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Published: July 12th 2017
We walked the 75 k-ish Wild Coast Trail over the first five days of July 2017, beginning at Amapondo Backpackers in Port St. Johns and ending at Sugarloaf backpackers in Coffee Bay. Peggy put it best - that if this walk was our only excursion in South Africa, we would leave satisfied with our trip. The scenery is spectacular and varied, the locals are friendly and accommodating, and every interaction is a cultural experience to an outsider. The weather is near perfect this time of year, with highs in the low 70sF and lows around 50, with clear skies and a low sun. The rolling terrain of the coastline has plenty of steep ups and downs, but none are sustained or overly technical for an average-ability hiker. Our experience was simply wonderful and we can't recommend it enough.
It's best to hire a guide for this hike. You could certainly do it alone, but a guide helped to prevent any unwanted interactions with locals, especially since it was during the school holidays and plenty of groups of kids were about. Hardly anyone speaks more than a few words of English. Luwiso also called ahead to arrange ferrymen
Our guide Luwiso (far right) helped us buy a nice-sized shad from local fishermen. We paid about $5- a bit pricier than our 3 lobsters for $3 the day before. Our host in the next town fried it up, and it was more than enough for the three of us.
to take us across rivers and to reserve accommodations with locals, none of whom have signs on their huts advertising that they have rooms to let. Everything, including the guide, food, and accommodations cost us $200/pp for 4 nights / 5 days. That's slightly steep for rural South Africa, but it would be too big of a hassle to cut costs, unless you just paid locals to stay in tents on their land.
We used the recommended guide on the Amapondo Backpackers website (Albert), but we can't recommend him much. He created the perception that he would be walking the hike with us, or at least would be available prior to the hike to go over details, but when we got to Amapondo, we were told he was in Germany. We paid a deposit months ahead of time but then called our guide, Luwiso, the night before. Luckily, he was terrific. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the area and effortlessly identified different species of birds and plants. He pointed out pods of dolphins and humpback whales as well. If you're already in the area, email or call Luiso at email@example.com / 0738636777.
Night 2 crew
Luwiso tooks this photo of us with Mama Kristina and Steve, who lives a simple life farming chickens and vegetables on the family land.
from J-burg to Umtata and Amapondo Backpackers had a minibus waiting for us. When we got into the city, the driver said he would half our price to Port St. Johns if he could pick up some others. We said that seemed fine (usually that's a big no-no but it seemed fine since he asked) so he pulled into a taxi rank to wait. It was Friday night and everyone was out spending their paychecks on food and booze. Later in the trip other South Africans said they drive for hours to avoid even going through Umtata, but it certainly was an interesting scene. After a couple of minutes I asked the driver how many people and he automatically responded, "thirteen." So that was the beginning of our shared taxi experience in South Africa, which is almost identical to Latin America; in fact, some of the vans had Spanish on them. The driver has his upgraded speaker system and tunes blasting; the helper guy jumps out at stops and aggressively rounds up customers; they fill it with goods to the point that you can barely squirm in your seat. It was the cheapest and fastest way, and it was nice
Peggy teaching yoga
Our day 3 hosts have a big family. With no electricity, the adults went to bed at the same time as the kids- before 8:00.
to be called "the real McCoys" by the white South Africans in the hotels.
A Mountain out of a Molehill
Less than an hour into the hike, Luwiso proudly told us about the local rite of passage into adulthood - that all boys are circumcised in some ritual and then live in the bush for a month or more. That amount of information was sufficient for us, but practically every plant description and every answer to our questions gravitated back to that topic.
At one point there was a scattering of dirt mounds along the trail and I asked what animal was digging holes there. Luwiso answered, "Those are mole hills. During male circumcision, we mix that dirt with water and drink it, filtering it through our teeth. It helps to stop blood loss." He made a disgusted face to illustrate its taste and added, "I did that."
There isn't much to say after that except to nod and say, "Oh ok - I see."
The Story of the Toilet Paper
On the first night, I was sitting on a poorly made bench in front of our rondaval waiting for the sun to set
Traditional Xhosa Rondaval
We stayed in one of these on foam mattresses each night. They have dirt floors and may or may not have been inhabited by livestock the day before our arrival.
and for dinner to be served. Our guide had gone to town, presumably because of a prior conflict he said he had with Mama Sofrito, our host for the night, when she had "dismissed" him. A new white pick up truck stopped on the dirt road. The back was crammed with children. "Do you have toilet paper?" asked the driver.
I reluctantly went into our rondaval and returned with a half dozen squares of my tightly-rolled Charmin travel tissue that I had been hoarding for a horrific emergency. "No! This is not good!" he cried, obviously agitated.
I probably didn't look happy about his request. "So you want more?"
"This is the right kind but I need more!"
He became increasingly frustrated and started gesticulating heavily and showing that he wanted an arm's-length of tissue.
"I want to go up there and put my feces in a hole!"
I went back inside to find that he had sent a five-year-old boy with me to collect my precious tissue. Then he was satisfied and drove on.
Advantages to Walking in Winter
1. The weather is wonderful- it's the dry season and perfectly temperate. I wore
shorts and a t-shirt while walking and a single blanket kept us warm at night.
2. No one else is walking it in winter- we didn't pass another hiker in 5 days.
3. It seems to be safer this time of year. Since there are few tourists to rob, there isn't anyone from the inland cities to prey on them. Supply and demand.
4. Whales and dolphins galore during the sardine run. We saw pods of a hundred dolphins and a dozen humpbacks the first day alone- so many that we stopped even pointing them out.
We ended at Coffee Bay and I didn't really understand its popularity. After four nights staying with the Xhosas on bucolic farms and walking along secluded bays, Coffee Bay seemed seedy. Perhaps the most memorable thing that happened there was entering town walking the road, passing the makeshift dump spewing onto the road and being rummaged through by goats and people, and a woman walking toward us, holding up a newborn and saying something in Xhosa, which Luwiso translated: "She said she is selling her baby. For 50 rand." A little over $3. He added, "Yes. It is a problem."
more photos far below.
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