Backpacking on the Wild Coast

Backpacking on the Wild Coast

Wild Coast afterparty a cool, laid-back affair

The termite, the donkey and the rainbow: happy backpacker Leon Marais spills the beans.

South Africa is a backpacker's delight. Thousands of foreign travellers are aware of this, yet many South Africans remain oblivious to this organised and well-run component of our tourism industry.

As a backpacking destination South Africa has a lot going for it: it's different and diverse, organised, safe (when organised) and, while not as cheap as other destinations such as Thailand, still affordable to young travellers.

The most popular route begins with some time in and around Cape Town, followed by time getting acquainted with wine and scenery around Stellenbosch and a hop-on, hop-off meander along the Garden Route towards Port Elizabeth.

At this point most backpackers and self-drive travellers usually opt for a flight to Mpumalanga or Durban or head back towards Cape Town. In planning their routes this way, they miss out on the jewel of our coast - the Transkei.

It seems to be a black hole on the traveller's map. Yet to explore the Transkei coast is to step back in time, to the era before Holiday Inns, beach condos, guest-houses galore and estate developments.

The Transkei is distinctly rural, charming in its simplicity and laid-back in tempo. The day's rhythms come and go at Mother Nature's pace. Lives revolve around livestock and tides, growth seasons, rites of passage and ancestral spirits.

In much the same frame of mind are the backpackers. Two things that perhaps define these travellers are the lack of formal travel plans and an interest in gaining a deeper understanding of, and insight into, the local people and culture - and for this the Transkei is perfect.

The Transkei, or Wild Coast as it is also known, lies between the Great Kei River in the south and Mtamvuna River in the north, with most of the backpacker accommodation to be found in the southern section as far up as Port St Johns.

There are three transport options. The Baz Bus - a hop-on, hop-off shuttle service - plies the entire coast from Cape Town to northern KwaZulu Natal, and services all the backpackers' lodges along the Wild Coast.

While it does not deviate from the N2, most of the lodges have a shuttle service (sometimes free of charge, sometimes not) running from the Baz Bus stops to the respective lodges - all in all a perfect (but not cheap) transport option for those without wheels.

Self-drive is the ideal way to go if possible, but bear in mind that the roads in the area were not designed for your low-slung sports car. While a four-wheel drive is not necessary, something with a bit of clearance such as a Toyota Conquest will suffice.

Using local transport is also an option. Local taxi services run from the N2 down to all villages along the coast. It must be said that these are used entirely at your own risk.

Many such taxis are unroadworthy at best and, with other decrepit vehicles on the roads and people and livestock wandering freely, accidents are a distinct possibility.

Entering the Transkei on your way up the coast, Coffee Bay is definitely worth a visit. It is a relatively well-developed hamlet along this rugged coast, close to the famous Hole in the Wall rock formation.

It has two legendary backpackers' lodges right next to each other and right on the beach - Bomvu Paradise and ... wait for it ... The Coffee Shack.

Both have dorms, double rooms and camping amenities, lively bars and loads of laid-back hippy atmosphere. Well-worn path lead all along the cliffs and hills that rise up from the ocean, providing exciting walking opportunities to rusted wrecks, waterfalls and ever more beaches.

If you get lost and stumble into the back end of a cluster of aquamarine- coloured huts, just shout out the Xhosa greeting "Molo!" (the household dogs will announce your presence) and shrug your shoulders as if to say: "Where to now?"

Hordes of Xhosa children may follow you around, all dying for a chance to exhibit their photographic poses (in exchange for sweets, of course). Not to be missed is the nightly party that revolves around the bar. For the less sociable, Bomvu Paradise seems the quieter venue and if you want some action you can just stroll across to the Coffee Shack.

Moving up the coast, the next port of call was The Kraal, an aptly named backpackers' lodge situated at Mpande (which doesn't even appear on your road atlas). The Kraal is different, even as far as backpackers go. Quaint dorm huts and camping facilities are available.

Electricity is but a long-lost dream at The Kraal. For a shower, you fill up a bucket with water heated on the fire. Cooking is done on gas and candles and lamps provide lighting - but they do have cold beer.

There is a lovely ambience in the main building after dark. Curious horses take turns to stick their heads into the light through the two-piece doors and travellers gather to swap stories and information, drink quarts of beer and perhaps indulge in a seafood pizza from an authentic Italian pizza oven.

The aspect to the Wild Coast that appeals the most to me is really evident here - animals. While you won't find much in the way of wild beasts (apart from those in the sea), domesticated animals are everywhere and are an integral part of local life. You can easily round up the Transkei's "Big Five" - donkey, pig, dog, feral cat and fowl. There are also goats, geese and horses.

At The Kraal they walk among the tents and in the quiet of early morning you may just wake to a white horse's head looking down on you or a chicken scratching around your tent.

Early-birds will take advantage of the fact that the sea cliff is only about 100m away, and there watch the sun rise over the sea before heading back to the warmth of a sleeping bag.

Donkeys and goats graze on short grasses growing on the most impossible slopes, where one wrong foot could lead to a 150-metre plummet on to rocks.

Late one afternoon, the cloud suddenly broke to allow fantastic sunlight to shine down on The Kraal and surrounding vista. Silhouetted against the sky was a single donkey, grazing right on the edge of the sea cliff.

A full rainbow magically appeared over the ocean as thousands of winged termites suddenly emerged from their nests in the ground and took flight, most heading for Madagascar. It was an enchanting moment.

The local school is a dream realised through The Kraal, and guide development is also taking place. If you want to go on a walk, apply for a guide. It won't cost you much (R20-R30) and will help contribute to the local upliftment vision.

You can also visit a local sangoma - a thrilling nocturnal experience that may even have those normally reluctant to step out showing off their traditional dancing skills (or lack thereof).

Before you become eternally stuck at The Kraal you may want to head on to Port St Johns, a rustic little town with no fewer than four lodges.

If the Wild Coast is special, it is also threatened. There has long been talk of major roads and mining operations. While social development is one thing, the strength of the area as a tourist destination lies in its undeveloped nature.

The last thing we need is another Natal South Coast or Knysna-type development. It is up to people with passion to fight for preservation.

Uncontrolled and inappropriate development is irreversible. Perhaps it is wise to get there before it changes. Pick up a copy of the backpackers' bible, Coast to Coast, pack a tent, a sleeping bag, a didgeridoo and head for the Transkei. It's way cool, man.

This article originally appeared in the Star newspaper on July 23, 2005.