Lots of people warned us about travelling through the Transkei, “don’t stop unless you have to”, “don’t wild camp on the Wild Coast”, these were just a few on the many warnings that were given to us as we left the Kwazulu-Natal areas of Durban through to Port Shepstone.
The Transkei was once an “Independent State” set up by the apartheid government of South Africa to create a so called homeland for the Xhosa people, the only country in the world that recognised this new Independent State was South Africa. It was a farce, and set up to try to appease the growing hostility against the apartheid regime, it was of course funded by South Africa, it is still to this day a very poor region of South Africa.
Apart from the old Capital town of Umtata (now renamed Mthatha), this vast area is populated with thousands and thousands of Xhosa villages, its very rural, but there are people everywhere (little room for a pee stop in this place). The guide books reaffirm the warning of car jackings, violent crime etc, but we didn’t see any of this in the few days that we spent in the Transkei, admittedly we were very cautious and only camped at recognised camping spots.
But one thing the Transkei area definitely has is beauty, buckets of beauty, and for me one of the most stunning areas of South Africa. You could pick up the 21st Century Transkei area and drop it into many much poorer areas on the African continent and it really wouldn’t look out of place.
There is no coastal road running from Port Edward to East London (the beginning and end of the Transkei/Wild Coast area), instead you have to head inland to Mthatha. This means that you drive from sea level in Port Edward, and then in Mthatha you find yourself at 4,000 feet, but this only tells half the story, to get to this height, the terrain is seriously undulating, and I would guess that you actually climb closer to double that during the drive.
There is talk that the South African Government are thinking about building a new coastal route from north to south, personally I can’t see it ever happening, the cost would be astronomical, it would be like building a brand new road through the European Alps, including bridges, tunnels etc, etc.
In the old days, gambling and prostitution were illegal in South Africa, but hey guess what? They made it legal in the “Independent State” of Transkei, and within a few hundred metres of crossing into the former Transkei, yup there’s a huge very seedy looking casino, so not too far to go from your nice holiday home at Margate, or Port St Johns.
One lovely place that we camped was at Kei River Mouth, this was actually on the river rather than on the shore, and the steeply sided cliffs on either side of us, that had been cut away during millions of years, really was beautiful.
Our next stop on the Wild Coast was for me the best campsite that we have stayed at in South Africa (so far), it was at the western side of the river at Cintsa. Here we camped behind the sand dunes, and each camp had its own ablutions (WC and shower), it wasn’t posh, it was a little rustic, but it was a really nice place. The caretaker here came out to meet us, a frail old man that had lost most of his voice after major throat surgery, he was 96 years old, yes that wasn’t a typing error, he was 96!!!!!! We also met a friend here, a dog that we really fell for, apparently no one owns him, but we fed him the last of our dog food that we had bought in Kenya, and he followed us everywhere….. or to be more precise he led us everywhere.
We had some great walks along the beach here, you could literally walk for miles in either direction, obviously the Indian Ocean here is crystal clear, and each rock pool has its own eco system, most have coral, fish and crabs in them, it really was a little bit of paradise for us, and of course apart from locals fishing on the beach, there was no one here.
After the quiet and tranquility of the Wild Coast, it was a bit of a shock getting into Port Elizabeth, this is a big modern town with a bustling harbour. We found a nice campsite about 8km out the far side of town, right out on the headland known as Cape Recife. The Willows is quite a large resort with not only a camp site, but also lots of self catering thatched bungalows scattered around the place, the view from our site was fantastic (apart from the dead seal on the beach).
We decided to stay here for a few days and Jac needed a little retail therapy to recharge her girly batteries, so off we went to the newest and biggest mall in town (actually it was a little out of town). Google maps got us to the mall, and it was indeed a large place, or it seemed a large place from the outside, because we very nearly had an international incident on our hands. As we turned off the main road and into the mall parking area, I happened to notice up ahead a 2.0m height restriction (in true African tradition there is no warnings about this), and as we are 3.5m high, it really wasn’t going to work! Luckily there weren’t too many cars entering the mall at the time (this is no Bluewater or Lakeside, but probably nearly as big), and I ended up reversing all the way back and out of the traffic lights the wrong direction. Back in PE we found another shopping Mall, took up 4 car parking spaces and had a pleasant few hours looking at thing we can’t afford (or so I told Jac).
On the way back as we approached the campsite we found ourselves in the middle of a bush fire, luckily the very strong wind was coming straight in from the sea, and so was blowing the fire and smoke inland and away from the campsite. Just after we drove through we heard that they had shut the road for a few hours because of the smoke. This situation stayed with us for the next couple of days, and at night we could see the flames still burning in the distance, apparently destroying the Nature Reserve on the other side of the road. Then just as we were sat outside drinking Gin and Tonics, and cooking our braii (barbecue), the wind suddenly stopped, literally ceased from I guess a constant force 4, to zero wind. Then 10 minutes later it started again only this time our force 4 had turned 180 degrees and has coming off the land, and of course driving the fire directly back towards us!!
All of a sudden Port Elizabeth’s Fire service was roaring around the camp, there were blue lights and vehicles everywhere. We were told to pack everything away, and be ready to leave at a moments notice if we get “the call”. By now it was dark, and we could clearly see the flames not too far away, and there was ash covering everything, we didn’t get much sleep that night! But somehow they managed to stop the fire entering the very dry areas and trees of the campsite and at about 6.00am the fire fighters decided to sound their siren while driving about the camp to indicate the all clear. I was actually up and about by then and knew what it meant, but some campers took that as a sign that they must evacuate the campsite…. quite amusing really.
We left the campsite that morning, not wanting to tempt fate for a second night, and as we turned out on to the road we realised how close we came to losing Colonel K. The fire had actually crossed the road and had burnt large areas right up to the campsite fence. Quite a scary experience, but it is a real danger here in South Africa at the moment. There is evidence that many of these fires are started deliberately, and some seem to think that there are an unnatural amount of bush fires in the areas recently lost by the ANC party to the Democratic Alliance (the DA), and are blaming ANC supporters for starting them, Im not sure about that, but as we have experienced here, there are lots of fires happening and doing a hell of a lot of damage to farms, forests, and Nature reserves.
After PE we continued west along the Garden Route to Storms River in Tsitskamma National Park, we planned to spend quite a bit of time here, but as with most things on the Garden Route it was stupidly expensive. The campsite without the conservation fee’s (we don’t pay these as we bought a 12 months Wildcard while in Kruger NP), was 485 rand per night (over £30.00), so only paid for two nights in the end. The ablutions arent that great either for that money, and the tourists…….. What a shock, there were coaches after coaches pulling in here for 2 or 3 hours at a time. We hadn’t experienced this in the last two years of being in Africa…….Coaches!
The main draw for people on these coaches are the suspension bridges across the narrow gorge, that are a very short walk from the coach park and temporary restaurant (the original building burnt down…. another fire). These are billed as “world famous”, mmmm I’m not sure about that, and the original bridge built by the British has been removed and a new one built in its place, along side another new one so the coach party’s can easily get to the “new” old bridge.
But despite the cost, one thing made the visit to Storms River worth it…… a fantastic walk west from the campsite to a waterfall. The leaflets say its a 7.5 kilometre walk but that it is quite challenging and you should allow 4 hours to complete it,…… four hours to walk just over 4.5 miles, yeah right… if your a 96 year old caretaker!!!!!
So armed with a rucksack containing plenty of water, a few nibbles, camera and swimwear and towel (just in case theres somewhere to cool down) we set out from Colonel K. The first few kilometres were a breeze, sure it was undulating much like the coastal path is in Cornwall, then we dropped down to the shore again, and the path disappeared. There was no path, but there was a few painted feet on the massive jagged rocks showing you the “easiest” suggested route. This walk suddenly turned into cross between a rock climb and a scrabble (both in places). At one point you literally have to edge along a ledge with your toes on the rock face and you hugging the cliff. One of the toughest short “set out” walks that we have done.
Eventually we got to the waterfall, and for once it didn’t disappoint, it was a 50 metre drop into a large pool only 2 metres above the sea.
We were hot and sweaty, and the water was ice cold, but before I knew it, Jac was in her bikini and straight in. I could see from her expression that it was even colder than my toe test told me, but obviously I couldn’t let the males of the world down, so in I jumped……BLOODY HELL THAT WAS COLD!
On this trip we have swam in some great and wild places, but oh my god that was the coldest. It was lovely and refreshing but in the end I started to cramp up in the cold and with the pool being so deep decided to get out and the two of us just laid there warming up like a couple of lizards.
The sea here really does come in, in a wild manner, it wasn’t windy while we were at Tsitsikamma, but the waves are constantly smashing into the rocky shore.
In front of where we were camped we watched a pair of Giant Kingfishers hunting along the shore, these are the worlds largest Kingfisher, and are more like a small bird of prey in size, beautiful to watch though.
While we were at Storms River a couple told us about a lovely campsite just before Plettenberg Bay, and the clincher for Jac was, it was within walking distance of a fantastic Italian Restaurant on the beach. So off we set for Arch Rock in Keurboomstrand, this is a very affluent area with some massive holiday homes, when we got to the entrance to Arch Rock there was no mention of camping and there was a large sign suspended across the entrance (too low for the Colonel to get under), but it looked like the whole thing might swing open. So off Jac went to see what the place was about, she reappeared a few minutes later with the owner, who obviously wanted our business and told us that he would get his maintenance man to remove the sign so we could get under.
Fifteen minutes later and a lot of balancing on the ladder, the extremely heavy sign (complete with metal box section backing), was down.
Perfect…So off we go under the entrance, only trouble was that I guess the remaining bar was 3.49m high and we are 3.5m high!!!! Other that letting down the tyres we weren’t going to fit, so after many apologies to the owner and a very fed up maintenance man we drove on to Plettenberg Bay and found another campsite.
This time we ended up on a huge campsite on the very edge of Plett (this is what the locals call Plettenberg Bay), thankfully it was fairly empty, though as it was a weekend there were a fair number of local families here just for one or two nights, and so all the beach front camp areas had been taken. As we drove through the site looking for a suitable place to park up, we spotted a couple of old acquaintances in their old Mercedes Unimog, it was Stonne, and Hilda from Belgium.
We last met this lovely couple over a year ago in Swakopmund, Namibia, and they were on their way to Port Elizabeth to ship their truck home. They had driven through to Lusaka in Zambia when Stonne started to complain about a “bit of a headache”, and as it was during the wet season and pouring down in Lusaka and beyond, they decided to head back to the Caprivi Strip area in Namibia. When his head aches, and other aches and pains didn’t improve they were both convinced Stonne was suffering from an acute case of Malaria. Then in Northern Namibia he took a serious turn for the worst and was rushed at high speed in an ambulance down to Windhoek, where he was diagnosed as having a brain haemorrhage, and very quickly had his skull drilled to relieve the pressure. After a spell in hospital in Namibia, they flew back to Belgium to rest and recuperate. Because of this scare they have understandably decided to cut short their African adventure early, and are going to travel Europe more extensively. It was strange because somewhere on our travels, we were told that Stonne had been taken ill in Lusaka, but had heard no more about it since then.
We had a couple of great evenings drinking with this lovely couple, and we wish them all the best for the future.
The campsite at Plett actually turned out to be a really pleasant place, and as with many places in SA we once again met some really nice people here. The lagoon that is in front of the campsite is really stunning, and is a perfect place for a swim especially if you have kids, and of course a great place to walk along the beach.
After Plett, it was only a very short drive to Knysna, and we had very high hopes for Knysna. We had met many South Africans that go here for their holidays, and really raved about it, so our first stop was an overnight at the “East Heads”. Knysna town itself is situated on a huge lagoon, which has two quite big islands in it (both of these islands are completely jam packed with large detached holiday homes), and the entrance to the lagoon from the sea is through a narrow gap guarded each side by high cliffs (the East and West Heads).
We had heard that there is a lovely restaurant at East Head, but soon realised that there was a 5 tonne weight limit on that road, and the car park was full so we drove to the campsite and walked along the narrow road to The East Heads Cafe. We had a fantastic meal here (it was a late lunch), and soaked up the views from the terrace with our wine.
We only stayed here one night, but it was only about 5km’s to our next campsite right on the edge of Knysna itself (Colonel K’s temperature gauge, never fully moved round). Once again Jac was looking forward to doing a bit of shopping, and I was looking forward to a few cafes and a nice lunch. I have to say we were more than a little disappointed in Knysna, yes the Waterfront has a few quirky shops and sure there are lots of cafes, but really its a little like a cross between Brighton and Margate, only much smaller and of course much warmer (oh and a bit posher).
Next we are off to Wilderness NP, Mossel Bay and then inland to the winelands.
Thanks for reading