Location of the Wild Coast
The Wild Coast in South Africa stretches along the Eastern Cape Province’s northern coastline.
It reaches from the Mtamvuna River in the north (Port Edward) to the Great Kei River (North of East London). The Wild Coast is an untamed wilderness with some 250 kilometers of unspoilt dune beaches, deep estuaries and forests. The name refers to the tempestuous nature of the coast but also to the untamed splendor and sheer spectacular cliffs which, in two places, feed waterfalls directly into the ocean.
The Wild Coast is arguably among the most beautiful coastlines in the world and one of South Africa’s most remote and inaccessible stretches of seashore. It is prime hiking country. The Wild Coast Walk offers breathtaking beauty, dramatic coastlines, pounding seas, a few shipwrecks and very few other people. It offers spectacular coastlines without the tourist crowd.
It’s not only wild, but also empty, save for the local villages and their friendly inhabitants.
The trails offer incredible views of the dramatic coastline, jagged cliffs, sheltered bays, wild beaches and rolling hills and valleys. It is renowned for being one of the most beautiful places on the planet and is the heartland of the Xhosa people.
It is called the Wild Coast for good reason, as you’ll discover when you experience the Wild Coast Walk. Encounter dramatic landscapes, beautiful beaches, high dunes, rocky headlands, meandering rivers and a shipwreck or two. The Wild Coast is an unspoilt natural treasure.
History of the Wild Coast
During the former Apartheid regime the Transkei (the Wild Coast and adjacent interior up to the border with Lesotho) was one of the so called “homelands” and officially politically and economically independent. It is one of the poorest regions of South Africa. The whole region is very rural and infrastructure is sparse. It was an independent homeland until 1994 and is still a very separate, distinct part of South Africa, full of tradition and local colour. Nelson Mandela is its most famous son.
It is a gorgeous natural environment, comprising the signature open grasslands and hill country of the south coast, with deep cut ravines peppered with groves of aloe, and deep tidal estuaries cloaked on either bank with rich and unsullied riparian forest
The scenery is spectacular. Empty white-sand beaches are separated by steep green hills, dramatic cliffs and rocky headlands while little villages, clusters of circular mud huts, dot the hillsides.
Ancient forests filled with cycads and yellowwood trees and abundant bird and animal life can be explored. About 300 bird species make this area their home. Water activities like snorkelling and diving give a spectacular experience of the world beneath the waves while spotting lost treasure and other relics from shipwrecks.
The Wild Coast and shipwrecks
The Wild Coast is notorious for its ferocious coast, and modern day maps still warn of possible 20 m freak wave phenomena. The reason for the freak waves may be that in some areas the continental shelf is extremely close to the shore. Scientists have theorized that the deep (3000 m) and swiftly flowing Agulhas current, which moves in a south-westerly direction, is accelerated further by strong winds from the north-east which can increase the surface speed of the water to over 7 knots. Subsequently, counter winds then form enormous waves which are extremely dangerous.
As a result of its wild and tempestuous nature the dangerous Wild Coast is known for its shipwrecks. The Wild Coast has been described by experienced seafarers as South Africa’s own Bermuda Triangle, where ships disappear without a trace.
Freak waves have plunged untold ships to the bottom of the Indian Ocean, or sent them crashing onto the shore. The most famous victim was the SS Waratah.
The SS Waratah, sometimes referred to as “Australia’s Titanic”, was a 500 foot /10 000 to steamer. In July 1909, the ship, en route from Durban to Cape Town, disappeared with 211 passengers and crew aboard. The disappearance of the ship remains one of the most baffling nautical mysteries of all time. To this day no trace of the ship has ever been found.
The last ship to tragically sink with all her crew was the Indian-registered Cordigilera, which disappeared without a trace in November 1996 in the vicinity of Port St Johns. Seven months later the Romanian cargo vessel, the Calarasi, perished in similar weather conditions about five nautical miles from the site where the Cordigilera went down. In her case, however, twenty of her 21 crewmen were airlifted to safety from the treacherous Wild Coast.
Many shipwreck survivors came to settle in the communities along the Wild Coast.
The Xhosa people
Archaeological evidence dates the presence of hunter-gatherers in the region from 150 000 – 500 000 years ago, whilst agro-pastoralist settlement in the fertile coastal valleys dates back to the late 7th century AD.
The area was originally settled by Bushmen (San) and Hottentots, but towards the end of the 17th century they were gradually displaced by the Hlubi people wandering down from KwaZulu-Natal, led by a woman named Xhosa. These people claimed a common ancestry with all the tribes of the eastern coast, originating from a place called eMbo. When the Xhosa encountered the Hottentots, they were taken up with the clicks in the Hottentot language. It became a fashionable part of the Hlubi language.
Successive waves of people came down the coast and began to split up into homogenous groups.
The Xhosa-speaking people are divided into eight subgroups with their own distinct but related heritages.
Pressure from migrating tribes in the north pushed the population southwards where they began to encounter the white traders and settlers moving north. The inevitable result was conflict.
1856 was a bad year for the Xhosa nation of the Wild Coast. Their lands had been taken by the British, drought had withered their crops, and their prized cattle were dwindling under a mysterious disease. The people were facing a hard winter when hope came in the shape of a young girl called Nongqawuse. She claimed that the spirits of the ancestors had spoken to her from a pool in the Gxara River. If the people would only kill all their cattle and burn their crops, a day would come when new cattle and crops would arise along with an army of the ancestors who would drive the whites into the sea.
She told her uncle Mhlakaza about her vision. As he was an important Xhosa spiritual leader, his social rank granted a great impact to the prophecy he derived from his niece’s vision. He announced that soldiers who were incarnations of the souls of dead Xhosa warriors, would arrive on the 18th of February over the sea, come onto land through the “Hole in the Wall” (See the next paragraph) and defeat the hated British. But, he continued, the Xhosa had to make a sacrifice to help the warriors by destroying all their crops and killing all their cattle. After the victory, there would be food in abundance for everybody. The Xhosa followed the instructions in his prophecy and killed their whole stock of cattle. By February 1957 more than 200 000 cattle had been slaughtered and left to rot. All the summer crops had been burnt. The catastrophe took its course and thousands of Xhosa perished from famine.The catastrophe took its course and thousands of Xhosa perished from famine.
Hole- in- the -Wall
Hole-in-the-Wall is one of the most impressive landmarks along the entire South African coastine. Second only to Table Mountain but only a fraction of its size. Standing at the mouth of the Mpako River, the cliff consists of dark-blue shales, mudstones and sandstones of the Ecca Group, dating back some 260 million years. These rocks were subsequently intruded by a dolerite sheet, and the ‘hole’ was created over millions of years by the buffeting waves, which eroded away the softer rocks underneath the dolerite to form an arch. The same process also eventually separated the cliff from the mainland.
Hole-in-the-Wall was named by Captain Vidal of the vessel Barracouta, sent by the British Admiralty in 1823 to survey the coastline between the Keiskamma River and Lourenço Marques (now Maputo). Vidal took his ship to within 800m of the coast, and described in his log “where two ponderous black rocks above the water’s edge, upwards of 80 feet above its surface, exhibiting through the phenomenon of a natural archway”, prompting him to name it the Hole-in-the-Wall.
The local Xhosa call this place “EsiKhaleni”, which means “Place of Thunder” or “Place of Sound.” During certain seasons and water conditions the waves clap in such a fashion that the concussion can be heard throughout the valley.
Local legend has it that the river running through the Hole-in-the-Wall (Mpako River) once formed a landlocked lagoon as its access to the sea was blocked by a cliff. A beautiful girl lived in a village near the lagoon cut off from the sea by the mighty cliff. One day she was seen by one of the sea people – semi deities who look like humans but have supple wrists and ankles and flipperlike hands and feet – who became overwhelmed by her beauty and tried to woo her. When the girl’s father found out he forbade her to see her lover. So at high tide one night, the sea people came to the cliff and, with the help of a huge fish, rammed a hole through the centre of the cliff. As they swam into the lagoon they shouted and sang, causing the villagers to hide in fear. In the commotion the girl and her lover were reunited and disappeared into the sea. At certain times of the year, it is said, the music and singing of the sea people can be heard. Xhosa legend holds that this is the gateway to the world of their ancestors.
Every year in winter, vast shoals of sardines that have spawned in the waters of Antarctica travel the cold-water currents south of the East Coast of South Africa. Sometimes a combination of wind and current will allow a tongue of cold water to intrude into the warm waters of the Indian Ocean – and then millions upon millions of sardines come close enough to be seen from shore or even washed up on the beach. This phenomenon, which occurs no- where else on earth, can be witnessed from the beaches of the Wild Coast – if you are lucky enough to be there at the right time.
From the air, the shoals look like huge dark clouds in the water. Each shoal has several “doughnuts”– rings of clear water where the sardines are taking evasive action from sharks. On the surface of the sea the presence of shoals is signalled by huge flocks of sea-birds that follow the shoals. The surface seethes like boiling water as fish, predators and birds thrash in furious pursuit and escape.
On the beach the shoals come right into the shallows and the sea becomes alive and bright silver. The natural bounty is almost incomprehensible, and leads to a human condition called “Sardine Fever”, where bystanders rush into the water and catch the little fish in every single receptacle imaginable, including plastic wash-baskets, hats, aprons – even generous underwear is pressed into service.
The sardines are then sold to the unlucky few who could not get their own, or taken home for many future meals. The best way to cook these fish, say the pundits, is on an open fire, at sunset, right there on the beach, with plenty of rock salt and lemon juice.