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Eastern cape hiking: Slackpacking the Pondo trail

Eastern cape hiking: Slackpacking the Pondo trail

Stripping down to our bathing costumes, we stuff our backpacks into waterproof bags and stand on the edge of the 100-metre-wide Mkweni River. A group of local kids eyes us quizzically. “We waded through last time,” apologises our Pondo trail guide Garth Robinson, after reconnoitring the crossing. “It was only  waist deep.” The water is deep, brown and swirling, but at least we are here on an incoming tide, and will be swept upstream to Mthatha rather than out to Mozambique.

“Don’t Zambezi sharks breed in these river estuaries?” asks Matthew Holt unhelpfully. While some of us debate the breeding habits of sharks, Theo Calitz plunges in and practises his butterfly. Our supposedly mild slackpacking trail along the Pondoland coast is becoming wet and wild.

The crossing was going to be interesting

pondoland trail, hiking, eastern cape

Traversing the grasslands of Waterfall Bluff.

Just getting to the Pondo trail in this remote, inaccessible, northern part of the Wild Coast has been an adventure. Recent heavy rains have scoured deep dongas in the road, testing the skill of the local bakkie driver that transferred us from the N2 to Mtentu Lodge, a quaint, rustic abode on the bank of the same-named river.

The next morning we were due to set off on the first leg of the four-day trail, a seemingly modest 14-kilometre hike from Mtentu to Msikaba. The weather forecast was reasonably good, but as we sheltered from lashing rain, big waves rolled into the estuary. The crossing was going to be interesting.

“That’s the Wild Coast for you,” said lodge manager Allan Hein. “The weatherman often gets it horribly wrong. This coastline is known for its freak waves.”

We spent the next couple of hours studying maps and literature on the area, popping out between squalls to check the conditions – white horses still evident – and to inspect the Pondoland coconut (aka the Mkambati Palm Tree) that grows only on northern banks of the Mtentu and Msikaba rivers.

Finally, we set off down the slippery, rocky path to the river, and into waiting canoes that carried us safely across. The beaches were littered with natural debris washed up in the storms, and the rocks covered with wild oysters. I gazed up at the forested valley and wished I had more time to explore before moving on.

Bad news to follow

pondo trail, hiking, eastern cape

The Mlambomkulu waterfall tumbles 38m off the resistant cliffs of Waterfall Bluff into the sea.

We had joined a six-strong group from the Cape Winelands, put together by Hilldidge Beer on this Wild Child Africa Pondo trail. Hilldidge combined Teutonic efficiency with Troubadour clothing, and her party didn’t look the most practised hikers. And it wasn’t long before Matthew was offering long odds that everyone would complete the 65-kilometre route. Petite Jean Lubbe was keen to find excuses to cling to our Herculean guide, while Noleen de Jongh looked on enviously.

Once on the southern bank of the river, we clambered up into Mkambati Nature Reserve, surprising a mountain reedbuck that bounded away. Formerly a leper colony, it was then stocked with game during a brief and unsuccessful stint as a hunting lodge, when insufficient consideration was given to the appropriate choice of species, and most animals perished.

Rain hoods up and squelching through deep mud, we weren’t at our most observant, but we did spy two big herds of zebra. By the time we reached the Mkambati River, we were soaked to the skin. Lunch in Baboon Cave, a raised shelter overlooking the magnificent Strandloper Falls, was a brief affair. “Normally we jump from the cave into the refreshing pool below,” Garth said to unconvinced grunts.

Bad news was to follow. The swells were too high for us to follow the coast and we had to detour inland, and the additional four kilometres meant the sun was setting by the time we began the final descent to the waiting canoes at Msikaba estuary. But hot towels with which to mop our mud-splattered faces, the cheery call of a pair of Pied Kingfishers, welcome drinks, a roaring fire and hot showers at Msikaba tented camp soon revived us.

“Great day,” announced Noleen cheerily as we dined on fillet steak washed down with red wine. “I felt like a smuggler in a boat slinking in under the cover of darkness.”

Meandering along beaches

Pondo trail, hiking, eastern cape

Johan de Jonge and Theo Calitz look back along the coast that we walked on the morning of day 2.

The sea was still rough the following morning, and again we followed a high path of the Pondo trail towards the lighthouse and over magnificent orange boulders, before our first swim of the trip in a deep pool of the Khotso River.

“The Grosvenor, an East Indiaman sailing ship, ran onto the rocks just off the coast here at Lambasi Bay on 4 August 1782,” Garth explained as we inspected the remains of various salvage attempts to retrieve the treasure she was believed to have been carrying.

“Of the 123 survivors who made it to shore, only six men reached Port Elizabeth, where they raised a search-and-rescue party that returned to find several of the women and children living with local tribespeople. The fate of the other survivors is subject to speculation.”

Theo, who had applied to work on the development of Elon Musk’s Tesla electric cars, seemed bemused by a tunnel initiated by the Grosvenor Bullion Syndicate in 1921. To be fair, it was difficult to see how the designer hoped to precisely locate, and pop up beneath, the sunken wreckage 100 metres out to sea.

A couple of hours of meandering along beaches and coastal paths took us to a raised rocky platform. “Welcome to Champagne Mile,” said Garth. The sprays created by waves crashing against the rocks were mesmerising, like watching a fireworks display, with full sound and light effects. As the last of the sun spread its light onto the backdrop we rounded a boulder to find our ground crew brandishing bubbly bottles and glasses. Clever choreographing was evident throughout the trail, but this was inspired.

A botanical hotspot

pondo trail, hiking, eastern cape

‘Champagne Mile’, the section along the exposed rocky platform before Luputhana tented camp, was one of the highlights of the trip. Waves crashed high into the air, creating rainbows and showering us spray.

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The next morning we hiked from Luputhana tented camp through grasslands filled with butterflies – swallowtails, yellow pansies and African monarchs. Garth explained that we were in the heart of the Pondoland Centre of Endemism, a botanical hotspot (one of only 131 in the world) that stretches from Port Edward to Port St Johns. “Most of the special plants that occur nowhere else in the world are found in the deep, inaccessible and densely vegetated gorges.”

We picked our way around a narrow track where the Mlambomkulu River crashes off the cliff some 38m into the sea, one of three rivers that cascade off Waterfall Bluff. As we stopped for a break at a dramatic and precipitous viewpoint overlooking Cathedral and Keyhole rocks, Matthew gamely scrambled down to a rocky platform for a photoshoot.

An undulating section through long grass took us to an idyllic lunch spot on the Cutweni River, where small orchids clung to the trees. Lazy after the break, we slogged up a big hill studded with orange watsonia and picked our way down a steep, rocky slope to the beach at Drew’s Camp.

“One of the reasons I chose this trail was so I could photograph cattle on the beach,” explained Hilldidge, as she tried to compose a photo of a cow and its reflection while scuttling away from incoming waves.

Sauntering along beaches

pondo trail, hiking, eastern cape

The photogenic, free-standing Cathedral Rock seen from Waterfall Bluff. (24a is Hilldidge Beer and Matthew Holt).

After a swim, we followed the coastal Pondo trail path to Mbotyi River Lodge, installing ourselves in wooden chalets overlooking the lagoon and Indian Ocean. The site was initially developed in the 1920s by Jack Barber, a Scottish international footballer and World War I hero, and Vic Kottich, a drug addict and alleged German spy. Subsequent guests included policeman-turned-bank-robber André Stander, who hid there while on the run in the early 1980s. By comparison, we felt rather mundane.

Our final day of hiking saw us sauntering along beaches – with plenty more cattle to delay Hilldidge – and crossing over headlands on narrow goat paths. The weather was glorious and we stopped often to swim and to watch dolphins and diving gannets. “In a month or so people will be flocking to these shores to catch the annual Sardine Run,” advised Garth.

A steep climb took us past dense indigenous forest, its canopy an incredible greenish-blue when seen from high. By lunchtime, we were at the viewpoint over Manteku, the end of the road. On a wide lagoon and surrounded by steep, forested mountains, the location of this final camp is hard to beat.

And so, on our final day here, we celebrate the river crossing with drinks on the beach, as Fish Eagles call out a welcome. Green Pigeons burst from the trees and goats stand on their hind legs to nibble leaves from trees. After settling into our tents, we have a swim and paddle upriver. Kingfishers eye us from overhanging branches and the only sounds are the odd splash of a fish or a fisherman casting a line.

A true wilderness

Pondo trail, hiking, eastern cape

For much of the last two days, we traversed deserted beaches.

Hilldidge has wisely booked an additional day at Manteku, giving us time for more paddling, walks on the beaches, swimming and soaking up the splendour. Lunch is with a local family up on the hill, where we are educated in some Pondo traditions – the men seated, in order of age, on chairs along one side of the rondavel, while women sit on the floor on the other side. And we all sample the umqombothi (local Xhosa beer). Isobelle Calitz, who has grown up in Mthatha, delights in the familiar, frothy liquid, and practising her rusty isiXhosa.

Throughout the trip, we have been impressed by the effort and attention to detail given on the Pondo trail by the Wild Child Africa team, which extends to everything from beautiful place settings to chocolates on our pillows. But even by their high standards, the last night’s dinner of oysters, crayfish and rock salmon – the latter caught by Johan de Jongh – is a feast.

After dinner, I sit on the beach in the moonlight watching its light on the water, in many ways sad that the adventure, and the enforced digital detox, is over. Our days have followed the rhythm of daylight and the tides, and I haven’t looked at the time, or thought about work, for five days.

Pondoland is more remote and inaccessible than I imagined, a true wilderness that I’ve never before had the privilege of exploring. If you’re thinking of visiting the area, this luxury, slackpacking trail is the way to go.

In a Nutshell

Up to it? This 65-kilometre, four-day slackpacking Pondo Trail is mainly along coastal paths and beaches, with some easy scrambling and river crossings adding excitement. Moderately strenuous in good conditions, it can become hard work in bad weather. Although the pace is tailored to the group, and the guide and ground team are attentive and helpful, the fitter you are the more time you’ll have to swim and explore.
When to go? The trail is run year-round, but the Pondo coast is a summer-rainfall area so hiking
is best in the autumn and winter months.
Tip: Take a pair of strops or paddling shoes for the big-river crossings.
Contact 082 562 8361, [email protected] or wildchildafrica.com

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