Of Shipwrecks and Spectacular Scenery
Notoriously rugged and dramatically beautiful, South Africa’s Wild Coast certainly lives up to its name. And as Nick van der Leek recently discovered, it also makes for a very memorable holiday destination (as long as you arrive overland!).
The 280 km strip of coastline, extending north from present day East London and south from Port Edward in KwaZulu-Natal, has become a serial killer of ships. In fact, shipping disasters such as the peppercorn carrying Santo Alberto in 1593 and the Santo Espirito (transporting Ming porcelain from China) 15 years later became so common that many historians believe that these losses preceded the disintegration of the Portuguese empire.
Luckless survivors of 16th and 17th century shipwrecks found the land north of the Fish River and south of Durban already inhabited by one of South Africa’s largest tribes, the amaXhosa (a word thought to mean “fierce”). Imagine the travails, then, of the survivors of the Stavenisse, a Dutch ship that sank near Coffee Bay in 1686. During the same time, two English ships, the Bonaventura and the Good Hope, also suffered similar misfortunes.
The crews of all three ships – having encountered one another in similarly unpleasant circumstances – decided to work together to construct a makeshift boat in order to sail back to Cape Town. En route they encountered and rescued more survivors. Among these was a French teenager who had already had his fair share of adventure, which included smuggling himself to America, visiting the Far East and most recently, enjoying the protection of a local Xhosa chief. Having learnt the Xhosa language, the young lad (just 13 years old) acted as a guide and interpreter for his companions.
Even fairly recently the Wild Coast still manages to rustle up some maritime action and claim the odd ship or two. In 1991, the Oceanos encountered massive swells and finally sank in 90 m of water along a particularly beautiful, but rugged stretch of coastline, about 10 km from Hole-in-the-Wall.
On terra firma, however, Hole-in-the-Wall offers visitors a chance to soak up one of the most iconic features of the Wild Coast. This great mass of rock obstructs the mouth of the Mpako River, and thanks to a confluence of geological idiosyncrasies, the river and fluctuating tides have contrived over aeons of time to carve a large hole clean through the hulking massif. The large waves pummelling through the tunnel and the secluded, sub-tropical bay work together to produce a near constant, carnal roar.
Heading further north beyond Coffee Bay (so named because a ship laden with coffee once sank here) towards Port St John (named after a 16th century Portuguese shipwreck, the São João), one encounters the “Table Mountain” sandstone cliffs, with their typical rough layers. Some of the most striking and pristine areas here include Brazen Head, Mpande Bay and a birdwatcher’s paradise: the Hluleka Nature Reserve, which is overflowing with waterfowl.
As well as vivid birdlife, beached shipwrecks and colourful mud huts, the Wild Coast is also renowned for its spectacular waterfalls. Two of the most breathtaking are the 160 m high Mfihlelo Falls (the highest waterfall in Africa that runs directly into the sea), and the famous Waterfall Bluff, with its dramatic cliff scenery which includes “Cathedral Rock” and the “Castle” rising out of the surf. The sheer cliffs and crooked crags around Waterfall Bluff are examples of “tear-away” sections. These were areas where the rocks were once part of the super-continent Gondwana, until incredible forces working against unutterable inertia forced away sections of rock, which floated slowly away, eventually to become Antarctica. Even closer to the northern end of the Wild Coast and KwaZulu-Natal, fossil beds can be found close to the Mzamba River when the tide is low.
While the waterfalls and rugged coastline of the northern Wild Coast (as far south as Hole-in-the-Wall) are accessible from Durban, the southern section – which has some of South Africa’s most beautiful lagoons, mangrove ecosystems and sweeping white beaches – are better reached from East London.
Here the Wild Coast is not quite as wild or as empty. Plenty of popular resorts dot the coast, including Haga Haga (which sees a daily dose of commuting dolphins), Wavecrest (with its fantastic dunes, stunning lagoon and endless beach) and Kob Inn (close to the large, fish-filled Qora River Mouth.)
Every now and then, a chance encounter with yet another wreck on this fabulous coast (like the Jacaranda which was wrecked – possibly on purpose – near Wavecrest in 1971) is a reminder that something special lives in the land, and the surf, and the inhabitants here. The Grosvenor, on the other hand, illustrates how the Wild Coast likes to hold on to some of its treasures. This East Indiaman ran into trouble over the same stretch of waters that claimed the São João nearly two centuries earlier. While only a handful of the 150 on board drowned, only 18 would reach Cape Town. Of these, only four would survive the last leg back to England.
Many expeditions were launched to pursue rumours of treasure aboard the Grosvenor (including the solid gold “Peacock Throne”). But while fortune seekers have tried everything from suction dredgers to explosives, the Wild Coast has only ever let slip the occasional gold or silver coin.
Meanwhile, the Wild Coast’s seas and storms, its wicked currents and shifting sands continue to defy overly ambitious visitors. For restless adventurers, there is a 25 day hike that traverses much of the coastline. But, whichever way you choose to explore it, it is best to savour the Wild Coast slowly – one chunk at a time.
Story by Nick van der Leek