The Wild Coast - beach scene

The Wild Coast

The Transkei stretches from the Kei River in the South to the Mtamvuma River in the north. Its 250km coastline, known as the Wild Coast, is famous for its ruggedness, unspoilt beaches and, as any seafaring person who sails along the South African coast knows, the unpredictability of its weather and seas.

Transkei attained self-governing status from the South African Government in 1963, and independence in 1976. After being independent for 17 years, it was re-incorporated into the new Republic of South Africa in 1994. Many of South Africa's great statesmen, including former president Nelson Mandela, come from this area.

A waterfall on South Africa's Wild Coast

The Thembu tribe lived near the foothills of the Drakensberg until the Sixteenth Century, when they migrated towards the coast and were incorporated into the Xhosa nation. King Zwide was the first king. Mr Nelson Mandela is a direct descendant of King Ngubengcuka.

According to royal custom, the heir is chosen from the Great House, or Right Hand House. There is also the Ixhiba, or Left Hand House, whose sons settle royal disputes. Mr Mandela is of the Ixhiba House, and was groomed to counsel the rulers of the tribe.

Mr Mandela's long struggle for freedom is well-documented in his biography, "A Lonf Walk To Freedom", a book well worth reading for a fuller understanding of Transkei's fascinating history.

Museums dedicated to Mr Mandela can be visited at Mthatha and at Qunu, about 35km from Mthatha on the N2 to East London.

The Landscape

Transkei's 250km coastline is dramatic and in some instances, breathtaking. The Indian Ocean alternately crashes against rocky shores, headlands and cliffs where no sane man would attempt to climb or descend, and unspoilt beaches of creamy sand, where your footprints will be the only ones you see.

Typical Wild Coast landscape

Many rivers end their journey on this coast, most of them small, but some such as the Mzimvubu have their headwaters in the Lesotho mountains. Some of these rivers' mouths become wide lagoons with turquoise water, ideal for water sports and fishing.

South of Port St Johns, the coast is made up of Karoo System Rocks, and to the north you will find a sandstone very similar to that of Table Mountain in the Cape. The Egosa Fault, which at Port St Johns runs inland parallel to the coast, has resulted in the formation of precipitous cliffs and narrow gorges in the area north of Mbityi. Many magnificent waterfalls such as Magwa Falls (146m) and Waterfall Bluff (where the Mkozi River runs straight over the cliff face and plummets into the sea below), also resulted from the fault.

The climate on the Wild Coast is almost subtropical. Summers are hot and humid, winters cool. It falls within the summer rainfall area, and annual rainfall exceeds 1200mm, Heavy summer rains and bad land management unfortunately accounts for a lot of topsoil being washed into the rivers, making them chocolate brown for six months of the year.

Tourists at the base of some of the Wild Coast's many cliffs

The vegetation is lush at the coast, with dune forests giving way to dense forests on the mountain slopes. These forests in turn become grassland at higher altitudes, interspersed with patches of forest.

Flora / Vegetation

The different types of soils dictate the vastly different types of flora found in the area. The Wild Coast is important on an international basis: the entire area is labeled the Pondoland Centre of Plant Endimism, as it has many endemic and near-endemic species.

The people use the vegetation for shelter, food, medicinal purposes and for crafts. Overuse and ignorance has partly destroyed many renewable resources, such as the mangroves at Umgazana, but with NGO's and Government now providing education and funding for the rehabilitation of damaged areas, the marvelously diverse flora of the area may be saved.

The forests that you see on the cliffs of Mount Sullivan and Mount Sullivan are known as Pondoland Scarp Forest. These forests have been described as the most unique type of forest in Africa. They support an endemic family, Rhychocalycaceae, and many other endemic species. The forests support many species of flowers. Clivias, agapanthus, amaryllis and the Port St Johns Lily (Crinum ssp.) all occur here naturally. In deeper, damper areas, many species of Haemanthus (Blood Lilies and Snake Flowers) and Streptocarpus are found.

Strelitzia Nicolai (Natal Mock Banana) and Dracaena grow in thick pockets at the lower levels of the forests.

The Pondo Palm, also known as the Mkambati Palm, is found only in small pockets on the Msikaba and Mtentu Rivers, and is highly-protected.

Dune Forests support trees that are adapted to sandy soil, seaspray and strong winds, The milkwoods are an example of these. Swamp forests and Mangrove forests form an important part of the ecology. Many fish species use the roots of the Mangroves as nurseries. The Umgazana River estuary has all three species of Mangrove: red, white and black.

Orchids growing wild on First Beach Clivias, one of the species to be found on the Wild Coast One of the Wild Coast's many rivers

The sand dunes support hardy species such as the pink / purple-flowered Hottentot's Fig (Carpobrotus delisiosus). The practice of driving on beaches, which is now banned, caused untold damage to the dune vegetation. It can take as much as 50 years for damaged vegetation to be rehabilitated.

In the hotter, drier valleys, woodland and thicket type vegetation occurs. On top of Mount Thesiger, Protea ssp. (Suikerbossie) occurs. These in turn support the only population of Cape Sugarbirds in the area.

Grasslands occur from sea level through to the inland hills. Different grasses are found, and in amongst them many flowers, including several species of ground orchids. Aloes come in all shapes and sizes. They flower during the winter months, when their flower spikes bring colour to the landscape and nectar to the birs. Many varieties of Coral Trees are found interspersed throughout the area.

Along the Mzimvubu, the Yellow-flowered Hibiscus grows, and in pockets Mangroves are re-establishing themselves. Different species of reeds grow on the mud flats. Water Lilies can be found on the dams.

Most plants are protected - the picking of wild flowers is not allowed!

Fauna / Wildlife

Unfortuately, most of the animal species which abounded in the Transkei 100 years ago have all but disappeared in the wild. Game Reserves such as Dwesa, Silaka and Mkambati have re-established herds of gazelles and antelope that were naturally found here.

Vervet Monkeys are common in the wild. Baboons are found in isolated pockets, and Samango Monkeys are rarely seen.

A meerkat on The Outspan Inn's lawn A Pied Kingfisher A Cape Parrot in flight A rare Samango Monkey

In the thick montane forest, where the vegetation is so thick that it is impossible for humans to move through, Bush Buck, Puti and Duiker hide from the onslaught of mankind.

Leopards, although very seldom seen, are still in the bush. This is probably because leopards are extremely adaptable (a few years ago one was found living very happily in a sports stadium in Pretoria!), and because of the abundance of their favourite food, monkeys.

Birds are prolific. Over 250 species can be seen. Butterflies are a collector's dream come true and a number of species are endemic to the area. Port St Johns is home to the beautiful Charaxis pondoensis and the Rare Evening Brown (Gnophodes betsinen).

Although the bush is lush and thick, snakes are not commonly seen. Most, though aggressive when harassed, are not poisonous. But beware - green or black snakes in trees could be a poisonous Mamba or Boomslang.

Small mammals such as Mongoose and Genet Cats are seen occasionally.

Common Animals: Vervet Monkey, Rock Hyrax, Tree Hyrax, Leguaans, Terrapins.

Uncommon Animals: Samango Monkey, Chacma Baboon, Blue Duiker, Bush Pig, Bush Buck, Cape Clawless Otter, Mongoose, Leopard, Caracal, Common Duiker, Black Backed Jackal, Small Spotted Genet, Porcupine, Chameleons.

Weird Noises

At night: A piercing scream is made by the Tree Hyrax (Tree Dassie - Debrohydrax arboreus. Not to be confused with the Rock Hyrax, this animal is about 50cm long, weighs 4.5kg and has dark brown, soft fur. It lives in rocky crevasses or tree hollows. Their screams are often heard before heavy rains.

A metallic ring is made by fruit bats.

On occasion, up the river, the "yip-yip" of the Black Backed Jackal can be heard.

The naked, almost see-through lizards on the walls are Geckos. They are harmless and sometimes make strange chirping noises.

By day: Loud wails, braying and squealing most likely come from Trumpeter Hornbills (Bycanistes bucinator), and not a child in distress. These large black and white birds with a large casque (horny ridge on top of the bill), eat fruit and insects.

Water being poured from a bottle, low down in the bush, is a Burchell's Coucal (Rain Bird - Centropus supercilliosus). Aptly named, their mellow call always signifies that rain is coming.

Frogs and Toads

In his book, Frogs of Southern Africa, Vincent Jager reports that 22 species of frogs are found in the Port St Johns area. Several species of toads are also found.

Frogs occur everywhere: in rivers, ponds, dams, forest streams, grasslands, reeds and sedges. Common species include Painted Reed Frogs, Ghost Frogs, Tree Frogs and Raucous Toads. The Tree Frog's song is an indication that summer has arrived - their incessant chirping throughout the nights starts with the first summer rains. During breeding season the toads can be so loud that sleep is disturbed. Unfortunately, frogs are regarded as bringers of bad luck, so they are killed indiscriminately.

The People of the Wild Coast

The first people to inhabit Transkei were Bushmen and Hottentot groups, who lived a nomadic existence. Over time they were displaced by the ancestors of the Xhosa, Pondo, Mpondomise, Tembu and Bomvana. Each tribe has its distinguishing costume, colours, beads and articles of clothing. Red ochre is the favourite colour of the Xhosa, Tembu and Bomvana.

Teenage Pondo girls in traditional dress Typical Xhosa huts A beach scene on the Wild Coast Xhosa children performing a traditional dance

A very light blue is the colour for the closely-related Pondo and Mpondomise people. The language spoken is isiXhosa, a Nguni language interspersed with clicks and othe pronunciations difficult to European tongues. Tribes comprise of clans, which are guided by a chief. The head of the tribe is the King. Polygany is allowed.

Villages are called Kraals. Within a kraal there will be several huts. These huts are round and traditionally only have one side of the hut painted. This is an age-old method of regulating the temperature within the huts. The side of the hut facing the sun during the hottest part of the day is painted to reflect the heat, reducing the temperature during midday. The area on the west side of the hut, which receives the declining warmth of the late afternoon sun, is left unpainted, retaining its natural mud colour so that in the afternoon heat is absorbed to warm the hut for the impending night.

During the winter months, travelers in the Transkei may pass teenaged African boys with the white-painted bodies and bizarre costume of the amaKwetha, or circumcision lodge. Every Xhosa boy has to go through such a lodge before he is regarded as a man. If he does not, even in old age he will still be referred to among his people as a boy, and no self-respecting woman would consider marrying him. The age of the youth entering the initiation lodge varies. The youths stay at the lodge from the end of autumn until early spring.

Women traditionally work the land, collect firewood and water. Kraals are not as a rule located next to streams and rivers, necessitating long walks to and from the nearest water source, with heavy buckets carried on the head. This daily task is an important part of the culture, as the women meet at these collection points away from the men, and can socialize in private. In the old days, it was traditional for a young man who fancied a maiden to "accidentally" meet up with her on the path leading to the water, and start the courtship there.

Traditional clothing is unfortunately not often seen in towns any more. Women wear a series of skirts (Mbaco, Nomtidili and Intsiyane) and apron (Ncebata), and complicated headdress or turban (Qhiya). The clothing is lavishly decorated with beads and pins. Men wear loose pants, waistcoats and smaller turbans. Beadwork is worn by both men and women. Beadwork is a language on its own, with different patterns and colours being able to tell whole stories about the wearer. Jewelry is in the form of bead, brass and grass necklaces, bracelets, headbands and waistbands.

River scene

Livestock forms part of a family's wealth, and cattle, goats and sheep are herded by young boys. Dancing and singing is done with great enthusiasm, and a form of martial art, stick fighting, is often incorporated into a dance.

Myths and Legends

Hole In The Wall

Known as esiKhaleni in isiXhosa ("The Place Of Noise"), Hole In The Wall is a huge cliff with a hole big enough to run a boat through, just off the coast south of Coffee Bay.

According to local folklore, once there was a beautiful maiden who lived in a village near a landlocked river mouth on the coast. She was so beautiful that one of the Water People fell in love with her, and talked her into going to live with him in the sea. Her father was so angry about this love affair that he would not allow her to see her love, or even leave the village.

One night, the Water People came to the towering cliff that seperated the lagoon from the sea. With them they had brought a huge fish, whose head they used as a battering ram, and made a great hole in the cliff, through which the Water People came. All the village people hid away, fearing for their lives - except the girl, who ran down to the shore to meet her lover. She was never seen again. Over time, the sea eroded away the walls of the cliff, leaving the gaping hole. On some nights when the tide is high, you can hear the Water People singing and shouting as they come through the hole, looking for the girl.

Pondoland cows on the beach

The Tokoloshe

The Tokoloshe appears in many tales. He is described as being small and hairy, with a monkey-like face, and a penis which is more like a tail. Male witches have pet Tokoloshes that do their evil deeds for them, and female witches have one as a lover, who doubles as a mischief-maker. Tokoloshes can reportedly only be seen by children, but their deeds are noted by adults. Tokoloshes are blamed for drinking milk direct from udders, and wreaking havoc in general. Beds are raised on bricks so that the naughty little creature cannot reach up and do the sleeper harm. In 1933, in the Butterworth District, a man was exonorated of the crime of killing a child, because he genuinely believed that the child had been a Tokoloshe, and he had killed it in good faith.

Witches and Sorcerors

These are not to be confused with Witch Doctors ("AmaQhira"), who are highly-trained in the art of healing and communing with the spirits. Evil witches are said to roam and do their evil deeds, often using a baboon as their familiar. AmaQhira can sniff out these evil-doers, and if a person is accused of witchcraft, he or she will be chased from their village.

Scary Creatures

The Impundulu is a huge lightning bird as tall as a man, and as it flaps its wings thunder is heard, and lightning is seen when it spits. It is the cause of death and disease.

The aBantu Bomlambo are the people of the river. They are human-like, but have flippers where their hands and feet would be. They are kindly, and it is believed that a drowned person should not be mourned as he has been accepted by these Water People and is well taken care of.

Taboo Animals

Unfortunately, ignorance has led to the demise of a number of species.

The Hamerkop (Scopus umbretta) is thought to be the bearer of death. It is believed that if it flies over a house or hut, someone living there will die.

The Ground Hornbill (Bucorvis leadbeateri) is only seen in game reserves, as it is persecuted on account of being associated with bad luck.

The Chameleon: unfortunately very seldom seen nowadays, this little reptile was blamed for all sorts of ills and was killed on sight.

Frogs and Toads: these are associated with witchcraft and are therefore also killed on sight.

The Tribe That Committed Suicide

There is a pool in the Gxara River that is filled to overflowing with terrible memories. For it was here that the strange predictions of a 14 year-old girl called Nongqawuse virtually led her people to commit suicide.

One day in 1856, Nongqawuse was sitting on the rocks above the pool looking down into the water, when she fancied she saw the faces of her ancestors. Nongqawuse told her people, the Gcaleka Xhosa, that the ancestors were prepared to return to earth to drive the Europeans from their country. But first, as ana ct of faith to prove their belief in the world of the spirits, the Xhosa would have to kill all their cattle and destroy all their crops. Those who refused would be turned into frogs, mice and ants, and be blown into the sea by a mighty whirlwind.

For ten months a kind of madness possessed the Gcaleka. They killed their livestock and destroyed their crops, until they had nothing left but their faith in Nonqawuse. The day of their salvation was to be 18 February, 1857. On that day, Nongqawuse predicted, a blood-red sun would rise, stand still in the sky and then set again in the east. As the great day dawned, the Gcaleka people sat waiting. The sun rose. It made its slow passage across the hot February sky and set in the west. Darkness fell on a ruined people.

About 25,000 died of starvation. Others survived only through the help of neighbouring tribes and Europeans. As for Nongqawuse, the deluded people would have torn her to pieces, but she fled to the King William's Town area to find safety with the British. For her own protection she was kept for a while on Robben Island. She spent the rest of her life on a farm in the Eastern Cape Province and died in 1898.

Tough Tests And Strange Rituals Of The Kwetha Ceremony, That Turn A Boy Into A Man

With the coming of winter, the circumcision operation is performed by the amaGqira. After the circumcision, the youths whiten their bodies with white clay to protect them from evil influences, and usually wear a white sheepskin coat or blanket. For ceremonial occasions they dress in a reed skirt, which they put on by tying one end to a tree and then winding themselves into it. A conical reed cap and reed mask complete the costume.

In this outfit the boys perform special circumcision dances. They imitate a bull, pawing the ground, snorting and tossing their heads in the air. They lose themselves int he dance, drumming their heels without lifting their feet off the ground, flexing their muscles and perspiring in their wild excitement. The boys like to be admired and photographed. They visit neighbouring huts and show off their dancing skills. But on such visits they always remain masked, and females keep their distance.

During this time they live in a special hut, usually in an isolated spot, and are instructed in the conduct, discipline and tribal loyalties which will be expected of them when they become adults. They live frugally, undergo endurance tests and are taboo to females.

In modern times the conditions and disciplines of individual lodges are not as severe as in former times. Nevertheless, this depends very much on the master of the lodge. A conservative lodge master can still impose a regimen of privations and tests of stamina which occasionally result in death. Whatever happens within the lodge is kept a close secret, and any member confiding to the outside world would jeapordise his chances of ever being accepted by his people as manly.

After a period of time the hut, costumes and other items used int he rituals are burned, and the boys are taken to a river, with the initiators thrashing them as they go. Under no circumstances are the boys permitted to look behind. They plunge into the water, wash away the white paint, and, with it, the last of their boyhood.

When they emerge on the opposite bank, they are boys no longer, and receive the formal gift of a new blanket from their fathers. The boys return home, where they are smeared with red ochre, which is not removed for three months. When at last they wash it off, they are finally regarded as adults, with the prospect of marriage after a customary delay of about four years.

Throughout their lives, the members of a lodge have a bond which obligates them to mutual aid and friendship. The lodge master also educates the boys on the traditions of their people, the line of descent of their families and chiefs, political obligations, social duties and taboos.


Wrecks abound on the Wild Coast. The earliest recorded shipwrecks on this coastline were Portuguese. The most famous was the Grosvenor, a British vessel which ran aground north of Port St Johns in 1782, at the aptly-named Port Grosvenor. For those interested in this wreck, Stephen Taylor in his book, "The Caliban Shore", tells the story of what happened to these survivors. The most mysterious shipwreck is that of the Waratah, a passenger liner that disappeared without a trace in 1912. Had the Titanic not hit the iceberg, the Waratah would probably have been the most famous of wrecks. She was last seen and heard of near Port St Johns, when she reported that "all was well". Recent expeditions with sophisticated instruments have not located her.

Freak monster waves and sudden storms are responsible for many wrecks along the Wild Coast. The continental shelf's very steep drop close to shore results in the unpredictable sea moods from time to time. Modern wrecks such as the Jacaranda, which met her end close to Trennery's, and the Aster, which went up on the rocks and not down under the waves, close to Mpande in 1999, fared no better than the ships of yesteryear.

The yacht wrecked at Poenskop a few years ago is but one of the vessels that didn't make it past the Wild Coast. Mystery surrounds yachts like the Rubicon, which disappeared without a trace during a race. The 2004 casualty, the BBC China, just north of Mbotyi, just shows that modern technology, well-trained staff and state-of-the-art equipment is no guarantee when you sail past this treacherous coastline.

According to history experts, Port St Johns may be the site of the second European settlement in South Africa. In 1635 the Portuguese vessel, the Nossa Senhora de Belem, after a series of problems, ran aground in the river mouth. She then caught alight and burned to the waterline. No lives were lost, and her crew camped out on the river bank where the Outspan Inn is today, and built two boats to get them back to Luanda. Only one reached its destination, the other was lost.

About The Sardine Run…

Typical Wild Coast scenery
"Outspan Inn is a delightful and comfortable place to stay and we will have no hesitation recommending it to our readers. Special thanks to Chrissle for all the wonderful food. The Restaurant, will come highly recommended. The Port St Johns feature has been scheduled for the April issue and should go ahead as planned. Kind Regards Cathy and Lanz and Robin Daly - Getaway Magazine"
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