“The Eastern Cape coastline is noted for shipwrecks,” explained Bryan Church, “so keep a lookout as you walk. You might stumble on all sorts of treasure.”
We were gathered at the Kei Mouth Environmental Centre, the trailhead for the four-day Strandloper Hiking Trail, which follows in the footsteps of the ancient Strandlopers, the Khoi and San beachcombers who once made a living along South Africa’s shores.
Beating the tides
As we studied the huge map on the wall, Bryan delivered a thorough briefing, pointing out the overnight spots, major river crossings, useful refreshment stops, and sites of some famous wrecks on the 57-kilometre route that starts at the village of Kei Mouth north of East London and ends in Gonubie. Old-fashioned display cabinets beneath the map showed some of the treasures – the birds, marine creatures, beads and shards of pottery – that we might find along the way. All rather quaint. It reminded me of a school outing.
Bryan and his wife Erica moved to Kei Mouth after retiring from the mines in Zambia in 1995. “We hiked the trail when it was still in the recce stage, and it was so beautiful,” Erica recalled. “Now I do the reservations and Bryan – assisted by two coastal rangers, John Pakamile and Johnson Mila, who live in the Chintsa East informal settlement – takes wood to the overnight stops and makes sure the trail is in good order.”
Handing us a tide timetable, Bryan explained that there were several rivers that we’d need to cross at low tide. This was spelled out in the information pack. It suggested that non-swimmers bring a floaty. “But don’t let it scare you,” laughed Bryan, “the youngest hiker on the trail was a five-year-old and the oldest was 77.”
Mattresses are provided at the overnight spots, but, in backpacking fashion, we were carrying everything else. “You’ll need to bring a sleeping bag, crockery, cutlery, a stove to share and other essential gear,” Erica advised, “but there are plenty of places for pub lunches and to stock up along the way, so just carry the basics. It’s a tough trail with a heavy pack.”
A long beach
Leaving the centre, we headed into coastal forest, sighting bushpig tracks, clumps of Natal wild banana trees and an elusive Knysna Turaco before wandering over grassy plains to the Cwili River and down to the beach on the outskirts of Kei Mouth. As I walked on the sand, with the wind in my hair, I felt happy and free.
The trail then headed inland, up through forest to the Cape Morgan Lighthouse and down to the coast again at the Pumphouse – formerly part of a titanium mine, and later, until it was destroyed in a storm, the first night’s accommodation on the Strandloper Trail.
We stopped for a swim in its pool before hitting the long beach that leads to Morgan Bay. After stocking up on food for the next 24 hours, we continued along the seafront checking out the African Black Oystercatchers, Kelp Gulls, White-fronted Plovers and other seabirds, before picking up the trail markers at the base of the dramatic cliffs at the western end of town. It was a bit of a slog up with our packs, but the magnificent vistas along the coast were ample reward.
We lingered, enjoying the wildness of this remote setting before continuing across the flower-studded cliff top and down to the rustic Strandloper cabin at Double Mouth. Right on the water’s edge, on the edge of dense coastal forest, this is a stunning spot. After tea, we headed for a swim and shower, then sat on the deck watching the changing hues of the cloud-flecked sky. We might be quinquagenarians, but we were pleased with our day’s work: backpacking’s not so bad after all.
Remains of the wrecks
Day two was a short walk of only nine kilometres, and since we needed to cross the nearby Quko River on the mid-morning low tide, we had a leisurely start, chilling out in our piece of paradise as dolphins played in theirs.
The first section, over boulder fields and rocky outcrops, was tricky on our stiff legs, but once we’d waded the Quko River we were on to the golden sands of Bead and Shell beaches. We stopped often to admire the shells, study the seabirds and the marine life in the rock pools, and to look for treasure washed up from some of the many ships that were wrecked on these rocky shores.
Discovering a pretty, amber-coloured carnelian bead, we were mindful of Bryan telling us that all such historical artefacts are protected, so we photographed it and, reluctantly, left it behind. Later I learned from Janna Cooper, directorof the Strandloper Ecotourism Board (SETB), that it probably came from the wreck of the Santo Espirito, which lies just off Black Rock at the western end of the beach. Wrecked in 1608, it is one of three early Portuguese wrecks along the route of the Strandloper Trail, which can be identified by the fragments of Ming porcelain and carnelian beads that wash up on nearby beaches.
The trail continued past Marshstrand to Haga Haga. Until 2012, when it burnt down, the second night’s accommodation was in a dedicated trail hut another seven kilometres further at Cape Henderson. There are plans for the facility to be rebuilt, but in the interim, hikers of the trail have the use of two en suite dormitory rooms and braai facilities at Haga Haga Hotel.
It’s not the wilderness experience you have on the other two nights, but the upside is comfortable beds, ablutions and the use of the hotel’s dining and other facilities. And there’s a shop up the road where you can buy charcoal, meat and other provisions.
Two significant wrecks
We left early on day three, the longest day, hiking along a rock shelf to picturesque Pullen’s Bay, where we stopped for a swim. From there it was a lovely wild stretch along an exposed wave-cut platform with wonderful rocky coves and along paths that took us over grassy hills. Stopping often to explore small gullies, rock pools and the waterfall at Rooiwal, we made slow progress until we reached Cape Henderson, from where it was a glorious beach walk to the Kwenxura River.
John and Johnson, the two coastal rangers, were waiting for us in Chintsa East, so after a hearty lunch at The Barefoot Cafe we bought braai packs and journeyed on, scanning the beach for treasure: Chintsa Bay is the final resting point of the Nossa Senhora de Atalaia that sank, with her cargo of porcelain, spices and bronze cannon, in a massive storm in 1647.
“The survivors of Santa Espiritu and the Nossa Senhora de Atalaia wrecks can be regarded as the trailblazers for the Strandloper Trail,” Janna told me, “although their journeys up the coast to Delagoa Bay were certainly no pleasure hike.”
It was late afternoon when we approached Beacon Valley and the tide was coming in, so we bid goodbye to the guides, left the beach and followed the high-tide pathway through the coastal forest to Settlers’ Cottage.
Kevin Cole, one of the founding members of the board and, since 1998, voluntary chair (along with another founding board member, Sean Price, who co-owns Buccaneers Lodge & Backpackers in Chintsa), joined us in the morning.
“In 1996, the SETB was registered as a non-profit organisation to develop and manage the Strandloper Hiking Trail and to develop ecotourism initiatives along the coastal areas between Kei Mouth and Gonubie,” he explained. In the 23 years since the trail launched, it’s gone from strength to strength, and now includes
a slackpacking option. (Next time.)
The adrenalin of a crossing
The crossings of the Kwelera and Gonubie rivers were the challenges for the final day so again we left soon after dawn, descending the boardwalk back to the beach. There, to our delight, we spotted otter prints. The elusive creature had clearly been down to the water’s edge and back before we hit the trail.
Kevin, principal scientist at the East London Museum, provided a fascinating commentary on the geology, flora and fauna of the coastline as we walked. We crossed black dolerite outcrops, scoured sandstone rock shelves and black sands rich in titanium, and encountered some unusual, rare stromatolite beds (formed by the photosynthetic action of cyanobacteria producing a mucus that collects sand, which is later bonded together by calcium carbonate to form rock-like structures). Rusty pieces of metal from historical and recent shipwrecks and undercut cliffs were a reminder of the wild nature of this coastline.
We stopped for a quick swim at the lovely crescent of Queensberry Bay and then continued past Glen Garriff and Yellow Sands to the Kwelera River. Bryan had been very clear in his briefing that the safest crossing place was marked by white footprints painted on a rock.
Following his instructions, we waded safely across and then continued along pebble beaches to Sunrise-on-Sea, where another Portuguese ship, thought to be the Santo Alberto, came to grief in 1593. Though many of the passengers and crew were drowned when the ship struck land, the survivors (led by Nuno Velho Pereira, one of the passengers who was unanimously voted in as leader) walked inland to Mozambique in 100 days. Their remarkable journey made our adventure look rather puny.
It was a short walk from there to the wide Gonubie River, but we’d timed it perfectly.
The crossing was much easier than expected, but the rush of adrenalin as we waded through the brown water was the perfect finale to a truly spectacular trail. The scenery was exquisite, we enjoyed incredible sightings of birds and dolphins and, other than the villagers we met along the way, we didn’t see a soul. It’s no surprise that the Strandloper Trail is rated one of the country’s top coastal hikes.
Pictures Shaen Adey and Mart-Marie Page
In a Nutshell
Up to it? The four-day, three-night trail is self-guided and clearly marked, with basic, dormitory-style accommodation. Although largely flat and only 57km long, the rocky and sandy terrain makes it fairly strenuous, particularly when carrying a heavy pack. Stocking up at local shops and eating in cafes is recommended so that you can travel light.
Don’t fancy backpacking? Then check out the Strandloper Sundowner Trail, a five-day, four-night slackpacking option from Trennerys or Seagulls Beach Hotel, (a day’s walk from Kei Mouth on the eastern side of the river) to Chintsa.
When to go? The trail is open year round, but May, June and July are the best months.
TIP: A guide to walk with you for the 8km section between the Kwenxura River and Beacon Valley on day three is recommended.
Accommodation Hikers can overnight in basic dormitory accommodation at the Environmental Education Centre at the start of the trail. Alternatively, Yellowwood Forest in Morgan Bay has lovely camping sites and cabins. 084 582 2601, www.yellowwoodforest.co.za.
The Gonubie Hotel, right on the beach at the end of the trail is a great place to hang up your boots and celebrate. 043 740 4010 www.gonubiehotel.co.za