A Walk on the Wild Coast

Trekking hut to hut along South Africa’s shore is just what the witch doctor ordered

Wild at Heart: South Africa's rugged southeastern coast     Photo: Colin Mead/Courtesy, South Africa Tourism

The verdant side of the Wild Coast

The party at the witch doctor’s hut didn’t start thumping until midnight, when the humid night buzzed with cicadas and whispered with palm fronds caught in an African breeze. Half a moon hung low in the sky, casting the long shadows of a cluster of mud huts. One door was flung open invitingly; inside, a sea of dark bodies glistened in a lantern’s molten glow as they writhed to the beat of six calfskin drums. Louder and louder the beating grew. Lower and lower the dancers knelt.

"Down! Down! Down!" a boy shouted in English, pointing at me. "You! Like this!"

I continued shuffling around a 15-foot pole that held the thatch roof high. Five South African Xhosa tribesmen—the country’s second-largest ethnic group, after the Zulus—danced round and round, their knuckles scraping the packed dirt floor. I bent lower, trying to mimic them.

“Lower!” the boy hollered. My knuckles finally hit. The witch doctor, or sangoma—a sleek 18-year-old in a yellow tank top and a skirt of cowhide strips—just watched and smiled, her silky braids raining off a high forehead to pool on strong shoulders.

Dancing for the witch doctor was the latest surprise in my five-day, 30-mile hike along South Africa’s Wild Coast, an area of tropical beaches, storm-battered cliffs, and undulating meadows in the Eastern Cape province. The first surprise had been how easy it was to organize this trip: Show up unannounced, hire a guide, and hike along the Indian Ocean, through valley bushveld and over coastal grasslands—on a trail stretching from Port St. Johns to Coffee Bay, two burgs southwest of the port city of Durban.

Few travelers know about the trail system stretching the length of the 156-mile Wild Coast, even though people have been walking through this area for thousands of years. I trekked the most accessible and easiest section, called the Transkei Hiking Trail, which meanders up and down ravines, across two nature reserves, and through Xhosa villages of pink and blue rondavel huts—circular earthen structures with thatch roofs—where you can buy bread, milk, lunch meat, veggies, and chocolate. Free, government-owned huts with bunk beds, toilets, and water are scattered about a day’s walk apart, or you can stay with villagers in their homes. There’s no need to carry anything more than a daypack or make reservations—just show up.

This sort of spontaneity felt perfect after spending two weeks on a packaged tour exploring game parks and staying in fine hotels, where it became apparent that South Africa—with its solid infrastructure, humming economy and increasing American tourism, and English-speaking people—could be the opening chapter in African Adventure Made Easy. Searching for the Africa still rough around the edges, I stumbled onto the Wild Coast and its delightful middle ground between anything-goes chaos and hyper-orchestrated packaging. But be forewarned: Every so often, foreign travelers contract “Pondo fever”—a burning desire to quit work, move to the Wild Coast, and watch life go by while swinging in a hammock.

Many a journey down the Wild Coast begins in Port St. Johns at the Amapondo Backpackers hostel, which has a long patio painted red and blue and an oversize picnic table perfect for enjoying a Black Label beer while listening to the crashing waves. My trip began here when I met Rasta Jimmy.

Though his long dreadlocks would suggest otherwise, Jimmy Gila, a 34-year-old guide who bears the facial scars of his Pondo clan—a group of Xhosa native to the Wild Coast—is a self-proclaimed “fake rasta.” He does not inhale the Wild Coast’s bounty of weed or believe in Jah. He is, however, good company and can speak Xhosa, a South African tribal language of clucking sounds. That alone will get you invited into homes.

The guiding season was slow, so Jimmy agreed to walk with me to Coffee Bay for $85, about $15 off the going rate. Although a guide isn’t necessary, I hired Jimmy to ensure I wouldn’t get lost and miss my flight home.

We set out under cloudy skies early on a Wednesday in April—the best weather for the trek is August through May—carrying just a silk sheet, water, raingear, and some packets of crackers. Jimmy and I hiked unencumbered for a couple of hours over steep grassy hills dotted with flame lilies and into Silaka, the first of two nature reserves. There we picked up a map, paid our $2.30 for a hiking permit at the ranger station, and immediately spotted a herd of wildebeests. The reserve is small, about 1,015 acres, but packed with evergreen forests, orchids, and rare birds, like the grey cuckooshrike. We had it practically to ourselves, because tourism along the Wild Coast is barely out of its infancy.

Many of South Africa’s five million whites (about 11 percent of the population), particularly the older set, still view the Wild Coast with suspicion: Political unrest made this area a no-go zone in the seventies and eighties. The Transkei, the region of the Eastern Cape that includes the Wild Coast, was a quasi-independent homeland within South Africa during the apartheid era. Until 1994, when the Afrikaner regime crumbled and Nelson Mandela came to power, you needed a passport to enter. That year, Transkei voters erased their borders and became part of South Africa proper, but the ingrained mistrust suppressed travel—even though the Wild Coast quieted down after blacks gained the freedom to move, work, and elect their own officials.

Today, Wild Coast residents heartily welcome hikers, offering basic, candlelit rooms in their homes, with a comfortable mattress, two meals, and a pail of warm washing water, for about $7 per night—an inexpensive and safe way to peek into the lives of villagers. So after hiking five miles on the first day of the trek, I stayed in the village of Madakeni with the Thegwane family.

When Jimmy and I arrived, 80-year-old Filda Thegwane was sitting in the corner of her mud-brick house wearing a pink-and- white dress with fake pearl buttons and holding a twig to shoo chickens out the door. Her nine-year-old granddaughter, Asiphe, was busy scraping three crayon nubs across a piece of paper to draw two big red hearts, a smattering of blue stars, and a little person wearing a bright yellow hat. Warm bread and curry scented the two-room hut, about 15 by 30 feet, home to two adults and three children who all shared a sleeping room attached to the kitchen. A second hut, about 15 feet in diameter, was painted turquoise and reserved for hikers.

"Here, please eat," Jimmy translated as Filda handed me a plate of umngqusho, a pinto-bean-and- cornmeal mash served with a tomato curry sauce. Filda wouldn’t let me stop eating until she was sure I was stuffed. Most people in the Transkei live by subsistence farming, so nourishment is viewed as a community responsibility, and any traveler expressing any degree of hunger is immediately fed.

After washing down three plates of Filda’s delicious stew with a steady stream of tea, I slept soundly in my hut until I heard Asiphe and her siblings preparing for school. After a breakfast of buttered bread and more tea, Jimmy and I said goodbye and walked along a beach where fishermen were surfcasting into waves with ten-foot tubes. By midafternoon we had covered six miles of jumbled hills, having stopped to savor the verdant meadows and steep cliffs reminiscent of California’s Marin Headlands, and to talk about apartheid, AIDS (according to the World Health Organization, 11 percent of South Africa’s population is HIV-positive), and the environment.

We were about to call it a day and head down to the hikers’ huts in Mpande—a collection of three thatch-roofed beachside bungalows with bunk beds, and a communal fourth with clean water and a table—when a woman in a red head scarf and a floral print dress called out. "Come, come!" she said, with Jimmy translating. "We’ve just killed an ox. Would you like some?"

We hopped over a small fence and, sure enough, the poor beast lay disassembled in the corner of a hut. Xhosa-style barbecuing involves cutting the meat into manageable bits with a machete, tossing these into the fire to cook, and digging in. It was tough but tasty.

Later that evening I walked up a short hill under misty skies and a full rainbow to the Kraal, a hostel renowned for its seafood. I figured the crayfish in garlic was too good to pass up—ox feast or no.

Just as I finished up the last butterflied morsel and was about to order another brew, a stocky guy with a pierced tongue walked up. His name was Drew. "You wanna go see a sangoma?" he asked.

"A what?" I replied.

He explained the burning heather, the drumming, the trances, the speaking with ancestors. "You know, a witch doctor," he said. As in oo-ee-oo-ah-ah? I thought. Little did I know that in a few short hours I’d be stumbling back to my hut, having danced like a chimp and made goo-goo eyes at the sangoma.

Over the next two days Jimmy and I walked about 12 more miles, past herds of goats and cattle, crossing half a dozen rivers in boats, and on to the Hluleka Nature Reserve—with its coral trees and Burchell’s zebras—where we slept in hikers’ huts. The laid-back pace, quiet beauty, and random adventure of the Wild Coast saturated me. On the last night of the trek, we made it to Ngcibe, another tiny village with huts perched yards from the waves, and I walked for one final time down to a deserted beach, this one with the tide gone out to reveal the ocean’s smooth, sandy belly stretching for a good 200 yards. The next day we’d finish with a six-mile stroll into Coffee Bay, a town that, with one main dirt road, would feel like a sprawling metropolis.

As the light waned, a breeze blew off the Indian Ocean and heavy waves cruised in from distant storms to slam against the continent. I was absolutely filthy, four days of sweaty trail in my hair. When the sun dipped behind the mountains and stars emerged, I looked out across the rugged edge of Africa and felt a fever coming on.

For Details and Resources on the Wild Coast, Click Here.

THE DETAILS:

Getting There: From Johannesburg, take a South African Express flight to Umtata, about 90 minutes west of Port St. Johns, for about $250. Book through South African Airlines (866-722-2476, www.flysaa.com). Amapondo Backpackers (doubles, about $15; 011-27-47-564-1344, www.backpackafrica.com) can pick you up, or take a shared taxi to Port St. Johns (about $2).

Guides and Fees: The Transkei Hiking Trail is a one-way affair; you can buy your permit only on the Port St. Johns end, at Silaka Nature Reserve (011-27-40-635-2115, www.wildcoast.co.za/silaka). Amapondo Backpackers can arrange for Jimmy Gila (011-27-82-507-2256) or another guide to accompany you to Coffee Bay. Expect to pay about $100 for a group of up to five people, plus $10 per person for ferries, and $2 each for a permit to hike and stay in the huts. You'll spend about $7 for a night's stay—including two meals—with villagers.

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