An unspoilt coastline stretching from East London to Port St Johns, South Africa’s Wild Coast has enough sand, surf and hiking to keep any outdoor thrillseeker happy. It’s not just what you can do but how you do it that makes this area different.
An adventurous trip to South Africa doesn’t have to mean game reserves – it just means getting off the beaten track.
Thirty kilometres from the city centre, East London’s latest attraction is the fruit of the region’s plan, outlined in 1999, to promote naturism tourism. Set on a tranquil 160-hectare farm with an abundance of small game and birdlife, Lazy Haven is now considered the best naturist resort in South Africa, where visitors can enjoy the spa facilities or have a naked braai overlooking the creek.
It’s worth throwing on some clothes to explore the rest of the coast. Fly into East London and take a shuttle bus down to Port St Johns or pick up your own wheels and join the national highway that runs through the Wild Coast from Cape Town to Durban. East London is a surfing hotspot with five main beaches offering warm water all year round, but the coastline southwards is dotted with beach resorts and hotels, surf spots and backpackers’ accommodation.
There’s no coastal road, so you’ll have to ditch the car to fully explore the coast – on land, on the ocean or hanging somewhere in between. Activities include quad-biking, sea kayaking, fishing, surfing, horseriding, abseiling, 4WD and more. Near Coffee Bay, the area around Hole-in-the-Wall – an enormous sandstone rock with a huge hole in the middle – is a popular place for a coastal walk or just a picnic.
There’s a cultural significance to this undeveloped landscape, however, that shouldn’t be ignored. Once the grindingly poor Transkei homeland, this is a far cry from the Garden Route and the majority of the population are Xhosa living in the traditional rural villages that are seen scattered across the green, rolling hills. To find out more about the local people, some hotels and lodges offer visits and overnight stays to Xhosa villages. Another worthy stop is the small village of Qunu, Nelson Mandela’s birthplace and now one of three sites of the Nelson Mandela Museum.
The Wild Coast’s wildest side is perhaps best encapsulated in Port St Johns. This little coastal town is a place of haunted forests, tales of shipwrecks and mysterious sights. One is the Isinuka spring, which bubbles up sulphur water and mud that is used in preparations against acne, stomach ailments and infertility. Local legend tells that when one man tried to sell the sulphur, the spring dried up, only to bubble once again when he left – the dried-out holes are still visible.
The town is also an unlikely place for star-spotting. Roger Moore and Lee Marvin once sipped cocktails at the then luxurious Cape Hermese hotel when shooting Shout At The Devil, while more recent visitors have included Olympia Dukakis and Chloë Sevigny.
If your Wild Coast adventure ends here, it’s worth knowing the real reason Port St Johns is famous: as the weed capital of South Africa. Due to the fertile soil and tropical conditions, marijuana (or dagga as it is known in South Africa) grows like… well, weeds. The herb is illegal and checks are often conducted on the main highways, but this doesn’t stop many locals from sitting back with a cold beer and a joint. The only town on the coast between East London and Port Edward, the laidback attitude of the residents is infectious – it’s the kind of place you visit for a week, and find yourself still there 15 years later, unable to quite figure out whether it’s the people, the scenery or the doobie.
• For more information on Port St Johns and the Wild Coast, see www.portstjohns.org.za or call +27 047 564 1187. Jimmy Selani (+27 825072256) runs five-day hikes from Port St Johns to Coffee Bay. Nights are spent at traditional homes with families, trying out the local food and umqombothi (traditional Xhosa beer).