly, most of the trail huts are derelict so only hardy, self-sufficient trekkers attempt the full 280km whack, but guided hikes are possible on most sections. I've hiked them all; the charm of the Wild Coast draws me back time and time again.

The best known - arguably the classic -Wild Coast hike is the Wild Coast Meander, a magnificent luxury hike along the flatter southern part of the coast staying in quaint seaside hotels. On the tougher five-day Drifter's Trail from Msikaba to Port St Johns there is no accommodation other than the superbly located hikers' huts, so you see barely a soul en route.

But if you sign up for a guided hike between Port St Johns and the Hole in the Wall with young black entrepreneur Jimmy Selani you're in for a special treat. Not only is this strenuous hike one of the finest coastal walks in the world but, staying in local villages, it's a chance to really immerse yourself in this unique region.

Jimmy first hit the headlines when he was awarded the title of South African Tourism's 'Best Emerging Guide of the Year 2004'. Charismatic and fluent in English, he's a fount of information on the area and its people - the perfect chaperone.

I found him quite by chance when I inquired about hiring a porter for a Wild Coast hike. Port St Johns Tourism suggested I go one better and take a guide as well, foregoing the hikers' huts for community accommodation. It was sound advice. We were greeted as long-lost friends at every stop, put up by our community hosts in clean rondavels (circular mud-huts), fed the local fare, introduced to flamboyant chiefs and sangomas (traditional healers) and invited to join in local celebrations.

HITTING THE TRAIL
Boots laced, and accompanied by a couple of valiant porters, we set off from Port St Johns, a sleepy, relaxed seaside town that hasn't quite emerged from the era of flower power and long-haired hippies. Jimmy took us on a tour of the local sites including the ramshackle Millennium Bar where, on a wooden deck perched out high above the crashing sea, he had ushered in 2001.

"This is the informal settlement, the shanty town of Port St Johns," he laughed, "but it's got the best views in the place."

We scrambled to the gorgeous coves of Second Beach then climbed up through the coastal forest of the Silaka Nature Reserve to a clifftop vantage point for an overview of the route - rounded promontories, sandy bays and crashing waves as far as the eye could see.

Before long we were accompanied by a gaggle of scruffy kids. "Where you come from?" they giggled as they jogged to keep pace. "London," we responded, to blank looks. Jimmy translated into his native Xhosa but the wide-eyed expressions that greeted his clarification told me we might as well have said "from Mars". The boys walked with us to the village, brazenly striding in as the other kids scurried away.
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The sight of the broken wreckage of ships in the spray and on the wave-cut platform just offshore was haunting
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We were shown to our home for the night -a spotlessly clean rondavel where, after a welcome shower, we spread out our sleeping bags then sat outside alongside elegant women smoking long pipes, listening to the sounds of the crashing sea and trying to master a few words of Xhosa. Cheeky kids poked their heads out from the kitchen while our hostesses - babies strapped to their backs with bright kikois (sarongs) - smiled as they cooked our dinner, the traditional staple of pap, meat and sauce. Life is simple here, but the people, though desperately poor, are proud and strong. The grace, humility and sense of fun that we associate with Mandela are widespread in his homeland.

BOATS & BEER
Heading off the next morning, we passed the wreck of the Aster, which went aground at Sharks' Point near Mpande, then the Forresbank, a British freighter that caught fire and ran aground in 1958. Not much of either remains, but the sight of the broken wreckage in the spray and on the wave-cut platform was haunting.

"The area is called the Wild Coast after its treacherous waters," Jimmy explained. "It's littered with wrecks. These ones are so close to shore that they've been scavenged."

It wasn't just the waves that we feared. Later that day we came to a wide estuary where Jimmy told us to take off our shoes and wade across. The cold, tannin-stained water was a tonic for our weary feet, and we heard the evocative 'cry of Africa' as a fish eagle soared overhead. But as we trod gingerly across, Nigel, the clown in the party, sneaked up behind his wife and grabbed her by her ankle. As she screamed and raced for the bank he reminded us that sharks hang out in the estuaries. Thanks Nige. At the larger estuaries young men ferried us across in rickety old boats - equally terrifying.

After a night in the shebeen we were delighted to be staying close to a local backpackers' lodge, The Kraal. A mini fortress with commanding views over the crashing ocean and a cool bar decorated with driftwood, flotsam and shells, it has the feel of a surfers' haunt. Its cold beer was a welcome break from warm Castle.

OUT OF THIS WORLD
As we summitted a hill the next morning, the amazing views as much as the exertion taking our breath away, a youth stuck his head out of an isolated rondavel, white clay covering his face and naked torso. Jimmy explained that he was Abakhwetha, an initiate who was undergoing the rite of passage from boyhood to manhood.

This traditional practice, involving circumcision, education and survival in a hostile environment, is still an important part of life in this area of the world.

We learned more about life on this productive coastline later in the day as we sat on the rocks with gaggles of women who'd been harvesting molluscs and redbait on the low tide. We slurped down fresh oysters as they laughed at their images on our digital camera screens.

But for most of the trail we hiked silently, enjoying the bright red aloes, the great sweeping bends, mudflats and mangroves of the rivers and the sense of space. We photographed our favourite Wild Coast sight (cattle and goats promenading on the beach), stopped to swim when the fancy took us, and rummaged for shells and pieces of Chinese porcelain when Jimmy pointed out likely treasure troves. In short, we slowed down to Wild Coast pace.

As we neared the end of the trail the glorious sands of Coffee Bay and the dramatic rock arch of the Hole in the Wall came into view. It had been a real adventure and - as the waves crashed on - we rued the fact that it was time to re-enter the real world.

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