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.
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.