Road trippin' South Africa: don't miss the Wild Coast

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August 13th 2013
Published: August 22nd 2013
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From Shelly Beach I drove to Port Saint Johns, entering "The Wild Coast". I had heard mixed comments about the Wild Coast. Ones saying that it was an amazing place and others that it wasn't really worth going to and that I had to drive through the Transkei, with bad roads full of potholes and loose cattle roaming free everywhere and that I'd get stuck in traffic jams driving through the townships. And that it wasn't very safe.

I decided to check it out for myself. And I agree with the first comment I wrote. The Wild Coast is definitely worth going to and staying there for at least a few days. That is if you're into beautiful rugged landscapes, walking through Xhosa villages, surfing, fishing, laying on the beach, disconnecting from the rest of the world and reading a book, walking up hills in the coast and spotting whales and dolphins that hang around in the bays, etc. All that and more in the Wild Coast.

Yes, it's true that the Transkei isn't the best place to drive through, but it wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be from what I had heard. In some parts the roads are indeed full of potholes and you have to drive carefully. Cattle and goats and sheeps roam free and sometimes you have to come to a full stop (doing 80 or 100 km/Hr) on the freeway to let them pass. You get stuck in the townships, but not for long. Sounds a bit hectic, but in reallity it isn't that bad. And at the end it's all worth it anyway.

There are a lot of traffic police controls. I was (rightfully) stopped once after passing a slow truck in a non-overtaking part of the road. Of course there was a police control right there (Murphy's Law is flawless). But, after seeing that I was a tourist, the policeman let me go with a warning.

The Wild Coast is roughly the area between Port St Johns and East London and it's in an area that used to be known (and still is) "The Transkei". This was the first of 4 "Bantustan" (areas set aside for specific ethnic groups during Apartheid) that was recognized as an independent territory by the South African government. It was an independent state between 1976 and 1994.

This area (from what I could see) is less developed than the rest of the country. Road works can be encountered everywhere. The main ethnic group is the Xhosa and there are villages all over the place. The typical construction is the rondavel, very similar to the round constructions I saw in Lesotho. These are aften found right next to more modern type constructions.

My first stop in the Wild Coast was Port St Johns. I stayed in the "Jungle Monkey Backpackers" there and I really liked the place. I only stayed there for two nights. While I was there I went on a drive to Mount Ethesinger to see the sunset (they take people from the hostel every afternoon there and people will usually take a few drinks with them to have "sundowners at the Mount"). It's something worth doing.

The next day I also took a tour to some waterfalls. The first ones we visited were the "Magwa Falls" and then we went to "Angel Falls". Both were worth seeing and it was a very chilled day. The day wasn't warm enough to get in the water though. Along the roads, "Magwa" tea plantations can be seen.

I couldn't stay longer there because I was called from the rental car company saying that because I had had the car for more than a month already, I had to renew the contract in the nearest office (which was in Mthata, the capital of the Transkei). So I packed my things the next morning and drove off to sort that out and then continue on to Coffee Bay.

Coffee Bay is probably the most renowned place in the Wild Coast. It has a reputation of being a party place (although I didn't experience that at all. Seriously).

Places to stay I was told to avoid were "The Coffee Shack" and "Jah Drums" (I didn't take a look at them, so I can't give an opinion of my own about them).

I stayed in "Sugarloaf Backpackers" and it was alright. Friendly staff and the place was very relaxed and quiet in general (also, taking into consideration that I'm traveling during off-season). I arrived pretty late in the day there and I was coming down with a flu, so I decided to sleep it off. I went to sleep early that night and woke up very late the next day.

The rest of the following day was spent between cooking my lunch, reading and snoozing. And it worked. Sleeping was the best medicine and I was feeling much better afterwards. I'm still reading a book called "Commando", about the Anglo-Boer war. It was lent to me by Johan Viljoen who hosted me in Pretoria. It's actually very interesting and especially now that I've already visited or been near a lot of the places where the major battles were fought, so I'm not that lost in space and time when I read it.

That evening I met a very nice Dutch family and stayed talking with them until late. They were a couple that had traveled a lot in their youth and now made the time to travel at least once a year with their 3 children.

That night we had a bonfire in the hostel and there was a spectacular lightning storm. The most impressive one I've ever seen, I think. It was towards the horizon over the ocean, but we didn't have the best view from the hostel. And at night the hostel was locked out, so I had no chance of going out and walking to the beach and get a better view.

I arranged to go to Lubanzi the next morning. This is a place which is even more remote than Coffee Bay and I was strongly recommended to go there. It's walking distance, as well as a place called "Bulungula". The place to stay in Lubanzi is “Wild Lubanzi Backpackers".

I asked to take a guide in the morning. The guide that was supposed to take me was wasted from drinking the previous night and, at the beginning of the walk, just left me. Fortunately a friend of his that was going along took me all the way to Lubanzi (maybe feeling guilty of his friend or for whatever reason). Anyway, we did the hike in roughly 4 hours and the coastline was just amazing. We took a trail that goes through hills and high cliffs that drop into the ocean. Pristine beaches, dolphins riding waves close to the coast and a few whales that we spotted along the way. And the trails also go through Xhosa fishing villages.

We stopped in a place called "Hole in the Wall" (just what it sounds like). It's a rock formation in the ocean that has a hole in the bottom-center, forming an arch.

Right after passing the Hole in the Wall we had to cross a river to get to the other side and do the last 40 minutes or so of the walk. As it was high tide and the water was neck-deep, we had to cross the river in our underwear. We also had to do two trips to get all the stuff across. After that ordeal we walked until we were within sight of the place I was going to stay the night and the guide left me there, as he had to walk back to Coffee Bay.

Lubanzi is the perfect place to chill out and disconnect (although not entirely, because they have free wifi in the hostel). The place is on a hill overlooking a small bay. During the day it's common to see whales and dolphins hanging around in the same bay.

The main activity here is fishing, a bit of surfing and not doing much else. The owners are amazing people and so were the people staying there. The first night I ended up playing cards until midnight with 3 Germans and 2 girls from Mthatha.

So far I’ve learned to play several different card games, but haven’t been able to remember the rules of any of them. The only one I’ve been getting better at is “Texas hold ‘em poker”, because I found out that the cell phone I’m carrying has it in the games folder.

The next day, after an excellent breakfast which included fresh baked bread, I went to a beach with a few of the people staying in the hostel. The beach was a 10 minute walk and it was called “Secret Beach” (nothing secret about it though). It was a nice spot. The walk reminded me of some of the landscapes in Easter Island.

In the evening it was time for more card games and drinking. Another chilled out, fun night at "Wild Lubanzi" with more or less the same people as the previous nights and the addition of two Dutch sisters.

In the morning I had breakfast and got ready to walk back to Coffee Bay. It took me longer than I thought to get started and I ended up going at around noon.

After walking for about 1 hour I arrived at the river crossing. This time the river was very high (I would've had no choice but to swim across) and I was carrying my backpack. On top of that there were was a lot of wind, waves in the river and also a lot of debris floating around, including big logs. I waited for about an hour on the riverside to see if there was any change in the tide, but I didn't notice anything. So I was faced with two options: go back to the hostel in Lubanzi or try to get back to Coffee Bay by other means. I opted for the latter.

I couldn't cross the river anywhere so I walked back to Lubanzi and then just started asking around to see if anyone could give me directions on how to get back to Coffee Bay. I ended up walking to the local hospital and there I saw a "minibus taxi". The driver told me he could drop me somewhere where I could get another taxi to Coffee Bay.

Taxis in SA are minibuses. They are usually white and have stripes on the side with the SA flag colors. It's not that easy to move around in them if you don't know how they work. They have set routes, but no distinctive signs outside to tell you where they're headed. When they pass by people on the road they'll honk the horn and the people on the road will say where they're going using specific hand signals. A lot of times, when the taxis are in departure zones, they won't start until the van is full or "full enough".

So this was my first experience with a SA "taxi". The first ride took about 40 minutes to get to a crossroad called something that sounded like "Waima".

Taxis stop EVERYWHERE. So the ride can take a while. Also, it's pretty loud inside with the talking/shouting, the laughing and the music. Here, a link to an article about this mean of transportation: SA Taxi.

In "Waima" I was told to get off and wait for the taxi heading to Coffee Bay. With the help of other locals heading in the same direction, it wasn't long before I was on the second taxi. Very similar ride, but in this one they had the music insanely high (I actually like loud music, but this was ridiculous).

In the end I made it and spent the night in Coffee Bay (same place as before). I had a very relaxed evening and at the hostel they had "movie night" that evening and we watched "Life of Pi", which was pretty good.

Next morning, it was time to head off to my last destination in the Wild Coast: Chintsa. And there I stayed in a lodge which everyone kept recommending, Buccaneers Lodge & Backpackers. This is a big piece of property right by Chintsa Beach. I stayed in a cottage there, but for the next 2 days I had it to myself.

Besides the property being a big place with lots of cottages and sleeping options, they have 2 bars, a swimming pool, good food and several activites, including a few free ones. These free activities are volleyball, pool, etc. And they all have something in common: free wine.

The day I arrived I went to try the volleyball & wine, which turned out to be a lot of fun and gave me the chance to meet some people.

After having cooked my dinner I headed to the bar and ended up playing pool and drinking with some of the people I had played volleyball with: a German couple, another German girl (med student) and 2 other girls from the US who were recently graduated lawyers. Not bad for the first night.

The next morning I wanted to take surfing lessons. I signed up and was ready to be at the beach at 9am. But the previous night I pulled a muscle on my back (lifting the pool table to get some balls unstuck) and the next morning I could barely get off the bed. So I canceled the lessons for the time being and slept that day and watched movies. I didn't go to the bar that night.

The next morning my back was a lot better, but still not 100%. That day, also took it easy and went to take photos at the beach, which has a great break and also some nice natural tidal pools.

I also took the time that day to start doing some planning ahead (to see where I'll go after SA). I also called my parents and talked over the upcoming possibilities. And that was the end of my ride through the Wild Coast. Next stops would be along "The Sunshine Coast".

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23rd August 2013

Daniel, I see you are making great progress and obviously enjoying yourself. Sorry to hear about your back. You certainly have done lots of things we have never done. Well done! Travel safely. Best wishes.
23rd August 2013

saludos desde Lonquen
Hola Dani, como siempre muy buenas las fotos e historias. Acá estamos todos bien. No hemos salido últimamente. Quizás vamos mañana en la tarde a Rapel después de pasar a buscar a Sofi a su pre universitario en Melipilla. Pablo estará el sábado de cumple. Imagínate ya va para los 13 años comenzando su adolescencia. Mónica estuvo de cumpleaños el 20 y lo celebramos sólo nosotros. En la tarde vino la Colo, Fran ;Marg y Quico. que te siga saliendo todo viento en popa, un abrazo Andres

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