South Africa’s first slackpacking trail has just turned 20. Fiona McIntosh celebrates by re-walking the Wild Coast Meander.
I first hiked the Wild Coast Meander, South Africa’s 54-kilometre trail from Kob Inn to Morgan’s Bay, in 2000, and the lush vegetation, deserted beaches and quaint hotels will stick in my memory. The Wild Coast was indeed wild – as the numerous shipwrecks that we saw and heard about testified – but the people were warm and friendly, and we felt safe and free.
Photographer Shaen Adey and I returned two decades after the Meander was launched but, since this was the fourth time I’d tramped it, I planned things a bit differently. This time we overnighted in some of the hotels and guest houses we hadn’t visited, and lingered in favourite spots, to explore the inland forests and gorges, and learn more about the Xhosa people and their culture.
You also might like: Top Walking and Hiking Trails Across South Africa
Vernon Acton picked us up from East London Airport. The owner of Mazeppa Bay Hotel for more than two decades, he knows everything about the Wild Coast, which made the three-hour transfer fly by. As he artfully negotiated the potholes and flooded sections of gravel road that took us to Qora Mouth, I gazed out to the Indian Ocean over hills dotted with rondavels. And remembered why
I keep returning to this remote, beautiful part of the Eastern Cape.
Co-owner Daan van Zyl welcomed us to Kob Inn Beach Resort. A rustic fishing retreat when I first visited, but with regular upgrades it’s now a fancy resort with upmarket accommodation, a wonderful pool, and one of the best Saturday seafood-buffet extravaganzas along the Wild Coast.
We walked upriver through the forest on the Emsengeni Trail, one of several short trails from the hotel, before an exciting crossing of the Qora River on an incoming tide had us strolling the six kilometres down a deserted beach to Mazeppa Bay Hotel, our next port of call.
Armed with bathing costumes, picnic lunch and binoculars, we wandered along the beach and across the bridge to the island to sit out near the midden and watch the fishermen. We’d been on the trail for under 24 hours, but already I was in holiday mode, feeling the pressures of everyday life slipping away.
As dawn rose, we took a short walk in the coastal forest behind the hotel with Phillip Goosen. One of Mazeppa’s most experienced guides, Phillip was extremely well informed, identifying the forest trees and birds, offering us tasty strawberry guavas, and entertaining us with local folklore.
After breakfast we set out along the coast, Phillip again pointing out the various vegetation species – the coastal red milkwood, large-leaf dragon trees and abundant succulents such as the weirdly shaped Euphorbia woodii.
We’d always timed our hikes to coincide with a springtide, and left all our hotels on the trail as the tide was going out, to walk on hard sand as much as possible. The strategy also meant that we encountered local people gathering molluscs – younger women harvested mussels, while the older ones collected wild oysters. Having a community guide meant we also were able to interact with locals and all the fishermen we met along the journey.
Spotting dolphins surfing the backline off One Mile Beach, we slowed to enjoy the show. “We often see hundreds of dolphins during the Sardine Run in late July/August,” Phillip said. “It’s a big event on this coastline. Last year there also was a lone flamingo here. It flew with the terns for three months then disappeared.”
You also might like: A Peek Into the Secret Life of Dolphins
The birdlife is a highlight of the meander and we observed plovers, gulls, African Black Oystercatchers, terns and cormorants aplenty, along with occasional sightings of Fish Eagles in the trees flanking the dry river mouths. We said goodbye to Phillip at Cebe campsite and continued walking the short distance to our overnight stop at Cebe village with Joy Nosakhe, one of three women who guided us on the trail. “Involving all the communities, and spreading the spoils of hiking tourism, have been fundamental to the success of the Meander,” founder Nita Ross explained.
“We realised that in order to have a safe and happy atmosphere we needed to involve all the communities, so the stretch that each guide or porter works is not just based on how far they can walk, but on traditional land 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 half-hour 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.
You also might like: Haga Haga – So Nice You Have To Say It Twice
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.
In a nutshell
Up to it?
This is a straightforward beach walk, easily accomplished by any moderately healthy hiker. If you’re pushed for time you can complete it in five nights/six days by missing out a stay at Serendipity, but this involves one long day of 22km between Mazeppa and Wavecrest, so I’d thoroughly recommend spending six nights on the trail. There’s also a three-night Mini Meander
starting at Wavecrest.
When to go
The trail can be walked year-round, except during the Christmas and Easter holiday seasons when the hotels are fully booked. This section of the coast has a mild, humid climate,
with most rain during the summer months. Winters are cool and pleasant for hiking.
If you want to spend a little longer on the Wild Coast, take a look at Fiona’s favourite activities to keep you busy.
Words Fiona McIntosh
Photography Shaen Adey and Supplied