The So Called “Wild Coast”, South Africa

Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse

At the Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse we woke to another morning blanketed in fog. By breakfast the thick stuff had lifted and we were left with a drizzly haze. Pretty if you want to spend a relaxing day by the fire.

Since we had planned to leave early and head for the coast, we were served “just” the continental part of the breakfast and would miss the hot breakfast. After the previous night’s seven course dinner and with a long day of driving ahead of us we didn’t need another big meal.

Breakfast started with a whipped almond yogurt and cream parfait followed by a tropical fruit salad garnished with mint. The cold buffet included an assortment of cereals including homemade muesli, yogurt and homemade jams. However, the pièce de résistance was the baked goods; everything still warm from the oven – homemade breads, blueberry muffins, scones, and croissants. All light, fresh and simply wonderful. We were either missing something really special by not staying for the hot breakfast or I like to think that this meant I had more room for the delightful baked goods.

Moving on to Port St. Johns

After reading descriptions of the “Wild Coast” in guidebooks such as Frommer’s, as

“a haven of unspoiled wilderness. …the Coast’s lack of infrastructure has resulted in the large undeveloped swathe of country east of Cintsa. The coastline consists of more than 280km (174 mi) of desolate white-sand beaches, ragged cliffs, and secluded bays. Inland it’s green and forested, with abundant birdlife.”

it was hard not to have certain images planted in my brain. Something like South Africa meets Patagonia. False expectations will put a damper on any experience, I therefore try to keep a sense of skepticism and hope for the best. Often I’m pleasantly surprised and elated, but this time my expectations got the best of me.

We knew the roads would be slow. First taking the N3 towards Durban, getting off at the Peter Brown exit in Pietermaritzburg with a jog on the R103 towards the city center before finding the R56. From there the road wound through the mountains. A good two lane road made painfully slow by myriad heavy trucks and locals unwilling to pass them. You finally get around one just to be saddled behind another.

The Last stretch was through the “Wild Coast” on R61. Here we were mostly big-truck free and on a good tarred road all the way to Port St. Johns. However, you still have to watch your speed with everything wandering into the road, from kids, old men and women carrying firewood on their heads to skinny African cows, goats, sheep and the occasional stray dog. In a couple of places traffic was stopped due to road construction, but the worse delays were due to the crowds of people in the bigger towns.

Flagstaff was the worse. It looked like market day with the main road through town packed with people loading vehicles, people moving loaded vehicles, and people selling loads of goods from vehicles. We inched our way through town with a first-hand view of the action. Small herds of goats and sheep corralled by the side of the road. Tiny shops, from cell phone stores to barber shops, operating out of shipping containers cut in half. Other vendors with their goods displayed on street side tables – fruits, vegetables, sacks of grains as well as a variety of dry goods. Simply not enough room for normal traffic.

Driving through the rolling hills I kept expecting the landscape to change. We passed the sign welcoming us to the “Wild Coast” but everything looked pretty much like a variation of the same scenery we’ve been driving through since Jo’burg, wide open grazing pastures with the occasional crop field or smallish herd of cattle and less often sheep. Villages of colorful single family dwellings dot the landscape, sometimes made of mud, but more often out of coated cement block painted pink, green, white or cream. Houses are too small to spend much time indoors hence everyone seems to be out wandering by the side of road. But where was this amazing unspoiled “Wild Coast”?

Seven and half hours later, we were nearly to Port St. Johns and the topography still hadn’t changed. Low clouds hung over the unremarkable terrain.  We turn the corner and there before us is the seacoast with the promised dramatic cliffs. The cloud layer lifts a bit revealing blue sky and puffy clouds.

Port St. Johns

Although Port St. Johns sits at the mouth of the Mzimvuba river, nothing in town makes use of this stunning backdrop.  It’s a scruffy place with a mix of poor local establishments and expat hippy hangouts. We drove through town and over a bridge to a second beach with an expat community, including the Monster Café and the Lodge on the Beach, along the inlet.

Lodge on the Beach

An exquisite location at the mouth of a smaller river that at this time of year doesn’t quite reach the sea. Past the river mouth is a bay of white sand and green hills with waves crashing against its rocky base. The three rooms at the lodge all have a terrace overlooking this beach.

The best thing about the Lodge on the Beach is the views from the rooms. You can literally watch the surf from bed. The hotel itself is simply decorated in a cheap/ rustic style, comfortable with private bathrooms across the hall, and reasonably clean. Make no mistake, this is not a high end establishment and would appeal to those looking for a fabulous setting rather than fine amenities.

While the ambiance might make you think “honeymoon” it lacks tranquility and privacy.  The hosts are amiable, when you can find them, but they are not the attentive high-service variety, and are better suited for highly independent guests or those willing to ask for what they want. They are, however, quite accommodating to those with young children as they have a young son themselves.

The local scene is that of older hippies with young children, a relaxed friendly place if not a little noisy. This particular weekend the local school kids were celebrating the end of the term just across the inlet. A continual drum base throbbed underneath the sound of crashing waves most of the day and night. Add to that the music volume just a little too loud at the Monster Café – kids beating on drums and guitars – and my nerves were a bit raw.

Monster Café

The Monster Café, set up the hill a short 50 yards from the lodge, boasts the same amazing views from a covered open air terrace casually decorated in a beachy African theme.  The simple menu offers fish, crawfish (a kind of lobster) and Mediterranean specialties – meze and pita sandwiches with Greek/Turkish flavors. Either the food is some of the best we’ve had in South Africa or the wait is so long that by the time the food arrives anything would taste amazing. My guess is the former, but they do take a very long time to prepare the simplest dish, an hour wait for the appetizer meze and 45 minutes for an eggs over-easy breakfast.

September 30, 2011

For links to all the posts in this series see the South Africa page.