After the high mountains of the Drakensberg, where the air was cold and dry, the rocks hard and unforgiving, the hiking tough, and the bodies sore, we made our way to the land of soft air, warm water and rolling hills of honey-coloured grass. The northern Wild Coast is as close to paradise as you can get in South Africa
Bathed in gentle temperatures, the coastline between Port Edward and East London is caressed by tropical climes all year round, courtesy of the warm Agulhas Current which flows powerfully from near the equator to the tip of Africa in the south. (It’s the fastest moving ocean current in the world, apparently.)
The most untouched part of the Wild Coast (so named for the huge waves that pound the coast) is Pondoland, between Port Edward in the north and Port St John’s in the south. And the undoubted gem in this special area is Mkambati Nature Reserve, a small reserve deserving big superlatives.
This photogenic protected area is one of South Africa’s most special, even if it is only 70 square kilometres. It’s one of only two protected areas that conserves the Pondoland Centre of Endemism, a unique collection of 2 200 species of flora that has adapted to the isolated sandstone soils in a subtropical climate. Here are at least 196 endemic species, found only here and nowhere else on Earth.
The sandstone geology found in the northern part Wild Coast has also given Mkambati it’s defining waterfalls and deep gorges, carved out by clear rivers. On the southern boundary is the Msikaba gorge, and on the northern is the Mtentu River. Both are untouched and rarely visited. A few of the falls on the Wild Coast plummet directly into the ocean, including Mkambati Falls.
In winter the rivers are low, so the falls aren’t as spectacular as during the rainy summers. Nevertheless, there is always water in the rivers, so don’t let that stop you from visiting them.
The few chalets at Mkambati were already booked up when we arrived, so we stayed at Mtentu River Lodge, just across the northern boundary of Mkambati. You can access the reserve from Mtentu – just borrow one of the lodge’s canoes, and cross the river. From there you can walk all over the reserve if you wish (there are no gates or fences here – although you are expected to pay an admission fee if you happen to bump into a ranger.)
What I liked most about Mtentu River Lodge was it’s laid-back style. It’s very relaxed, almost like your own beach home – it’s perfectly suited to unwinding and destressing. Manager Bridgette Duffy and her friendly staff keep guests well-fed with wholesome catering, while the thatched tented chalets are basic but comfortable. (Watch out for thieving vervet monkeys!)
Although you can definitely get used to “chillaxing” at Mtentu, everyone should paddle up the Mtentu River gorge, and explore the small tributaries on foot, where there seem to be waterfalls at every turn. It’s one of the most pristine river systems I have seen on my journeys, and one of the most beautiful.
When we paddled up the Mtentu, fish eagles called above us, their echoing cries richocheting off the sandstone cliffs. A pair of Knysna loeries watched us from a tree above the river bank as we drifted past. The thick indigenous forest hums constantly with birdsong. Fish broke the surface of the shallows near the river banks.
On another day, we walked to Mkambati Falls, and also Strandloper and Horseshoe Falls, all of which are worth visiting, even if there was little water in the river. As we walked, we kept noticing new flowers and plants…Mkambati is a fascinating place for botanists and flower photographers. Have a look at the photos…
Then there are the people, who I think don’t receive enough credit. Everyone always talks about the scenery and beauty of the Wild Coast, but to me, the most beautiful part of Pondoland is the people. They are the friendliest and most courteous I have met on my extensive travels around South Africa. They are also some of the most beautiful and dignified. I really do have a soft spot for the Pondo people, including the rangers and reserve staff. Extra special thanks to Mr Vuyani Mapiya and to senior ranger Mbuyiseli Mzayiwa for helping me with my work.
By the way, there is always debate around the spelling of Mkambati (or Mkhambathi, as per all the official marketing material!). According to expert Jim Feely, the correct spelling is Mkambati. He writes: “Mkambati is the spelling given by C.J. Skead, author of The Pilot Gazetteer of Xhosa Place Names. Skead was very careful to distinguish between the aspirated and unaspirated consonants This is clearly described in the introduction to the gazetteer. He co-operated very closely with H W Pahl of the Xhosa dictionary project at Ft Hare University (see also the introduction to vol. 3 of Greater Dictionary of Xhosa, for which Pahl was editor-in-chief). When in doubt stick to Skead. This way you stand on broad shoulders. Leave speculation to the linguists.”
So there we have it.
For more, go to www.yearinthewild.com and www.facebook.com/yearinthewild. Check out my Flickr photos at www.flickr.com/scottnramsay and my Instagram photos at www.instagram.com/wildscotty. Twitter on www.twitter.com/yearinthewild.
Conservation partners BirdLife South Africa, Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, CapeNature, Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Gorongosa National Park, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Namibia Wildlife Resorts, Parque Nacional do Limpopo, South African National Parks and Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.