Lady in Waiting
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.