Slackpacking the lower Wild Coast

2010-01-28 00:00

WE were all assembled on the Mazeppa Bay Hotel veranda — guide, porters, Poms and us, and Spain. ( A curious fellow, Spain, stopping at every opportunity on the way south from Pieter­maritzburg to look at birds. The car would slew off the road and issues such as the Bok midfield would be forgotten as he snapped out his binoculars and started jabbering about a vulture or some such). He would be driving from hotel to hotel while we walked, so we’d be getting a break from his nonsense until evening which is when he came into his own as a splendid drinking companion. But enough of him. Our guide, Phillip, introduced himself and with little further ado we headed south.

It’s 21 kilometres from Mazeppa Bay to Wave Crest, the longest hike of the 80-something kilometre, five- day trail to Cintsa. The less arrogant in the party were wondering if their ageing bodies would take the relentless walking, while one or two who had done the trip before were more concerned about the interpersonal stuff and whether the weather would be kind. I was cringing a bit. It all seemed so soft, indulgent and elderly: where was the edge for goodness’ sake? I mistakenly mentioned these thoughts to my wife who snarled at me and told me to get a life.

Ninety percent of the walk is along the beach or very close to it and we didn’t stray from it at all on the first day. It is flat and hard and would lend itself to cycling, in fact the organiser of our trip (Paul Colvin of SA Adventure Trails) offers such packages.

The Poms were the reason for the walk. They were out for their annual visit and spending the time walking suits us all — there are no distractions or pressures and plenty of time to catch up, reminisce, joke, laugh, sing, and talk about the future in groups that shift, break and reform as the days unfold. Some even talk about birds.

The winter sun was low and golden when we arrived at Wave Crest. A ferry­man met us and we were rowed across the estuary to a welcoming party with refreshments on flower- bedecked trays. The hotel has a stunning position on a headland, looking out across the estuary, flood plain and bay. Other than the hotel there is little sign of human habitation, just a few homesteads on far-off hills.

A little later after an excellent meal, we sat out on the deck under a shimmering starry sky, drinking wine to the murmur of the nearby surf and talking contentedly. My early morning preciousness about softness and the need for edge seemed suddenly absurd.

Spain joined us for the beginning of the second day which led through dune forest for a few kilometres. He and the guide had a high old time duelling in birds. Spain was the clear winner but got put in his place when it came to other fauna and the flora. The guides, whom we had for three days, were all excellent. They weren’t really necessary as it is difficult to lose your way walking along a beach but they were the liaison with the porters and a font of knowledge besides. Early on the second day, we came across part of a whale skeleton. The guide hauled out his whale reference book and showed us which confusing bone was which and that settled all arguments and shut up a few instant experts.

The porters were also an optional extra, but the consensus was we were walking through people’s back yards, well fed and expensively kitted, and giving back nothing more than a friendly wave would most likely arouse a certain amount of local resentment. Not wanting to do so, we figured if walkers were recognised as potential employers it would put a different spin on things and lead to interactions and, hopefully, recognition of common humanity. So deprived of our rightful burdens but paradoxically grateful for our packless state, confused, and resentful of a presence that inhibited us ageing hippies from stripping off and diving into the sea, we wandered politely on.

The second day’s walking ended at Trennerys /Seagulls. We were booked in at the latter, something we had in common with Richard Gere, it seems, who thoroughly enjoyed his stay there, so we were reliably informed by the press clippings on the walls of the bar. We walked off the beach to be met by Bazza, a man of many parts. He told us our arrival was fortuitous as there was an enormous party about to happen that night — a 40th birthday celebration for someone from Gonubie.

We were tired after a day of birds, whales, wrecks and, dare I say, walking, but the bar at Seagulls is enticing and we wanted for some reason to humour Bazza who switched from muttering importantly about the party we were lucky to be on the fringes of to pleading with us to kick-start it. We had heard of his former fame as a Mirage fighter pilot and someone said he had worked for Bradlows but it appeared his alter ego is a rock star. It is difficult to say with certainty because much of the night is a blur but I think he sang and played his guitar very well.

“Purple haze all in my brain, lately things just don’t seem the same …”

Day three and it was time to walk out of the Transkei and into the old Eastern Cape. It was also time to say goodbye to the porters. The pont across the Kei was like a journey back into the old South Africa. Not for any nascent racist reasons but the tidy unpretentious cottages at Kei Mouth have an old-time look about them.

Some might say it is a pervasive part of the Eastern Cape’s charm, or possibly its curse, that it always looks slightly drought-stricken and under- capitalised. I say this with affection as our party were largely old friends from Rhodes University.

Morgan Bay, where we spent the night, was, after an absence of 37 years, not enormously changed and just as attractive as I remembered it. The hotel management and staff were welcoming and the food was outstanding, but faced with greater numbers in the dining room than we had become accustomed to our singing was a little muted, although no more tuneful.

Day four, 16 kilometres to Haga Haga via spectacular cliffs and shelly beaches plus opportunities for the ageing hippies finally to plunge into the icy sea, displaying sagging flesh, while feeling young and vital.

Four days of walking and some were feeling they could carry on forever. One or two had aching joints but everyone seemed to have slipped into an easy rhythm. There was a destination but it was never in doubt and had assumed almost incidental status. I was correct at the outset in questioning the “edge”, or lack of it, because there wasn’t any (with the possible exception of the wild night at Seagulls), but then I don’t think anyone wanted edge, they seemed perfectly content to walk and talk, laugh and sing. I began wondering about Chaucer and whether any 14th-century pilgrims concerned themselves about their destination at all beyond it providing an excuse for the journey.

The last day took us to Cintsa along a broad flat beach that was made special by a whale that stuck its head down and waved its flukes at us, not more than a couple of hundred metres from the shore. It was such a prolonged show that we eventually, almost embarrassedly, stopped oohing and aahing and taking photographs, turned our backs and continued walking.

Our final stop, Crawford’s Estates in Cintsa East, was the most luxurious of the trip and a fitting place for reviews, postmortems and a celebratory dinner. Spain had at some point managed a CMF in the form of a Knysna Woodpecker, so he told us. We were all very happy for him. We were happy for ourselves as well, although sad that the time had ended and it would be another year before we regrouped.

I recommend the trip to just about anyone other than a full-on adventure seeker. The walking is easy but never boring and for cautious souls there is the security of knowing that if lameness should befall a party member it is always possible to get shuttled from hotel to hotel.

Timing is important and I wouldn’t consider doing it in the summer months. Apart from the chance of unpleasant weather, the rivers flow strongly, making crossings at best inconvenient and at worst hazardous.

We’ll probably be returning to the Berg for the Poms’ 2010 visit, but I sense it won’t be too long before we’re back on those wide flat beaches that disappear into the sea haze or around headlands into bays with herds of inquisitive Nguni cattle wading about in the shallows.


• To book your walk contact Paul Colvin of SA Adventure Trails at Tel/fax 033 343 1217 or e-mail: info@

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