Whether you’re sedentary or an adrenalin junkie, a trip to the little-known village of Haga Haga on the Wild Coast could be just the break you’re looking for.
Words and images by Judy Bryant
Have you heard the story about the tractor, the cattle dip and the naked farmer? And an Eastern Cape local who developed a small holiday resort on
a family property at Haga Haga, a seaside village in a coastal conservancy about 70 kilometres north of East London?
The late Neil Arnold, affectionately known as Ninky-Noo, was driving a tractor near his rustic Ninky-Noo’s Pub, on
a particularly hot day. He decided to strip off and cool down in an old cattle dip built by his great-grandfather. Splashing in the murky water, he decided the refreshing dip would be a novel attraction.
Since that summer’s day, dozens of visitors have plunged into the same trough, mooing loudly, and have the “[email protected] Noo” shirts to prove it.
Keen fisherman Ross Crouch, whose family owns Linga Longa holiday home, sums up some of its attractions in a recently published book of local cottage-owner recollections, Haga Haga, Jewel of the East Coast, co-authored by residents Peter and Betty-Lou Brown and Mike Thompson.
‘To stand on my rock, with fishing rod in hand, watching the foaming ocean at my feet, the resonant rumble of boulders in the gully, the haunting notes of a lone Tinkerbird in the distance and not a soul in sight… this is when I’m king of my kingdom.’
As a child, I spent many happy holidays at Haga Haga, as had generations before me. The hamlet first developed when up-country farmers, like my own great-grandparents, trekked their sheep down to their coastal farms to graze during the cold inland winters. Families transported their supplies on heavily-laden ox-wagons and settled in for months at a time.
Saved from tourism excess by a stretch of bone-shaking gravel road, the village remains unspoilt. Many of the houses (passed down over generations) retain their old wooden floors and water tanks. Stoeps are strewn with fishing rods, comfy old chairs and family pets.
Homes have names like Stumble Inn, Stagger Out and Had Enuff, and resident Bruce Trollope tells how his father Brian (Rusty) Trollope bought a house for £2 500 and named it Camp David. “He used to say, ‘If the president of the USA can have a holiday home called Camp David,
then so can I.’”
The origins of the village’s unusual name still generate lively debate in the hotel bar. The general consensus is that Haga’s name is derived from the Xhosa word haka, ‘to hook on’. It’s said that, when crossing the sandy river mouth with ox wagons, one span of oxen would be unhooked from a wagon and linked to the other team for extra pulling power.
“That holds no water,” argues Gray Ranger, whose family has visited Haga Haga for generations, and who is extremely knowledgeable about the area’s history. “The true origin of the name was recounted to my grandfather, Walter Clement Ranger, sometime between 1929 and 1934 by local resident Hesewu Bhele. The name is derived from the San sub-chief Harga Harga, who lived on the lagoon with his family and was murdered by a Xhosa chief.”
Whatever your opinion on the name, you’ll agree with a note on the hotel website that Haga Haga is ‘so nice, you have to say it twice’. There’s also consensus on the natural beauty of this coastal strip between the Nyarha and Quko rivers. It’s a mecca for shell collectors, and children crouch at the edges of rock pools, fixated on the sight of red anemones and little darting fish.
The main beach lies below a hill covered with scarlet aloes in winter and wild flowers in spring. There’s tennis, horse riding, mountain biking, and a shallow lagoon where youngsters can splash and swim, while braver souls set off with their surfboards. Burly anglers discuss cob, bream and pignose grunters.
Other popular spots are Pullen’s Bay and Dead Man’s Bay. As children, a shiver would run up our spines when we were told that the beach below our family house got its moniker after a coffin washed up decades ago. Pullen’s Bay can be reached on foot either along the coast or via a clifftop walk.
Fishing remains the most popular attraction for many. Richard Beal-Preston, whose family was one of the first to build a house in the village, recalls early morning expeditions as a youngster.
“My grandmother, Alice Forword, would send down a breakfast of scrambled egg, bacon, toast and bread. This was accompanied by a Bunsen burner in a cradle (with a Pyrex dish on top) which we lit to warm the food. I clearly remember how delicious it all tasted.”
Resident Mike Thompson has spent many hours researching and photographing local wild flowers. “Over a period of four years, at least 300 species of indigenous wildflowers have been identified, while as many as 300 are on videotape and still in need of identification. Great finds include the bulbous orange Scadoxus membranaceus and the wild orchid Eulophia streptopetala.”
Haga Haga gained conservancy status in 1996 and Mike recalls his niece going fishing early one morning and spotting an otter feeding on crabs, fish or frogs near the lagoon. “Tiny blue duiker have also been seen in coastal and inland forests.”
Many of the locals are keen birders and have listed more than 240 birds including weavers, woodpeckers and Narina Trogons. Southern right and humpback whales are visible from the hillside trails (and even the upstairs section of the Country Club) and pods of dolphins frolic all year in the waves.
It’s a village where local home owners have rolled up their sleeves and got involved in projects such as revamping the old town hall, planting trees and flowers in public areas, donating beachfront benches and planning walking trails.
One of the main organisers is Betty-Lou Brown, whose family has been travellingto Haga Haga for more than 80 years. She and her husband Peter bought their home, Dolphin View, in 1978.
“It was a double-storey with a staircase running up the side of the house to the kitchen door,” recalls Betty-Lou. “The builder had forgotten to build a staircase inside – he was so used to just climbing up the scaffolding every day.”
Dolphin View marks the start of the Lagoon Lookout walk, taking you up the hill behind the house to a bench from which you can survey the main beach and lagoon. Other clearly-marked trails (look for the signs in the village) include the nearly four-kilometre Krantz Flower walk to Pullen’s Bay.
At various times of the year, the hillside is a mass of wild flowers. Visitors also enjoy scanning for ships and whales from the four-kilometre Whale Point walk, or taking the inland Otter Creek trail that ends near the entrance to Ninky Noo’s Pub.
Walking through the village you’re likely to pass the old hall. This building was officially opened in 1930, after home owners donated funds and resident Harold Arnold undertook the construction. You can still see an exterior panel where his youngest daughter, Molly, had her tiny feet pressed into the damp concrete.
Much of Haga’s history can be discovered in The Little Museum, which volunteers established in an unused section of this hall in 1998.
“The helpfulness of Haga folk came out in force after we formed a start-up committee,” recalls curator Sylvia Baines. “Locals tackled everything from lettering for the signage, to building the display cabinets and producing delightful drawings of the mammals in the area.
“The museum has collections of shells and old fishing equipment, family photographs and handwritten recollections, information on the indigenous people, natural environment and local culture,” says Sylvia. “There is of course no charge to visit and it’s gratifying to note the small but steady stream of visitors who’ve left very positive comments in the visitors’ book.”
The building also houses an excellent library, run for years by resident Gill Rensburg, and a charming chapel. After viewing some of the museum finds, treasure hunters might be inspired to search for their own booty. Rare quartz carnelian beads and fragments of 16th century Ming dynasty china can be found at Bead Beach, east of Black Rock, a high promontory several kilometres away.
“I remember my grandmother adding beads to her collection in an old biscuit tin. These were passed on to my mother, and I later had them made into a necklace, bracelet and earrings for my wife Rose,” recalls Richard Beal-Preston.
It’s also worth visiting the stand set up outside the hotel over weekends by local African women. For many generations they have sold their intricately-made beadwork and lovely baskets and mats, handcrafted from grass harvested in the area.
Whether you want to revisit old haunts, or create new experiences, this seaside village offers plenty. The rocky outcrops, rolling hills and abundant rivers that were once an obstacle to early visitors are now ideal for adventure sports or simply relaxing in nature. And, of course, you can always moo at Ninky Noo.