If there is one place where you can appreciate South Africa in all its unfettered natural splendour, it’s the 250km stretch of rugged coastline running from Mzamba just south of Port Edward all the way to Cintsa near East London – the untamed but spectacular Wild Coast.
This slice of paradise is not your conventional tourist magnet – although places like the Wild Coast Sun, Morgan Bay and Coffee Bay are popular family holiday spots – but as mining companies encircle the mineral-rich dunes and the construction of the N2 coastal highway through the area edges closer to reality, it may not stay uncommercialised for long.
Mainly made up of the former Transkei homeland, the Wild Coast is still fairly unspoilt and is therefore the ideal retreat from the rat race for outdoorsy types and adventure lovers, sporting a number of scenic hiking and horse-riding trails of varying durations and difficulty levels.
The intrepid traveller will be rewarded with unforgettable views of dramatic coastlines, complete with rocky outcrops, grassy hills, snaking rivers and towering dunes. Stroll along the beaches and dip your toes into the warm Indian Ocean waters of the lagoons and estuaries along the coastline, squinting to spot the smattering of shipwrecks lodged among the lashing waves that give this area its name. See waterfalls plunging directly into the sea and marvel at the mighty forces of the ocean that carved out the Hole in the Wall in a detached cliff.
Perhaps best of all, savour not being overwhelmed by tourist hordes – the emptiness and stillness, surrounded by nature’s bounty and little else, is part of the Wild Coast’s allure.
You’ll encounter friendly and hospitable amaXhosa locals along the way, however, and should consider spending some time in one of the villages in the area. A traditional homestay will not only enrich you and enhance your Wild Coast experience, it will also benefit the rural inhabitants who are trying to preserve their authentic way of life in a sustainable manner.
It is possible to traverse this natural wilderness by bicycle, motorbike or 4x4 (ideally, as some parts are fairly inaccessible by car), and there are certainly “formal” accommodation options aplenty.
Take a hike and meet the locals
But for a truly memorable experience, it’s advisable to backpack or slackpack, camp or glamp your way along the Wild Coast. Knowledgeable guides will give you insight into the area’s history, geography and customs, and porters are usually available to help with your bags.
The hikes range from moderate to challenging, and most can be done by those with a reasonable level of fitness. Many of them can be customised according to your needs. One of the most popular guided hikes is the six-day Wild Coast hotel-hopping trail, stretching from Kob Inn in the north to Cintsa in the south. Another, slightly more demanding, five-day trek goes from Port St Johns to Coffee Bay, passing through eight Xhosa villages.
The Diaz trail starts in the Alexandria State Forest and moves along the beachside via Kenton-on-Sea for 80km, ending at the mouth of the Great Fish River. Drifters offers mountain bikers and hikers trails along the pristine northern coast, starting near Port St John’s and bedding down in log cabins along the route.
Be an ethical tourist
Some companies splash out with luxury accommodation and full catering to soothe those aching muscles at the end of an invigorating day’s rambling. But you can also opt for a cheaper and more rustic experience that’s no less memorable – and take in some incredible surfing and canoeing en route too.
Backpacking along the Wild Coast is a great way to take in this magnificent stretch of coastline. If you want to partake in “ethical travel” (or responsible tourism) that gives back to the community, there are eco-lodges and backpackers establishments that offer authentic rural experiences such as fishing with the locals, plucking mussels from the rocks, preparing traditional dishes and discovering medicinal plants with a herbalist. Don’t expect all the mod cons, though – prepare to rough it with only the basics provided for.
A wilderness that’s a paradise – that’s the Wild Coast. This is one wild thing that will definitely make your heart sing.