Here’s a tip: head to the South Coast of KZN in the quiet sea­son

The South Coast – that stretch of sand and sea in KwaZulu-Natal be­tween Dur­ban and the Wild Coast – must surely be one of the most popular hol­i­day des­ti­na­tions in the coun­try. For its res­i­dents, how­ever, life out­side the busy times takes its nor­mal course.

When you were a kid, few things could equal that buzz when your par­ents would an­nounce some time in the lat­ter half of the year: “We’re go­ing to the coast!” You would dig out your bag im­me­di­ately and start pack­ing the most im­por­tant items – swim­suit, towel, bucket and spade, stuff like that. You’d start to dream about that early-morn­ing mo­ment when you cross over a wooded hill and see the In­dian Ocean open up be­fore you like a book just as the sun rises over it. You’d fan­ta­sise about feel­ing the fine, warm beach sand be­tween your toes and could almost taste the salti­ness you get in your mouth when you dive head­first into a break­ing wave. In your mind’s eye you could see bunches of ba­nanas and stacks of pineap­ples and rows upon rows of bas­kets along the road, ven­dors smil­ing. The days clear and sunny and per­fect…

For months, this would be just about all you could think of: those three bliss­ful weeks or so at a place with an ex­otic name like Warner Beach, Win­kle­spruit, Illovo Beach, Umko­maas, Clansthal, Ifafa Beach, St Michaels-on-Sea, Port Ed­ward…

Many a “Valie” used to come to the South Coast to do one thing and one thing only: laz­ing around!

This is our life

It’s been sev­eral decades since those care­free days of the Sev­en­ties and Eight­ies, and things look dif­fer­ent along the South Coast. When you turn south off the N3 to get onto the N2 just out­side Dur­ban, you start look­ing in vain for the end of the city. The string of South Coast vil­lages have crept closer to one another as the years have gone by, almost like a con­certina breath­ing out. It’s only re­ally when you get deep into the Hibis­cus Coast, after Rams­gate – once the N2 be­comes the R61 – that the towns start be­ing towns again. And fi­nally, in Port Ed­ward – the last place be­fore you drive over the Mtamvuna River to the East­ern Cape with a hand­ful of taxis – the bush en­croaches on the roads and houses and shop­ping cen­tres. The sun has al­ready said goodbye. The moon rises up from the hori­zon, full and flam­boy­ant over the sea.

The town’s streets are de­serted, but just be­fore the light­house, a few blocks from the beach, a woman is work­ing all alone on a bare patch of land with >

rows and rows of vegetables. With a big smile, Eu­ge­nia Gx­agx­iso car­ries wa­ter in old paint tins.

“There are about 15 of us women work­ing in the com­mu­nity gar­den,” says Eu­ge­nia, who lives in Bizana, the birth­place of Oliver Tambo, just un­der 60km away. “We plant mad­umbe, cab­bage, toma­toes, onions, car­rots, sweet pota­toes and spinach here. We see to it that the poor, the sick and chil­dren get food in their stom­achs.”

Down at the beach there’s not a soul in sight.

At Aloe Inn B&B, right be­hind the light­house, Ian and Es­maré Gethen await us at their front door. They moved here four years ago after liv­ing in the vil­lage of Plump­ton Green in Sus­sex, Eng­land, for twenty years after Ian in­her­ited a four-bed­roomed house from an aunt.

“We had won­der­ful years in Eng­land,” says Es­maré, “and we trav­elled the world, saw 94 coun­tries.”

Plump­ton Green has been home to some fa­mous peo­ple, in­clud­ing Camilla Parker Bowles, whom Ian’s aunt taught to cook, writer Danielle Steele, Led Zep­pelin gui­tarist Jimmy Page and Keith Richards of Rolling Stones fame. The Gethens re­alised they’d al­ways be strangers there. “We had a shop that sold ev­ery­thing from knit­ting nee­dles to wool, and we man­aged the post of­fice too. We sold for­eign cur­rency, paid out pen­sions and had three ovens in which we baked bread, crois­sants, pies and piz­zas.” But still they were out­siders.

“We’d rather spend the rest of our lives here in South Africa. Here, we have the best life­style in the en­tire world, all the trou­ble and prob­lems not­with­stand­ing.”

Yes, they’d like to see more good restau­rants here; they miss Chi­nese and Thai restau­rants in par­tic­u­lar. “And we are far from a mall – if you want to shop prop­erly, you need to go to Shelly Beach, 35km away.”

For a mo­ment she seems some­what wist­ful. “Our daugh­ter Sarah-Jane re­mained be­hind in Eng­land. She’s

“We’d rather spend the rest of our lives here in South Africa. Here, we have the best life­style in the en­tire world, all the trou­ble and prob­lems not­with­stand­ing.”

33 years old and mar­ried, with two chil­dren, and won’t re­turn. But we see them at least once a year.”

Port Ed­ward is still pure vil­lage, one with no fewer than nine churches. Es­maré smiles and zips through them all in one go: Gen­er­a­tion Christ Church, AGS, New Apos­tolic Church, Dutch Re­formed Church, Catholic Church, Methodist, Black Gospel Church, Re­formed Church, Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses… “I’m a happy clappy. Sun­day morn­ings the whole vil­lage goes to church and then it’s off to the beach for a braai.”

Ac­cord­ing to Es­maré, only about 20% of the pop­u­la­tion be­tween Port Ed­ward and Port Shep­stone live there full time, but here in Port Ed­ward the fig­ure is closer to 70%. “We’re 3 500 res­i­dents, which in­clude a large fish­ing com­mu­nity. But in De­cem­ber there are eas­ily 35 000 peo­ple in town – then ev­ery­thing comes to a stand­still and it could take you two-and-a-half hours to get to the mall. That’s when we hit the road – we move out and let the en­tire place to a fam­ily.”

And how do they make ends meet the rest of the year? “I would es­ti­mate 90% of our guests are busi­ness­peo­ple, and the rest are hol­i­day­mak­ers,” says Ian.

Of course, liv­ing in such a small town is not all sun­shine and roses. It could be rather lonely, says Judy Arm­strong, a widow who’s been liv­ing in this part of the world for two decades and not only runs her own dog salon from her home but also pub­lishes the free ad­ver­tis­ing pam­phlet Lo­cal is Lekker. “My hus­band Ce­cil and I bought this house more than twenty years ago and added a sec­ond storey. But he died four years ago, and now I’m alone in this big house…”

And, she says, the town has its odd­i­ties. “Sure, Port Ed­ward is a nice, quiet place, but we also see de­cline >

here: the lovely lit­tle beaches are no longer safe, and the mu­nic­i­pal­ity is ne­glect­ing the de­te­ri­o­rat­ing roads. And yes, even though you know ev­ery­one per­son­ally, the town has its quota of cliques and gos­sips. And I feel that lo­cal busi­nesses aren’t sup­ported well enough – peo­ple will more eas­ily spend their money in Uvongo, Mar­gate and Shelly Beach.”

Yet Judy’s sense of hu­mour bub­bles just un­der the sur­face. It’s vis­i­ble in her mis­chievous smile, but es­pe­cially in the 16 pho­to­copied pages of Lo­cal is Lekker, in which florists, fish­ing shops, driv­ing schools, doggy par­lours, hair

Even at the beach, there are farm­ers who roll their eyes sky­ward and ask, “When will the wind let up?” or “When will the rains come?”

sa­lons, doc­tors and spir­i­tual heal­ers all ad­ver­tise. Even Port Ed­ward’s Su­pers­par make a pitch with vouch­ers to be won.

Among the ads, on almost ev­ery page, you find gems like this joke: “Your Favourite Bank now fi­nances Lobola. Marry on credit with easy monthly re­pay­ment terms. Fail­ure to pay will re­sult in the Bank sell­ing the wife on auc­tion to re­coup their losses. If you don’t want her any more, sim­ply miss a pay­ment or two, and she’s gone!! Your Bank, mak­ing life Sim­pler, Eas­ier, Bet­ter.”

For din­ner we head to the Peg & Punter, not far from the town’s main in­ter­sec­tion with its hand­ful of shops. Here you’ll find a Vi­bracrete-fenced court­yard, a big-screen TV tuned to a rugby match, and a sign that de­clares: “Dress code: smart ca­sual, strictly no pets al­lowed.”

The place is near-empty when the wait­ress takes our or­der. Only one other ta­ble is oc­cu­pied by two young Ger­mans. But by the time our ham­burg­ers and chips ar­rive, their group has grown into a full long ta­ble, nearly ev­ery­one dressed in shorts and takkies.

Out­side, clouds are gath­er­ing, blot­ting out the last bright rays of the moon re­flect­ing off the foamy sea.

Wake up and smell the cof­fee!

A cloudy week in Septem­ber teaches you a few things about the South Coast. One: life isn’t an ex­tended hol­i­day, not even in the place where you sought out waves and other great things as a child. Two: there’s life on the other side of the main road, away from the sea. Three: even at the beach, there are farm­ers who roll their eyes sky­ward and ask, “When will the wind let up?” or “When will the rains come?”

Ed­die Cum­ming bought Beaver Creek, his farm about 6km in­land via the Izin­gol­weni Road, in 1984. It was a ba­nana farm back then.

“Ba­nanas were grown on most farms at the time,” Ed­die says. Th­ese days, macadamias are grown on 75% of them and ba­nanas on 20%, and the rest are vegetables, flow­ers or cof­fee. I’ve learnt a lot about cof­fee since I planted that first ex­per­i­men­tal patch of cof­fee trees.”

On a tour of the farm – walk­ing through the trees to the roast­ing ma­chine and the tast­ing room – Ed­die talks about the chal­lenges fac­ing cof­fee farm­ers, in spite of this be­ing a sub­trop­i­cal re­gion with an av­er­age rain­fall of up to 3 000mm per year. >

“About two-thirds of our farm is dry­land, and there­fore de­pen­dent solely on rain­fall. The rest we ir­ri­gate, and those trees do much bet­ter.” He frowns. “We ur­gently need rain… es­pe­cially after the past few windy days.”

Cof­fee farm­ing cer­tainly is no pic­nic. “In trop­i­cal ar­eas, pro­duc­tion sits at about three tonnes per hectare, whereas here it’s half of that. That’s why we can’t com­pete with them price-wise, although we’re on par when it comes to qual­ity.” Beaver Creek cur­rently pro­duces seven tonnes of cof­fee per year.

“It is also ex­tremely labour-in­ten­sive: the berries don’t all ripen at the same time and have to be picked in a spe­cific way. We har­vest from March right through to Septem­ber. If the berry isn’t prop­erly ripe yet, it won’t get dark enough when roasted.”

From hum­ble begin­nings, Beaver Creek has ex­panded to a farm with 60 000 trees, and Ed’s two sons, Dy­lan and Rob­bie, have since joined the business. They don’t only grow cof­fee but also im­ports, roasts and mixes beans from var­i­ous coun­tries. They run the Cof­fee Club (part of the Wine of the Month Club), which of­fers mem­bers six 250g pack­ets of cof­fee five times a year. They also take vis­i­tors on daily cof­fee tours. And then there’s the cof­fee shop, where you can eat and drink and browse and buy and taste and go to cof­fee heaven…

Does it get un­bear­able when the bin­nelanders de­scend on their part of the world in De­cem­ber?

“No,” says Dy­lan with a note of res­ig­na­tion in his voice. “It’s very wet, there’s great chaos, but you learn to live with that chaos. It’s only re­ally bad from mid-De­cem­ber to the first week in Jan­uary, and those three weeks al­low us to ex­pand our business ev­ery year.”

Out­side, the first drops be­gin to fall. Big smiles ap­pear on Ed and Dy­lan’s faces. And the cof­fee-tree leaves? They shine beau­ti­fully in the gray light.

Small towns that work

Just a lit­tle bit north, at South­b­room, a gang of mon­keys ap­pear un­fazed by the rain. They sit in the palm trees be­hind the Golf House Guest House and tease the two spaniels of the owner, Kate Clarence.

“Yes, the mon­keys are very naughty – they are after bread and fruit,” says Thandi Thut­shini, Kate’s right hand in the business.

Kate sees hu­mans as be­ing the prob­lem, not the mon­keys. “We take away their habi­tat,” she says. “The most im­por­tant thing is not to feed them, but that’s what for­eign­ers like to do.” She points to two sheets of pa­per on the no­tice­board in the foyer: “How and why we should live with vervet mon­keys.”

Kate loves liv­ing in South­b­room. “It’s slow and quiet; and we still have for­est here. Ac­tu­ally, we’re a farm­ing com­mu­nity – we don’t have a wa­ter­borne sew­er­age sys­tem – but if you’re look­ing for the bright lights, they’re not too far away. It’s a friendly town that buzzes in the hol­i­day sea­son: ev­ery house bursts at the seams; chil­dren run around in the streets; you can’t get a ta­ble at a restau­rant… But those are nice things to com­plain about. Tourism is part of the rea­son we sur­vive.”

There are strict rules in the town: no build­ing may be higher than two

“It’s very wet, there’s great chaos, but you learn to live with that chaos. It’s only re­ally bad from mid-De­cem­ber to the first week in Jan­uary, and those three weeks al­low us to ex­pand the business.”

storeys; no “for sale” or “sold” signs are al­lowed on prop­er­ties; and there’s a ban on any sig­nage for ma­jor com­pa­nies such as Coca-Cola or Cas­tle. “This may seem like a small-town men­tal­ity, but it works and it’s good for the town. I would buy a house here be­cause I can­not see ev­ery­thing that’s for sale – no mes­sages are sent.”

You also have to ask for spe­cial per­mis­sion if you want to cut down a tree in South­b­room.

Kate says there’s a great sense of com­mu­nity in the town, which is home to about 400 per­ma­nent fam­i­lies, mostly el­derly. “We have a care cen­tre, which was founded by the doc­tor and the vet. We care for older peo­ple who might have just been dis­charged from hos­pi­tal, and help them find their feet, take them chicken soup. You know, we have five re­tired nurses in South­b­room…” >

And is there any­thing some­what less pleas­ant about the town? Kate thinks for a mo­ment: “I can’t think of any­thing… There’s no the­atre… but that’s not re­ally a prob­lem. Oh yes, rust! You have to spend a lot of time on main­te­nance, be­cause ev­ery­thing rusts here.”

Here we sit, on the porch, look­ing out over the sea that’s creep­ing in un­der a hazy blan­ket of cloud. The golf course is de­serted. It’s been the same ev­ery­where over the past few days at places such as Leisure Bay, TO Strand, Glenmore Beach, Mun­ster and Trafal­gar.

At the Wild Coast Sun in the East­ern Cape the only signs of life were a cou­ple of vervet mon­keys who looked bored as they browsed around some fallen leaves. And at Oribi Gorge all we heard was a holler echo­ing from the depths when a young Capeto­nian went div­ing off the cliff. It’s quiet.

But you can be sure that kids across the in­te­rior are count­ing down the days to De­cem­ber. And then it will be a to­tally dif­fer­ent story here on the South Coast. The sun will shine, And yes, even the farm­ers will be pleased.

Have you seen the beach in Rams­gate this de­serted? At the Bi­lanhlolo River mouth, pad­dle boats await the hol­i­day crowds.

1 Early morn­ing, work­ers are al­ready busy on a veg­etable farm along the Izin­gol­weni Road. 2 Eu­ge­nia Gx­agx­iso does some wa­ter­ing at the gar­den in Port Ed­ward where she and 15 other women grow vegetables for the com­mu­nity. 3 Ian and Es­maré Gethen on the stoep of their B&B, Aloe Inn. 4 Judy Arm­strong in her lux­u­ri­ant sub­trop­i­cal gar­den in Port Ed­ward. 5 An im­pres­sive bridge spans the Mtamvuna River – left is the East­ern Cape, right is KwaZulu-Natal. 6 The South Coast is ba­nana coun­try. The flow­ers of the ba­nana plant has pur­plish bracts that en­close rows of yel­low flo­rets; the bracts con­tin­u­ally open to ex­pose new flow­ers, and the plant will yield up to 264 ba­nanas.

ORCHID EDEN Stephanie Thomp­son and her hus­band Ron­nie used to farm with ba­nanas in the Mun­ster dis­trict, and re­tired seven years ago. “I re­alised he was go­ing to drive me crazy,” Stephanie jokes, “and had to find some­thing to do. Hence the or­chids.” They don’t ad­ver­tise and they don’t have a web­site, yet peo­ple flock to Rain­dance Or­chids to buy plants and they sup­ply su­per­mar­kets. The business has ex­ceeded all their ex­pec­ta­tions.

MO­BILE SHOP Phum­lani Nya­wose from Ga­malakhe and Pas­cal Parchet from Shelly Beach drive around the South Coast from Tues­days to Satur­days with their mo­bile veg­etable shop. Here, they’re parked at Trafal­gar in the rain.

NO BA­NANA REPUB­LIC Sort­ing wheels in the pack­ing shed at The Out­post. The fruit grown on 275 ha are picked, sorted and packed by hand for su­per­mar­ket groups such as Wool­worths. About 300 peo­ple work on the farm.

ABOVE A cof­fee plan­ta­tion at Beaver Creek. RIGHT Squeeze a red cof­fee berry and two seeds – called beans – pop out. They have a long way to go be­fore they’re roasted. LEFT When you live in Trafal­­gar, you need never go to the city. Your hair­dresser, psy­chol­o­gist, bro­ker and driv­ing school are all prac­ti­cally un­der one roof.

Ed­die Cum­ming

Not de­terred by the stormy weather, th­ese fish­er­men have their lines in the wa­ter be­tween South­b­room and Trafal­gar.

1 Joseph Ndlovu works for the South­b­room Con­ser­vancy and pa­trols the town for snares, specif­i­cally those set for small an­te­lope. He lives in Mar­gate, and rides a bi­cyle given to him by the com­mu­nity. 2 Thandi Thut­shini and Mariette Khu­malo en­sure things are ship­shape at Golf House Guest House. 3 Kate Clarence, the owner of Golf House, with her two mon­key de­ter­rents, Pitcher en Sandy. 4 South­b­room Main Beach be­fore the De­cem­ber storm.

At Oribi Gorge, those look­ing for an adren­a­line boost can step off the edge and lis­ten to their screams echo as they pen­du­lum on the Wild Gorge Swing. Cape Town ac­coun­tant Lourens de Bruyn (in­set) sum­moned up the courage, but his wife Karen pre­ferred to watch. ( It’s a good thing the toi­let is clearly sign­posted. – Eds.) Lourens says this one is not as scary as the Bloukrans Bungy.

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