Lady in Wait­ing

South African Country Life - - In This Issue - Map ref­er­ence F7 see in­side back cover

Lady Grey in the Eastern Cape High­lands is full of sur­prises

bound­aries. Each com­mu­nity man­ages its sec­tion on a ro­ta­tion sys­tem so that ev­ery­one keen and able can be in­volved.

“One of our pri­or­i­ties was to find a way for lo­cal women to earn an in­come from the trail,” she con­tin­ued. “Xhosa women are the tra­di­tional car­ri­ers of ev­ery­thing but they are marginalised. Start­ing the porter sys­tem was a good so­lu­tion but now, I’m de­lighted to say, many have trained as guides.”

The coast­line be­came rock­ier af­ter the camp­site, so we fol­lowed an­i­mal paths through grass­lands grazed by large herds of cat­tle and goats to our next overnight spot, Serendip­ity. It was the first time that I’d stayed at this charm­ing cot­tage mid­way be­tween Mazeppa and Wave­crest Ho­tel & Spa but I’d thor­oughly rec­om­mend it. The smell of bak­ing bread wafted through the open doors as we walked in. Four dogs wagged their tails in greet­ing and our lovely room opened onto the gar­den.

We lazed around in the af­ter­noon, swim­ming and tak­ing the dogs for a walk be­fore re­turn­ing for sun­set drinks at the beach bar, and a de­li­cious din­ner and fas­ci­nat­ing evening with charis­matic owner Jeanne Bonelo. It was hard to leave the fol­low­ing morn­ing. I could hap­pily have spent a week there.

But it was a beau­ti­ful day and we quickly got into the groove of walk­ing the long, lonely beaches, alone with our thoughts. A lo­cal fer­ry­man took us across the Nx­axo River to Wave­crest Ho­tel & Spa. Perched on a river ter­race, this Wild Coast icon en­joys splen­did views of the es­tu­ary and man­grove for­est.

A boat trip up the river and through the man­groves was a spe­cial treat. One of the rarest forests in the coun­try, the Nx­axo man­groves fea­ture three species – white, red and black. “The nar­row band of white man­grove swamps and large area of coastal dune for­est make it one of the best places to see the rare Man­grove King­fisher,” Sean Pike, Wave­crest’s as­sis­tant man­ager, in­formed us. “They’re crab eaters, and eat in man­grove forests, nest­ing in old wood­pecker holes in the for­est trees.”

Af­ter Wave­crest, the land­scape changed again. Our route to the Kobon­qaba River took us up through the coastal for­est where we spot­ted vervet mon­keys eat­ing the fruit of the wild plum, and ad­mired old, gnarled, for­est ma­hogany trees and learnt about the medic­i­nal uses of plants such as the African potato, the tu­ber of which is mixed with calamine,

and used by the lo­cals as sun­screen.

Our new guide, Pa­tri­cia Xoliswa Matana was wait­ing on the other side of the river with a group of cheery porters. For the next halfhour it was easy go­ing along a slightly raised path lined with stre­litzia palms, arum lilies, vy­gies and other flow­ers, which af­forded su­perb views of the rocky shelves and small beaches along the coast.

We stopped at a deep, shell mid­den that had been ex­posed when a road was cut down to the beach, and learnt more about the early peo­ple who had roamed this coast. Af­ter this we headed down to one of the most fa­mous Wild Coast land­marks, the wreck of the MV Jacaranda.

I was stunned to see how lit­tle re­mained of the Greek freighter that was wrecked on a dark and stormy night in Septem­ber 1971. An im­pres­sive sight when we passed her in 2009, she’d been re­duced to a skele­ton by a mon­strous storm five years later.

The trail be­came more un­du­lat­ing and chal­leng­ing as we fol­lowed the path along small beaches – the soft pur­ple and black sand rich in ti­ta­nium – and over grassy head­lands from which we spied more dol­phins. A fi­nal walk on a long beach took us to Seag­ulls Beach Ho­tel, a re­laxed, fam­ily- and pet-friendly es­tab­lish­ment with stun­ning sea views and great fish­ing off the rocks.

Our fi­nal day took us along a coastal path to the mouth of the Gxarha River. A few kilo­me­tres up­stream is the Pool of Prophecy, one of the most sig­nif­i­cant sites in Xhosa his­tory. “When the Xhosa maiden Nongqawuse was sit­ting there in 1856 she saw the faces of her an­ces­tors in the wa­ter,” Pa­tri­cia told us. “They told her that they were pre­pared to re­turn to Earth and drive the Euro­peans from the Xhosa lands.

“But first, as an act of faith, the Xhosa peo­ple had to de­stroy their cat­tle and grain stores.” Trag­i­cally they did as in­structed, with 40 000 starv­ing to death in the en­su­ing famine, and an­other 150 000 flee­ing the area.

It was a short walk to the pon­toon over the Kei River. Our beau­ti­ful, young guide, Mbali (Rose) Nontswabu, was wait­ing for us when we dis­em­barked, and pointed out three African Spoon­bills trawl­ing in shal­lows. She led us through the coastal for­est of the Cape Mor­gan Na­ture Re­serve past the Cape Mor­gan Light­house and back down to the coast, and we stopped of­ten to hear about the flora and to watch the birds and cheeky mon­keys.

A nar­row path wound through grassy mead­ows stud­ded with wild gaza­nia and for­est num-num trees, be­fore we were back on the sand for an easy fi­nal stretch to pic­turesque Mor­gan’s Bay – a stun­ning place to hang up our boots.

ABOVE: The rare Man­grove King­fisher in­hab­its the Nx­axo es­tu­ary and is of­ten seen on boat trips from Wave­crest Ho­tel & Spa. (Photo Sean Pike)BE­LOW: We cross the Kei River, the south­ern bor­der of the for­mer Transkei, on the rick­ety old pon­toon. BE­LOW RIGHT: All that re­mains of the MV Jacaranda, a Greek freighter wrecked near the Kobon­qabaRiver mouth in 1971. Fairly in­tact un­til late 2014, the wreck­age has now been al­most re­moved by storms. A re­minder that this is the Wild Coast.

ABOVE: Mbali (Rose) Nontswabu meets us on the other side of the Kei River and guides us to Mor­gan’s Bay. ABOVE CEN­TRE: A lo­cal fish­er­man proudly holds up a large galjoen, our na­tional fish. The Wild Coast is a favourite fish­ing haunt. ABOVE RIGHT: Sean Pike, as­sis­tant man­ager at Wave­crest Ho­tel & Spa and a keen birder and na­ture lover, gives us won­der­ful in­sight into the flora and fauna of the Wave­crest area, par­tic­u­larly the man­groves of the Nx­axo es­tu­ary.

ABOVE LEFT: Guide Pa­tri­cia Xoliswa Matana and I study the trail ahead from a rocky look­out just be­yond Seag­ulls Ho­tel. TOP: Slack­pack­ing in South Africa be­gan two decades ago on the beaches of the Transkei, the brain­child of en­thu­si­as­tic vi­sion­ary Nita Ross (right). Now re­tired, Nita has handed the man­tle to her daugh­ter He­len (left). ABOVE: The ho­tels in which you overnight are Wild Coast in­sti­tu­tions, most of them run by en­ter­tain­ing char­ac­ters such as Daan van Zyl of Kob Inn. BE­LOW: Jeanne Bonelo, our host at Serendip­ity, in her beach bar.

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