South Africa: Welcome to the really Wild Coast

Stretching from East London in the Eastern Cape to the border of KwaZulu-Natal, the Wild Coast earns its name with deserted Indian Ocean beaches, pristine waterfalls and Xhosa communities, many of which still share a close bond with the land

By Amelia Duggan
Published 8 Apr 2019, 23:56 BST
Tour guide Siseko
Tour guide Siseko
Photograph by Pete Goding

I’ve reached the edge of the Earth. It’s night when I finally make it to my guesthouse in Morgan Bay, and a primordial darkness has swallowed the landscape. The only electric lights to be seen glow dimly from inside the verandah, allowing the cosmos to shine brilliantly in a moonless sky. It’s so dark that the rugged coastline, where so many sailors have run aground, could be a fiction, except there’s salt on the breeze and from the blackness below the lip of the driveway comes the rhythmic hiss and suck of waves — a tidal chorus that hums softly in my bedroom. The Wild Coast, I decide as I drift off, is certainly wild.

Siseko, a homegrown guide for the Eastern Cape, meets me after breakfast and we set off in his van. In daylight, I can see the towering headlands and empty beaches that earned this part of the world its reputation for off-grid adventures. “Don’t you think it’s magical?” he asks as we drive. “There are waterfalls that pour into the ocean; miles of beaches — private for you, except for maybe a few cows. You might meet a Xhosa fellow and end up in a village pub sharing a beer. The people here are welcoming. In Xhosa culture, we say ‘indwendwe ziyabukwa’ — it’s a principal we hold about hospitality, about giving others the best you can offer.”

We follow the road to the Kei River, driving the van onto a rickety cable ferry chugging across to enter the former Transkei region, where, some miles away in the mudbrick village of Mvezo, Nelson Mandela was born. We park up at Trennerys Hotel and borrow some whittled sticks to tackle a nature hike called Trevor’s Trail. It starts with a boat ride. We head up the sparkling estuary aboard a fishing skiff, navigating islands of towering borassus palms. Siseko is in his element, naming the birds flitting through the reeds, spotting the twig nests of fish eagles, and ticking off on his fingers the healing properties of different plants. The boat deposits us on the edge of a forest and we hike through it, stripping off our boots when we reach a ford and wading in to cool off and skim stones. Siseko tells me that the Xhosa people ask ancestral spirits for safe passage when crossing rivers, and he offers up a prayer, the melodious clicks of the Xhosa language mirroring the bubbling of the stream.

Our path peters out at a marshy bank, where a ferryman is snoozing in the midday heat. Drowsily, he steers us to the area’s headline geological feature. We bob down a narrow channel between two ancient cliffs, their twin walls smooth and sheer as if a sword had cleaved them apart: the Transkei Gates. We clamber out at the far end where the cliffs open up into a basin. Flowering shrubs and orchids sprout from recesses in the rocks, and a thin waterfall is feeding a dark pool. Siseko is already climbing up to a ledge, preparing to jump in. He’s pretty high up, perhaps 16ft, when, fully dressed, he bombs into the water. “It really is safe!” he yells, kicking over to a rusted ladder and climbing out. I pick my own ledge — not quite as high as his — and pitch myself into the pool with a scream.

Transkei Gates
Photograph by Pete Goding

On the drive back to Morgan Bay, I’m glued to the window, watching the rugged coastline whizz by, when I spot distant clouds of white ballooning over the ocean. It’s a pod of whales careening upwards, one after the other, twisting their flippers and their vast underbellies in mid-air before crashing headlong into the water. I’m stunned, which makes Siseko chuckle. Humpbacks are a regular sight here during the annual sardine run. He’s right: this place is magical.  


Getting there
Nonstop flights to Johannesburg depart from Heathrow, with South African Airlines, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. For Cape Town, British Airways operates a nonstop route from Heathrow and Gatwick; in October the carrier launched the first nonstop flights to Durban from Europe, from Heathrow.

Average flight time: 11h 30m.

Getting around
Budget airlines Safair and Mango, and coach companies Greyhound and Intercape offer reliable transportation between urban hubs. But the easiest way to get around, and off the beaten track, is by car. South Africans drive on the left, the road network is well-maintained, and the country is set up for road trips: approach the Green Kalahari from Johannesburg; explore the Karoo from Cape Town, or the Wild Coast from either Durban or East London. Shop around local and international agencies like Avis to get the best deal. In cities, Uber is safer than public transport or minibus taxis.

When to go
Peak season for Cape Town and the Western Cape is the warm, windless summer (highs of 29C between December and February). Summers in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng can easily surpass 30C with some rainfall, but have mild winters, making the Wild Coast, Durban and Johannesburg pleasant year-round. The Karoo and Northern Cape have extreme temperatures (40C in the summer, and winter nights can hover around freezing), so are best from April-May and September-October.

Don’t miss
Nelson Mandela: The Official Exhibition at 26 Leake Street, London until 2 June. This global exhibition, in the centenary year of Mandela’s birth, features many previously unseen artifacts. 

How to do it
British Airways has return flights to Johannesburg and seven days’ car hire from £451 per person. 

Sundowner Holidays offers eight nights in the Eastern Cape from £1,715 per person, including B&B accommodation, with some evening meals, car hire, three nights at Addo Elephant National Park with a 4×4 safari, and all flights.


Published in the April 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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