Beach lover alert: The Wild Coast's best kept secret!

2013-09-03 10:14
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Beach lover's alert - Northern Wild Coast

This largely rural area is one of the country’s best beach-holiday destinations. Scott Ramsay shares his experience.

The Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape of South Africa gets its name from the rough seas that pound the shores.

The powerful Agulhas Current sweeps down from Mozambique, unleashing powerful waves against the picturesque rocky shores and numerous beaches.

But although the sea can be rough, it’s also very warm, making this largely rural area one of the country’s best beach-holiday destinations.

In mid-winter, air temperatures hardly ever fall below 25 degrees Celsius, while the summer time dress code is bikinis for girls and swimming shorts for guys.

Even then, these are optional; the warm weather and natural beauty makes skinny-dipping seem normal.

The popularity of the Wild Coast has meant that many of the most beautiful areas are now peppered with holiday cottages, some of them illegally built in environmentally sensitive areas. But the nature reserves are still largely untouched.

In the northern part of the Wild Coast is the 70 square-kilometre Mkambati Nature Reserve, which lies between Port Edward and Port St Johns. It’s just 15 kilometres long and 5 kilometres wide, but it’s as close to paradise as you can get in South Africa.

Owned by the local amaMpondo people, this community reserve is managed by Eastern Cape Parks.

Rolling grasslands, indigenous forest, crystal clear rivers, deep gorges and sheltered beaches make Mkambati one of the country’s best-kept secrets. At one stage there was talk of making it an official national park, such is its reputation among nature lovers.

The reserve’s southern and northern boundaries comprise deep river gorges. On the southern border is the Msikaba River, and on the northern is the Mtentu River, both of which are pristine, and their estuaries host a large number of fish species, including the giant kingfish. Fishing is strictly controlled here, because Mkambati’s shoreline is part of the Pondoland Marine Protected Area.

There are only seven small self-catering rondavels and a small house in the actual reserve, so book early.

Otherwise your only other option is Mtentu River Lodge in the north. Although this laid-back eyrie with six cabins, restaurant and bar lies just across the northern border of the reserve, visitors can easily access Mkambati. Three hours drive from Durban, Mtentu River Lodge is also quicker to access than the reserve’s accommodation which is further south.

At Mtentu River Lodge guests can use one of several canoes to paddle up the river. The sandstone cliffs echo with the sound of fish eagles, while the forests reverberate with the song of Knysna loeries.

Mkambati has several impressive waterfalls and rock pools. The most accessible is Mkambati Falls in the middle of the reserve, one of the few in the world that cascade directly into the ocean. A little further upstream are Strandloper Falls and the huge Horseshoe Falls, both within walking distance.

While you do bomb drops into the big rock pools, you can drink straight from the water, because there is no pollution or human settlement in the river’s catchment area.

In the south of the reserve, the Msikaba Gorge hosts a colony of Cape vultures, and nearby is the so-called Superbowl, a massive indigenous forest lying below high sandstone cliffs. The view of both is definitely worth the hour’s walk from the reserve’s entrance gate.

At any time of year Mkambati’s grasslands are flowering with hundreds of plant species. The Pondoland Centre of Endemism comprises 2 200 species of flora, many of which are found nowhere else.

And look out for herds of eland, blesbok and wildebeest, which roam the shorelines against the backdrop of the turquoise Indian Ocean.
If you time your visit over winter and spring, you’ll probably see many breaching humpback whales. These giants of the deep migrate up from Antarctica to breed and calve in the warm waters off the Wild Coast.

The annual sardine run is one of the most impressive wildlife spectacles on Earth, with several million sardines being preyed upon by predators like dolphins, sharks and Bryde’s whales.

Although you can’t launch a boat from Mkambati, there are several operators in the region that can take you out to be part of the frenetic ocean action.

Offshore Africa and Animal Ocean – both based at Port St Johns to the south of Mkambati - are the most experienced and knowledgeable of the various companies. You’re almost guaranteed of seeing whales, dolphins and diving Cape gannet birds that plummet from the sky into the water to catch fish.

Just seven kilometres to the south of Port St Johns is Silaka Nature Reserve, a small protected area of 4 square kilometres with a few chalets.

Although the reserve is pretty, set above a beach among indigenous forest, when we visited there was plenty of litter lying about, and one evening our neighbours played loud music until early hours of the morning. There’s also a fair amount of alien vegetation choking the forest. Like Port St John’s, there is much beauty, but considerable ugliness too, so you may prefer to stay in one of the town’s more reputable hotels, such as The Outspan Inn.

Useful contact information:

For Mtentu River Lodge, contact Bridgette Duffy on 083-234-0436 or

For Mkambati and Silaka, contact Eastern Cape Parks on

For Outspan Inn, contact

For boat tours, contact Offshore Africa at or Animal Ocean at


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