For most South Africans, the Wild Coast is simply too far away and too arduous to access to make it a worthwhile destination. An absolute travesty, if you ask me.
After spending just over a week combing the beaches, bluffs, waterfalls and river mouths of the wildest Eastern Cape, I’ve been converted. This is paradise, my friends. But hurry – it may not be this way forever.
The long haul
It’s a long drive from Cape Town to the north coast of the Eastern Cape. It’s more than 1 000km of Garden Route meandering that quickly deteriorates into pothole-ridden, fatigue-inducing trundling, and that’s exactly why it should never be done in one go, no matter which direction you’re coming from.
Our first Eastern Cape stopover was to be at Rooihoek campsite in the heart of the Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve, the province’s southernmost protected area. Ardent overlanders are well aware of the rewards that come from crashing through the ‘Kloof’s twisting, shale-laden mountain passes. A quick lunch stop at the BaviJAANS Padstal gave me the opportunity to see the preferred local means of transport first-hand, when a proud old gentleman pitched up in his Ferrari-red tractor.
We entered the UNESCO World Heritage Site just south of Willowmore, before passing through the ethereal village of Studtis, and then the reserve gate. Having been on the road all day, we were chasing the fading sunlight, and the Isuzu’s 3-litre powerplant was putting in an almighty shift to get us to Rooihoek.
Travel, as we know, is just as much about the journey as it is about the destination. The Baviaanskloof is one of those wonderful 4×4 havens where the biggest highlight is the drive. Relatively tricky obstacles keep the pace slow, and virtually every single bend is accompanied by a mind-melting view of aloe- and kiepersol-peppered peaks and valleys, which many kudu, reedbuck, baboons and one very elusive herd of buffalo call home.
Despite the scenery, however, we were happy to encounter the entrance to Rooihoek, only to discover we had been given a dud key. Quite fortunately, the wooden boom blocking our path hadn’t been secured very well, so we managed to get in and set up camp just as the sun vanished. Rooihoek is particularly special because of the sheer red cliffs that surround it, and because of the wonderful noise caused by the river gurgling nearby. So, in spite of the light rain ruining our little braai, our first night in the Eastern Cape was an appetite-whetting welcome to the adventure province.
When it rains
Nobody likes packing up camp in the rain, but the worsening conditions meant we’d have to get the toughest ascents out of the way as soon as we could. Eastward from Rooihoek, the Baviaanskloof trail climbs upwards, until you’re welcomed by a rest stop and information booth atop one of the many hills. It proved to be enough shelter for us to make a quick breakfast stop, where we observed snow falling on the peaks in the distance. That explained the incessant cold we’d been fighting off, but it also boded well for the next chapter of our expedition.
Finally out of the Baviaanskloof, we could eat up more tar en-route to the village of Hogsback, where we’d be spending the evening around a warm fire with the lovely folks from Terra-Khaya Eco Backpackers. Generally speaking, tar roads in the Eastern Cape just get worse and worse the further north you drive, but the journey through Grahamstown, Fort Beaufort and Alice was uneventful, aside from the endless supply of traffic-crossing cows and goats.
The Isuzu’s thermometer read 3° as we entered Hogsback, but dropped to 0° at Terra-Khaya. Right on cue, as we were being given the tour by backpacking volunteer Dave, the snow began to fall. You may find this funny, but this was the first time both my wife, Rizqah, and I had ever seen snow. The delicate crystals fell slowly at first, but soon we were caught up in a bitterly-cold downpour.
Luckily for us, Terra-Khaya is centred around a family-friendly homestead, where the staff, led by owner Shane Eades and his deputies Francois and Lucy, cook up hearty meals served around a stunning indoor fire pit, surrounded by artwork made from reclaimed and recycled materials. In fact, just about everything at Terra-Khaya is made from up-cycled material. The result is an eco-lodge that quickly works its way into your heart.
We spent the evening learning about the craziest places along the Wild Coast, from Dave and his girlfriend Chloe, and we embraced the spirit of the Transkei around the fire, snuggled between Shane’s pack of rescued dogs. There was a good vibe in the air, and it would prove to follow us all the way to the very north of our journey.
Taking the plunge
The Eastern Cape is littered with rivers and streams, and when water flows it often falls, too. Morning in Hogsback is a quiet affair, but that’s part of the village’s allure. The quiet gave us the opportunity to explore the Hogsback Arboretum in peace, and we got up close with some towering Californian Redwoods before encountering the trip’s first waterfall – 39 Steps – so named for the many levels that the water rushes down.
Alas, it wasn’t the monster we were hunting, but walk in any given direction in Hogsback, and there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself either atop or below some sort of waterfall. That’s how we found Swallowtail Falls, after being told that Madonna & Child Falls and Kettlespout Falls would be inaccessible after the snow. We stood atop the sheer drop and watched the stream plummet into the valley below.
With the biting cold steadily gnawing through our Capetonian-spec apparel, we hit the road again, flashing through Queenstown, Butterworth, and across the Great Kei Bridge, before turning onto a dirt road outside of Willowvale and crashing down the long ‘gravel’ road to Dwesa-Cwebe Wildlife Reserve. The washaways on this stretch of road are particularly severe, but this is South Africa, and very little tends to stand in the way of a Quantum-load of people, even in the remote kraals and rondavel-dotted hilltops of the Wild Coast.
Dwesa is actually two reserves bisected by the Cwebe River, and we planned to explore everything south of it. The campsite lies just a few hundred metres from the main gate, along a winding river said to be inhabited by the descendants of a crocodile re-introduction programme from some years ago.
Before we set up camp, we bashed our way along a very badly damaged jeep track, and found ourselves staring at a picture-perfect river mouth. We had finally arrived at the Wild Coast, and the sunset was putting on one heck of a welcoming party. You can drive right on to the bedrock banks of the river, and watch the tide come in. Just don’t linger too long, or you’ll be facing some serious corrosion issues.
I am happy to say that there was no rain or snow in sight, and that evening was a welcome relief from the weeks of miserable weather we had been escaping. There was just one problem: the Isuzu doesn’t have a dust kit fitted yet, and that left us quite literally in a huff while making camp. All part of the journey, isn’t it?
There are some pretty lush places around South Africa, but the East Coast takes the cake when it comes to its ‘dry season’. Despite the ashen appearance of the rolling hills in the countryside, the coast maintains its green glow year-round. The forests are wildly overgrown, especially in Dwesa, where the road was often blocked. Driving through the reserve feels like a real adventure, because it’s dreadfully easy to lose one’s bearings. There are signs directing you to the various gates as you meander through the yellowwoods, but, most of the time, it’s just a matter of winging it and hoping you find something good on the other side.
Whereas the southern portion of Dwesa is relatively low-lying, the terrain climbs as you head north, giving you the opportunity to break out of the dense vegetation and experience sweeping views of the coastline. Once you descend towards the brown sand, you can find cows grazing on the beach, and plenty of evidence of the antelope that call the coastal forests home.
Eventually emerging through one of the park’s more derelict gates, we ground our way along more poorly-maintained rural roads en-route to a Wild Coast essential: Hole in the Wall. Using the back roads, it’s a bumpy approach, but there’s plenty of construction work underway to make the area more tourist-friendly (see the sidebar below). We snapped some pics of the natural marvel before continuing to Coffee Bay, where they grow a lot more than just coffee.
If you’ve ever been to Coffee Bay, you’ll know that it’s not worth all the hype. It’s a backpacking swinger’s paradise, but frankly, it was more of an afterthought when the gods were designing the Wild Coast. We did enjoy some freshly-caught shad at a local joint, but we left the village in our dust before we could be offered an actual spliff.
Our real destination for the day was Hluleka Nature Reserve, which ECPT calls its ‘flagship reserve’. It wasn’t long before we understood why. The landscape begins with a sharp descent towards a glorious beach, flanked by indigenous forest and ancient rock formations, before climbing up to a hamlet of seven stunning villas.
Each wooden four-sleeper boasts sublime views of the beach and river mouth, which can be enjoyed on the downstairs patio, or through the panoramic window upstairs. We were truly blown away by the sheer luxury of the place. From a fully-equipped kitchen to stylish bathtubs with jungle views, Hluleka’s hilltop chalets are extraordinary.
The asking rate in off-season is a pittance, and as we watched the crimson sunset, we smiled at the thought of two nights in Pondoland paradise.
Our steed: Isuzu D-Max 3.0TD LX 4×4 A/T
I’ve been spending quite a bit of time with our strikingly blue long-termer, and this trip gave me the opportunity to properly put it through its paces. Although not new by any means, the good old 3.0-litre turbodiesel still does the business, and it’s still one of the better-looking double cabs on the market – for me at least.
130kW and 380Nm are plenty for any road conditions, even if you’re dragging a trailer along, and the ride is comfortable and quite refined for a brand better known for its trucks. Outside, the bi-LED headlamps and daytime running lights add a new level of modernity to the rebadged bakkie, while inside there are plenty of slick and soft new surfaces. The infotainment system favours iPhones, but it’s still quite good. I’d opt for the optional Alpine system with its navigation, though.
Wild Coast roads are often more pothole than tar, but most of the time they aren’t tarred at all. I was especially impressed by the Isuzu’s Electronic Stability Control, which kept the bakkie’s poise in check on the windy gravel. With a set of General Grabbers for shoes, it was grippy on loose rock and in sloppy mud, and I never even came close to getting stuck.
In this shade of blue and with edgy 18-inch wheels, it’s definitely a head-turner. Despite the flashes of chrome here and there, it’s still as rugged as a baboon’s backside, and a hell of a lot better to look at. I saw plenty of Isuzu bakkies in the rural Eastern Cape, and that kept me feeling assured that I was in the right machine for the job.
We’ll keep you updated as we push it harder and further with each journey. Keep an eye out for the gear we’ll be fitting!
For the rest of the adventure, get your hands on a copy of the September issue of SA4x4 Magazine.