It’s somewhere every South African has to travel, at least once.
It’s also the homeland of Nelson Mandela who was born in the village of Mvezo on the Mbashe River, seaside villages like Cintsa, Port St Johns and Coffee Bay, geological wonders like the Hole in the Wall, inspiring waterfalls like Magwa, the almost 57-kilometre, four-day hike known as the Strandloper trail, Hluleka and Silaka nature reserves, and dirt roads full of potholes.
In short: it’s the back of beyond that everyone wants to travel.
Here is our list of 6 things to do on the Wild Coast that you may not know about …
TRAVEL THE T310
Many travellers will already know this beautifully scenic tarred road as the route that links the N2 to Coffee Bay and the famous Hole in the Wall (now remarketed as a scenic route, the T310). It diverts, just south of Mthatha, off the N2 at Viedgiesville (if you reached Qunu on the N2, then you’ve gone too far), roughly 20 km from Mthatha.
This is the turn-off for Coffee Bay. The T310 is 81 km of road that follows the undulations of rolling hills and alongside rivers, eventually bringing you to secluded beaches, and unchartered river mouths and bays (you may want to avail yourself of a Slingsby Map of the Wild Coast).
People refer to this part of the country as the ‘forgotten coast’, largely as a result of the neglected roads. Whilst the T310 is tarred and manageable the minute you venture off this onto gravel roads, you’ll need a high-clearance vehicle, and in September when it rains, possibly a 4×4.
TAKE ROUTE 61
Route 61 is often referred to as the ‘gateway’ from Mthatha to the interior and to the coast. It is one of only two major upgraded roads through the Wild Coast. Tarred it may be, but it is single carriageway and travel slows to incorporate the multiple bends and curves, the cattle, and renegade taxis.
Take this route for the scenery and the slowing of time, but don’t expect to get there fast. The R61 links Margate, on the south coast of Durban, to inland towns of Pele-Pele, Kayamnandi and Flagstaff. It then veers down to the coast via Lusikisiki to Port St Johns, after which it reverts back inland to Mthatha and on, linking, eventually, with Cradock.
Use the route to get to Hluleka Nature Reserve (turn off at Libode, 30 km east of Mthatha). Silaka Nature Reserve is just beyond Port St Johns, follow the road to Second Beach.
Highlight: Take the ‘secret’ route between Port St Johns and Coffee Bay – a circuitous 116 km coastal cross country road – past estuaries, wild, beautiful beaches and the Umgazana River. You will definitely need a high-clearance vehicle, if not a 4×4, a will of iron, and a very good map (you can get one from the Coffee Bay Hotel or Cremorne Estate, or get a copy of Slingsby’s Wild Coast).
SEE WATERFALLS THAT FALL STRAIGHT INTO THE SEA
One of the calls of the Wild Coast is its impressive waterfalls. Magwa Falls, at the Magwa tea plantations, is probably the one everyone knows about for its terrific plunge over a flat table top. It’s really worth seeing. But Waterfall Bluff is no less incredible. It is also one of only 19 waterfalls world-wide to fall directly into the ocean.
Officially, there are only two in Africa; one of them is Waterfall Bluff.
Unofficially (because it’s still a secret) there are two on the Wild Coast, the second just a few kilometres from Waterfall Bluff (the guides in the area will know about it). Find Waterfall Bluff on the edge of Mkambati Nature Reserve, the culmination of a series of near-vertical cliffs south of the Msikaba River. You get to the waterfall by hiking there.
SEE SHIPWRECKS AND LIGHTHOUSES
This coastline is not called ‘wild’ for its untamed beauty alone. The craggy cliff faces, rocks and little islands in river mouths have made the seas on this coastline treacherous, and the Wild Coast is strewn with the remains of ship wrecks.
The earliest known wreck is the Portuguese carrack, Sāo Bento, which grounded in 1554 on the rocks of the little island where the Msikaba River meets the sea. Only 23 people survived.
At another river mouth, this time the Umzimvubu, the Nossa Senhora de Belem came aground in 1635. The survivors had to build a couple of boats, one of which disappeared, but the other safely reached Luanda. Port St Johns was once called Rosebud Bay, after an English ship of the same name, the first sailing vessel to try to cross the sand bar at the Umzimvubu river mouth.
Clearly the nemesis of many a ship, there is a list of victims of the river mouth between 1861 and 1926 whilst it served as a port, the last of which, the Frontier, was said to hold a cargo that included 100 pigs, all of whom managed to swim to shore.
There’s a mystery attached to the Wild Coast too. The SS Waratah (often referred to as ‘Australia’s Titanic’) disappeared with 211 passengers and crew whilst en route from Durban to Cape Town. The ship has never been found.
Despite this propensity for shipwrecks, there are only two lighthouses on the Wild Coast. Cape Hermes lies on the the southern side of the Umzimvubu River on Port St Johns’ southern headland. The other lies overlooking the Msikaba River at South Sand Bluff.
VISIT THE MLENGANA MOUNTAIN
Often incorrectly called Execution Rock, this great domed mountain looms over the Tutor Ndamase Pass near the Wild Coast town of Libode. Mlengana looks like a huge pile of rocks and sheer cliffs, a little like a head sticking out from in amongst the green hills.
GAWP AT THE BIODIVERSITY AND THE BEAUTY
From Port St Johns, all the way up to Oribi Gorge in KwaZulu Natal, extends one of the smallest and most vulnerable botanical regions in the world; an area of almost 275 000 km² (180 000 hectares). Called the Pondoland Centre of Endemism the hotspot is home to six of the country’s eight biomes, and is the second richest floristic region in Southern Africa (at least 1 800 plants, many of them endemic).
It has been described as a ‘wonderland’ and ‘one of the most fascinating areas of botanical study in the world’ and includes a type of forest with at least 598 different trees, three types of endemic subtropical thicket, six types of bushveld, five types of grasslands, and coastal waters that contain three of the country’s six marine bioregions.