Port St John's, Transkei, and the Wild Coast


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Africa » South Africa » Eastern Cape » Port St Johns
July 5th 2008
Published: July 7th 2008
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View from the roadView from the roadView from the road

the road from the South Coast to Port St John's.
Friday was the final day of the term at Thanda, and the beginning of a two-week school holiday. Viktorija, myself, Jeff and Amy planned a three day trip to Port St. John, a small town about three hours’ drive down the coast from Hibberdene.

The ride through the mountainous region along the southeastern coast of South Africa was really beautiful, and exactly what I had been wanting to see here in South Africa. Living in Hibberdene has a sort of Post-Apartheid feel, working out in th cane fields it feels as if the Apartheid never left, but inland and down the coast we drove through stunning scenery, alive and bumpin’ African villages (pardon the problematic and politically incorrect depiction). It reminded me, in fact, of the Adamaoua Province in Cameroon, where I stayed for two months working on my research project about truck drivers in Cameroon.....

During our four-hour journey we passed through three towns; the rest was pretty rural, with no more than one shop together along the road. I found myself constantly asking myself: what do all of these people do for jobs? How do they subsist and survive out here without industry, without much to do
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for work? Many of them, I believe, herd cattle, or have small plots of land on which they grow crops. Some, I would imagine, are somehow involved in the transportation industry, taxi drivers, mechanics, etc., or other service industries along the road. But even to the naïve eye, it is clear that there are many more people occupying these areas than business/industry can maintain.

Driving the roads here in South Africa are similar to driving in Cameroon, with one noticeable difference: all of the main roads (at least in the South Coast and Wild Coast) are paved and well-maintained. This tends to make the roads more dangerous because it allows people to drive very fast on steep, windy, and narrow roads. The taxi drivers, having no set schedules, have the incentive to make the journey as fast as possible so that they can unload, fill up the taxi again, and make the return trip home. The faster they go, the more trips per day they can make, and in turn the more money they make. There is little regulation of car/taxi standards, which results in poorly maintained vehicles; there are few policemen on the road and little to no
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speed and traffic enforcement.

To top it all off, the main road is also the main thoroughfare for those traveling on foot, both just across town and from town to town. Driving on these roads is much like the game Paperboy, for those of you who grew up playing Nintendo; there are lots of things to avoid, dodge, and slow down for. The only catch is it is not a game and it does not give you a second or third try.

Just to give you a list of the things we saw in our path: goats, dogs, children playing, children carrying 5 gallon buckets of water on their head, drunk men, sober men, broken down cars half-parked in the road, horses, cows, teenage boys pushing or pulling carts full of supplies. We saw countless dead dogs in the road. We saw both a cow and a horse that had been hit by cars—the cow had only a minor injury, was alive but it appeared it was unable to walk. The horse appeared to have been dead for quite a while.

Arriving in Port St John we meandered our way through the bustling city center and out the other side, heading to the coast. The town of Port St. John had a sort of wacky feel to it—lots of people in the streets, lots of vendors, lots of people selling things but plenty of others who appeared to be just standing. We in the US would call this ‘loitering,’ but here I think it is a more normal thing to do. What a weird word—loitering. The town came fully equipped with a “Boxer” bulk store and a KFC, a ‘Pep’ discount store, a Shop n’ Save, and many other small shops.

We were greeted by four dogs outside the Amapondo Backpackers' Lodge, a modest building up on the hill overlooking the river that flows out to the ocean. Three of the dogs were big and imposing, and the third one was small and mutty. It immediately approached us to say hello, but none of us wanted to pet it. It was black with coarse fur, its stature and texture much like that of a farm pig. We later learned from Tim, the owner of the Backpacker, that the dog was old when he bought the place which was 8 years ago. So it must be quite
The 'pig-dog'The 'pig-dog'The 'pig-dog'

I thought this dog was dead when I first saw it. It's not.
old now. He said that the previous owner was sort of a bully, and had once washed the dog in motor oil, which explains its skin and fur problems and general other-worldly appearance.

The receptionist was extremely friendly and kept saying the word ‘sweet’ all the time. Very up-beat. We were given a tour of the place, showed to our rooms.

After dropping off our stuff we walked down the short road to the beach. There was not much going on on the beach—not many tourists, just us and a few other folks. We decided to head up a trail that took us up the cliffs on the left side of Second Beach, which is the beach we were at. We followed up the trail, through thick overgrowth and trees, then opening up into grass, finally reaching the top. There was a cul de sac and a dirt road running along the ridge and out to the point where it intersected with the footpath, the road leading back along the ridge to a cluster of shacks/houses. Two children, a boy and a girl, had laid out cloths with beadwork on them. We learned from them that the locals in this region do not speak Zulu, but Xsosa. The kids tried to teach us a few words like hello and goodbye, which were not to far off from Zulu. It was cool.

We continued on the path which eventually led to a cliff with a steel rope headed down the cliff, a ‘gap,’ and then another ladder leading to a rock outcropping closer to the sea. Climbing down the rope and rocks, across the flat, up the ladder and a short climb, and we found ourselves on this cool little spot jutting out into the water with a great view of the beach and of the waves breaking below. Climbing down further, going out as far onto the rocks as we could before hitting the slippery parts, we came upon a the ‘blow hole.’

Do you know what a blow hole is? I didn't until we saw this one. It is a hole in the rock with an opening underneath, the waves roll into the cave-like opening, and then shoots out the surface from the pressure of the water. It was so cool! We found out later that this was one of the guided activities at the
tiger dogtiger dogtiger dog

one of the three other dogs living at the hostel. The dogs would just follow us down to the beach without being called--a great companion.
Backpachers’, but we had just stumbled on it ourselves!!

We headed back to the Amapondo and went to the bar for a drink. At the bar we met Tim, the owner of the place. He asked if we were interested in going for a truck ride up to a landing strip to watch the sunset, and we said ‘sure!’ We took our drinks, our warmest clothes and piled into the back of Tim’s friend’s truck. We stopped off at the other Backpackers’ in town, the Jungle Monkey, where eight or so other backpackers joined us. And we headed up to the Air strip.

It was a cold and bumpy ride, but well worth it. From the top of the hill, the highest point along the coast, you had a 360-degree view of the surroundings, of the beach, the rivers and hills below, it was just breathtaking….like a postcard. Immediately opposite the sunset, just as the sun was setting, a rainbow formed, dropping from the clouds down to the cliff on the other side of the river from where we were standing. Like a ray from God. They say there are baboons that hang around this landing strip, though
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we saw none on this day.

I learned that this region, the region where is situated Port St Johns, was its’ own autonomous country with its own government and everything, separate from South Africa, until just over a decade ago. This is hard to imagine. It was called the Transkei, and was situated between two rivers along the sea coast that marked its borders. This, they say, is why it has a more ‘free’ feel to it—because it was not a part of Apartheid South Africa (not directly), had its own laws, etc. And in general there is less tension between whites and blacks, less economic disparity, etc. It attracts lots of hippies, lots of people wanting to live a free and simple life…….today it is known as the ‘Wild Coast’ and is a hot spot for backpackers. Rastafarianism has deep roots here in the Transkei region.

We ate at two wonderful restaurants while here in Port St John. The first was the Delicious Monster. This one is owned and run by a sweet woman, of European Origin. I think she arrived within the last ten years (as did, in fact, many of the foreigners that are here.
ViktorijaViktorijaViktorija

On the beach in South Africa!! Woohoo!!!
Transkei was fairly restrictive in terms of who it would let into the country during its autonomous years), and lives there with her daughter; her house is just next to the restaurant she has built. She grows her own produce, buys here fish and meat daily, makes her own falafel and sauces….makes an amazing spicy garlic jam, a flavor unlike any I have ever tried in my life. We went there twice and both Viktorija and I liked what we had the first time that we ordered the same thing again (myself the Falafel and she the seafood chowder). One of the only places thus far that I’ve had good coffee in South Africa. It was so cool seeing the owner of the restaurant go out into her garden just below where our table was perched, pick the mint and basil that was to be used as garnish for our meals.

The second restaurant is owned by a Swiss couple, who, similarly, showed up six years ago and decided to stay. They turned their RV into a kitchen, built their own house, and began growing roots. Now they have one of the best (and only) restaurants in town. Their
Second BeachSecond BeachSecond Beach

view from the top off the cliff, just above 'the gap' and the blowhole.
T-bone steak was divine, and their fries delicious!

I feel like a walking advertisement for these places but they were truly magical. Eating outside, fresh food, friendly people, kids playing in the yard, the waves breaking just off the shore, the kids surfing in the ocean……and the prices!! About 7 bucks for a main course.

Other highlights of the beach trip: a hike through the forest to a waterfall where we dove off a small cliff into freezing water. A rope swing. Swimming in the ocean. Playing ‘BS’ and the Lithuanian version, called 'Liar.' Playing ping pong-Viktorija giving a good whooping to the owner of the Amapondo. Breakfast with fresh coffee and eggs and bacon.

St Johns was a really amazing place; just a perfrect place to go on vacation. It had a magical energy about it, like the kind of place you could see yourself staying in for a very long time. I question, though, how much of a Utopia this place really is. For example: all of the white hippies that have settled roots serve primarily white hippie travellers. They employ locals, but you don’t see any local blacks running tourism-related business that caters to
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us or makes money from us. And those who are their friends are always in 'assistant' positions--they are never the ones running the show. Maybe this is just as much a reflection of the clientele that comes around as it is the attitudes or behaviors of the folks living and working here. In addition, one can't help but notice all of the shacks and shantytowns that scatter the hills as you drive past town and all the way to the beach.

Countries represented at the Hostel (those who were there at the same time as us):

1 French
2 Canadians
2 Dutch
2 Danish
6 unknowns
1 Lithuanian
2 Americans
1 British
3 South Africans


Additional photos below
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Hike to the waterfallsHike to the waterfalls
Hike to the waterfalls

again, followed by the pig-dog.


8th July 2008

I LIKE YOUR REVIEW
Dear Will, We did a trip last October to South Africa and I too had the same questions what do all these people do out here? The first part of the trip was to Kruger. From Kruger we went back to Joberg to fly to Durban and rented a car for the 4hr drive to Natal and along the way saw many walking on the road. Next we flew to Cape Town and rented a car- went to Knysna then to Hermanas. It looks like a great place but the crime that I read about seemed to go on everyday. My heart goes out to the wonderful people we met and like you I felt It was white dominated everywhere. When I got home I read Mandela's book and am always looking on blogs for what people see. Good job on your trip, Jim Masur Colorado

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