South Africa's Wild Coast

The Wild Coast is a relatively remote, unknown, and predominantly rural area missed by many visitors who restrict their holiday to Cape Town, Johannesburg, or the Garden Route. Located in the Eastern Cape province, its boundary is marked by 280 Kilometers of stunning coastline that extends from East London to Port Edward. Access is difficult, as few roads are paved and there is no direct link between the various coastal towns, but the effort is well worth it. The Wild Coast offers a tremendous wealth of history, culture, and natural beauty, in South Africa’s poorest province.

The Wild Coast was known as the Transkei homeland during apartheid, and its sense of isolation can be traced back to this period, when the National Party created ‘independent’ homelands for the black populace. These were in fact insidiously disguised land reservations, designed to expatriate blacks by making them citizens of their homeland but foreigners in South Africa. Nelson Mandela was born in the Transkei in the village of Mvego and raised near Qunu, where his retirement home exists today in plain view of the N2 Highway. Umtata is the Wild Coast region’s largest town; it is a muddle of littered, crowded streets and nondescript office towers. It has a sad and depressing feel to it, which isn’t surprising given the extreme rates of poverty and unemployment here. However, for modern history buffs the Nelson Mandela Museum is a fascinating and enlightening visit.

The Xhosa tribe dominates this region.  They manage to maintain strong traditional bonds. Many still reside in extended family units in groups of colourful thatched clay rondavel huts that dot the countryside.

The tiny community of Coffee Bay was named for an incident that occurred in 1893, when a ship ran aground, spilling its cargo of coffee beans. Situated on the Indian Ocean, Coffee Bay is an untarnished coastal paradise.

The shore stretches on as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by jutting rocky outcroppings and a small lagoon. Keen eyes can often spot mountain goats clinging effortlessly to the side of these rock faces, munching on vegetation.

Although the Wild Coast is afflicted by the twin economic ills of poverty and unemployment, there is a sense of cautious optimism and hope for the future. Development is planned for the area and welcomed by the community, as long as it is done with sensitivity to the environment and is structured to benefit the locals. Tourism is seen as the only viable solution to provide the volume of stable jobs that are so scarce here. According to Peter, fairly stringent laws are in place to prevent destruction of ecologically sensitive flora and fauna. He is confident that smaller shops and service-related businesses catering to tourists will spring up in Coffee Bay in the near future.

How to get there:

 

By air: South African Airways has 2 flights per day from Johannesburg to Umtata, and several flights per day to East London.

By car: Coffee Bay is 80 km from Umtata on a tarred, winding road.Several international car rental companies are located at both Umtata and East London airports.

The Baz Bus (a hop-on hop-off backpacker bus) stops at the Shell station in center of Umtata. Hostels in Coffee Bay will meet the bus and take passengers directly to their hostels.

 

Take a trip on Kei Rail

If you are staying in East London, you can take a brilliant day trip into the Transkei by riding on a new train line – it’s called Kei Rail.

This is a cool new train which runs up to Umtata. Its mainly for local people but it’s great for exploring the scenic Kei valley too. It’s best if you take a car or mini-bus (go in a group!) from East London up the N2 road to the town of Komga. The Kei Rail train calls at Komga station at 11.00am; on the train you can choose first class, standard class or have a coffee in the buffet car. The train winds down into the Kei gorge through fantastic scenery (look out for eagles, kingfishers, baboons),then up the other side with more terrific views.

At 12.30pm the train stops at a little station called Eagle, right next to the N2 road on the other side of the valley. Here you can rejoin your road vehicle, or cross over into the Kei Rail train going the other way which will take you back down through the gorge then up to Komga (arriving at 14.00pm).

Either way, you can make this train trip through the real Africa as part of a great day out. It’s quite safe, very cheap and you’ll
meet plenty of friendly local people. Bring a picnic, or you can buy African snacks from the buffet bar on the train.

If you want further information, contact Bhongo Mazantsana at adm@keirailway.co.za