A few weeks ago I frivolously paraphrased John Masefield’s evocative poem to set the scene for my first beach trip in decades, this to Mkambati, a remote nature reserve on the Wild Coast of the old Transkei.
I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a camera, and a tripod to steady it by.
And the shutter’s click, the ISO speed and of course, the aperture size
Will remember that coast, that wild, grand shore, like the seagull as he flies
The unmistakable Mkambati coastline with its distinctive palm trees
All of us except li’l Claire had been there before, and knew there’d be challenges regarding the service and accommodation, and perhaps the roads, but that the opportunity to spend a few days in that glorious environment made all those challenges worth facing. I’d tried for a few weeks to contact anyone who’d been there recently as we felt we couldn’t rely on what snippets of information we managed to squeeze out of the Eastern Cape Parks, but found none, and the only advice that made any sense was “Take everything.” It wasn’t quite the scenario we’d looked forward to, but that’s what we did.
We bought water containers and filled them with good old Maritzburg aqua, packed wads of bedding and linen, pots, crockery, cutlery, and only then the food, drinks, snacks, books and incidentals like cameras. Deryk had loaded a massive bag of charcoal and a camping gazebo, and we were pretty certain we’d covered all the bases.
I took exhaustive measures to prevent running out of photo storage space, and accepted there’d be no internet connectivity. Chris Burczak was good enough to lend me his hefty 32 Gb camera card, and I had an arsenal of flash drives as insurance. I’d checked my Macbook, and found that it would give around two operating hours, so that went along, as did an external hard drive, in case there was some form of power available. I had to allow for five days of coping with a jittery shutter finger, and what I remembered of maths was severely tested figuring out volumes and numbers of images. It was all guesswork, and in the event I found I’d overestimated massively. I’ll probably do it again.
The appointed morning arrived, and two vehicles, both loaded beyond the gills, set off for Kokstad via Bulwer and Underberg. We had the relief of knowing that the loads would be lighter on the return trip, mainly by way of not having to drag a hundred litres of water back home. After a quick pitstop and refill at Mount Currie near Kokstad, we were off into the unknown. We were travelling on the last day of the Easter Weekend, but hoped to beat the traffic and boozy drivers by a few hours. It turned out pretty well, and even the dirt road from the Holy Cross Mission hospital to the reserve could have been far worse. Signage to Mkambati was either absent or rusted and discoloured beyond reading, but we managed to avoid wrong turns, having vague memories of previous trips to inspire us. An abiding sadness for us all was the number of dead dogs left lying on the roads, testimony to the short shrift that animals receive in most rural areas.
The entrance to the reserve lies in open grassland some distance from the coast itself
Our arrival at the gate was met with good humour by the beaming uniformed guard and the filling in of several forms, two of which were general indemnities in favour of everyone or anyone remotely connected with Eastern Cape Parks, and Deryk and I were required to witness one another’s signatures. And then the gates were heaved open, and we’d arrived.
The last ten or so kilometres we’d driven through the legendary rolling Pondoland grasslands, rising and falling with nuances of light and colour that arrested the eye at every turn. The entrance gate was set in an ocean of this scenery, which continued for some way into the reserve. All the tension of the trip had now evaporated, and we looked about us, recognising landmarks and seeing changes. Our ten minutes at reception were painless, and at last we were off to Gwegwe.
We’d last been here in 2002, but had never stayed at Gwe Gwe. As we arrived at the little cluster of rondawels it was obvious that nothing had changed except, as we were to find, one of the rondawels had been destroyed by an exploding gas tank not too long before. The round floor slab, still adorned with an array of cracked and splintered tiles bore witness to the destruction. The rondawels nestle on the exposed slope overlooking one of the loveliest beaches you’re likely to tread, with a short path leading to the beach. We’d been pretty good about our packing, and were soon unpacked and ready to holiday.
Our palace for the next five nights Waiting, waiting, waiting.....
And we were on holiday....
Young Claire, of course, made the place her own before we oldies had drawn more than a deep breath, and it was clear that the important things were going to happen on the beach. There wasn’t much exploring to be done in a camp of six simple rondawels connected by tooth-rattlingly uneven lawns, so off it was to the beach and the rocks while waiting for our accommodation to be readied. There were some snags, as we’d expected, with only one fridge to serve our three units, the water supply a trickle slow enough not to activate some of the gas geysers, two toilet cisterns that didn’t work, no spare keys for one unit to let the staff in to service it, and some other things, but we hadn’t come to Mkambati to collapse into the arms of luxury.
The first morning dawned almost windless, the sky a litter of colour, the sun and the scattered clouds playing hide-and-seek as each tried to best the other. On the Indian Ocean the ships made their imperceptible way from one port to another, like a silent sideshow at the circus of life. For those of us not used to the action of the water, the pounding of the surf was exciting and fascinating, producing shapes and sounds that are unique to the sea. The water rushed in and out, caressing and bringing sustenance to the life on and among the rocks, and brought back memories of previous trips to the coast many years ago.
There were just two items on the agenda, breakfast and beach, with the accent on the latter. Only those of us lucky enough to experience the remote beaches of the Wild Coast can understand the joy of having an entire beach to oneself all day, every day. The lagoon trickled to the sea at one end of the Gwegwe beach, creating the perfect sandbox, with the occasional wave pushing up the little channel to undo the hard work of the earthmoving gang.
I couldn't decide who was having the most fun....
The little Gwegwe rondawel cluster presided over the scene, and I’m sure that hardly a blade of grass has changed since we last visited in 2002. We’d arrived not knowing what to expect, and found no surprises. This is the perfect spot for a break from everything. No phones, no signal, no electricity, no drinking water, no shops, no people. Just us. Looking back on the five days we were astonished to realise we’d spent not one cent apart from buying diesel to get us there and back. Not what you’d call a normal holiday.
The little Gwegwe camp keeping watch over our private beach
Our only security concern, and it was serious, was raiding by the Vervet Monkeys. In Pietermaritzburg we're admonished, being told we've taken away the monkeys' habitat, but at Mkambati the habitat is intact, yet still they raided our provisions constantly, showing plenty of aggression. That was the only aspect of the stay that wasn't pleasant.
The raider chief
On our previous visits we’d stayed in the main camp which no longer operates. The history of Mkambati is that it was a leper colony and hospital in the 1920’s and 30’s, the hospital having been closed down and demolished a long time ago. The main camp had been the staff quarters, and the Lodge, the Superintendent’s home. It was all pretty rustic, but quite liveable then, but is now a sad sight, with most of the buildings falling apart. Only the Lodge remains in reasonable condition, but isn’t available to the public. The outlying house, Point Cottage, is still there, but not habitable and is in poor condition too.
Most of the old buildings in the main camp have been allowed to fall apart after an initial shot at restoration
The Superintendent's home, more recently the Lodge, remains habitable, but not available to visitors
While the once beautiful Point Cottage is little better than a sad ruin
From what I could see, the only surviving building that had formed part of the old leper hospital was the Chapel. In the light of fridges, toilets, gas ranges and geysers that didn't work, it seemed ultra-cheeky to tell us that we needed to pay a guide to go to the chapel as "there are lots of snakes there." I went there on my own, got some photos, and no punctured legs. It's a lovely old building, but has, like so much of the other infrastructure, been allowed to deteriorate and just fall apart.
The old Chapel. Won't be there too much longer, though, guides or no guides.
We were surprised to see that the internal roads were being upgraded to concrete strips, which takes away some of the adventure of driving there. On the face of it the engineering seems poorly handled, the workmanship far worse. The bad news is that the road upgrade is part of the preparation for a construction operation that will see the demolition of Gwegwe and its replacement with an upmarket resort. This has resulted from a successful land claim that has handed the property to the local community, and the rumour is that Chinese or Indian money will be poured into the development. That will be the end of Mkambati and will make it just another featureless ‘destination’ for those who have little feeling for the environment. It’s very sad, and we’ve decided that we’ll get there at least once more before the sword of development falls.
Concrete strips now carry traffic that used to have to argue
with the elements and conditions...
The days were filled with hours on the beach, a visit to the main beach at the Msikaba River mouth, walks to the waterfalls along the Mkambati River, a long walk down the coastline to Point Cottage and back, all the while soaking in the wonderful scenery and revelling in the freedom to walk almost forever. The weather did its coastal tricks, changing at will, sometimes calm, other times windy, and on one day, drizzly and damp. One of the rondawels at Gwegwe has been furnished as a communal lounge with a large table and some comfortable easy chairs, and we made good use of those. To my pleasant surprise we found a solar power system that operated from around eight in the mornings till about nine at night, and I was able to power up my computer system and do all my image downloading and even a good deal of editing.
Rainy day action at Gwegwe The bookends
The drizzly, damp day provided me with an opportunity I’ve been wanting for a long time. The wave action in the howling South-westerly wind was wild, and I was able to indulge myself, knowing that there was a picture waiting to be taken wherever I pointed the camera. It was truly exciting, and gave me an extended opportunity to try my hand at a type of photography totally new to me.
We found that the main beach at Msikaba had changed drastically, and instead of hundreds of metres of sand, the sea was washing up against the famed Mkambati dunes, and we had to time our runs to get through between waves. But it was still Mkambati, a piece of paradise to be treasured and relished.
The mouth of the Msikaba River, the stuff dreams are made of
A friend who has a deep interest in shipwrecks had told me about the wreck of the Sao Bento almost five hundred years ago, and the little “island” at the mouth of the Msikaba River is the site. I’ve read accounts of how the cannons were salvaged, and I’m awed by the ingenuity and courage of those who believe strongly enough in capturing history, putting their lives and livelihoods at risk to recover artifacts that fill in the gaps in the story of our country.
The "island" at the Msikaba River mouth, graveyard of the Portuguese ship Sao Bento
There are three waterfalls on the Mkambati River, beginning with the spectacular Horseshoe Falls and its huge pool, with Strandloper Falls a little farther downstream, ending with Mkambati Falls that cascade directly into the sea, one of only seven waterfalls in the world to do so. Here, too, the sea had pushed in, and the beach that had previously allowed us to go in behind the falls was no more. Presumably these features change from time to time, tide to tide, and season to season. It was all truly beautiful.
Horseshoe Falls on the Mkambati River Looking inland along the Mkambati River
Strandloper Falls Mkambati Falls, straight into the ocean
The grasslands provided a bounty of scenic splendour, and I admit I made a pig of myself.
A long walk along the coastline took us to the Olympic Pools that flow into the sea via a small cascade. This is where some of the game is found, and for the observant, the variety of plants and flowers is absorbing. We found a lovely herd of Eland, my favourite antelope, and Red Hartebeest were everywhere, with a sprinkling of Burchell’s Zebra. The birdlife wasn’t too exciting, but then all the migrant birds had left for warmer climes by then.
There were a few Kelp Gulls around, too.
We could really have done with another few days, but all good things end. And so it was back to the big city where the experiences of the past few days quickly assumed dreamlike status. Had we actually been in such isolation, free from the pressures and demands of our normal routines? Fortunately my camera kept a record, and there’s no doubting what we saw. It’s already time to go back.
The final hours came, and it was time to take "the family shot."
And suddenly, it was over. Till next time, hopefully.
I went off down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And I took along my old camera, and a tripod to steady it by.
And the shutter’s click, the ISO speed and of course, the aperture size
Have captured that coast, that wild, grand shore, like the seagull, as he flies
Mkambati is worth a visit. It's one of those jewels that's little-known, and is destined to disappear before enough people have fed at its trough of plenty and rejuvenation. Get there, before it's not there any longer.