Destination Guide

Stephen Bailey
South Africa's authentic hidden gem
South Africa's authentic hidden gem
Stephen Bailey

In the whole world, there are only seven waterfalls that drop directly into the ocean. Three of them are in South Africa. In that region, you can ride on horses for days on end up and down the coast, stay in villages, witness traditions, and steep yourself in a rural way of life.

That region is the Wild Coast. And this name is perfectly fitting, because the landscape is wild — huge cliffs meeting the Indian Ocean, empty rolling hills, and curving roads that seem to go on forever. There are no cities. There are only a few towns.

A traditional way of life

People live in villages, and they preserve their time-honoured way of living. They have a plot of land, their hut, and they tend to their animals. They live truly sustainably.

Then they have children, and then when their son is grown and wants to get married, he goes to the chief and asks for a piece of land. And the chief gives him a piece of land for him to have his cattle on.

This is a land that also practices the custom of lobola, which is a bride price. When you want to get married, the father of the bride gives his consent, but requests that first you pay the lobola, which is measured in cows. Maybe you will pay 10 cows, maybe 15, maybe more if your bride is well-educated.

In the Wild Coast, these traditions and customs are very much a part of daily life.

Hiking, horses and surfing

The Wild Coast is one of my favourite ever destinations. And I know I say this about many places — but I’ve been back to the Wild Coast over five times. It is spectacular.

The Wild Coast is located in the east of South Africa. If you don’t have a lot of time to travel, it’s inaccessible — six hours from Durban, and around the same time from Port Elizabeth or Johannesburg. You need a lot of time to travel by land to get there.

My favorite destination there is Coffee Bay, a small village with two beautiful bay beaches surrounded by rolling hills.

You can walk a hundred meters up a hill, and have a view over the Indian Ocean. You will look down and see the cows on the beach, and the sangomas. You may think they are witch doctors, but that’s not the case — they are traditional healers. And they conduct ceremonies on the beach, with singing and dancing.

Coffee Bay is where I learned to surf. I had plenty of times falling off the board, then getting back on it, looking up — and seeing the sangomas performing a ceremony on the beach, around the cows. That was a remarkable thing to look at.

One of my favourite experiences in the Wild Coast was when I went riding for three days, taking some horses from Coffee Bay back to their owners further north. We were three people on horses, plus three horses we were driving, and we just stayed at villages on the way.

A different kind of tourism

All along the Wild Coast, they’ve set up a network of homestays, and a hiking route, so you can hike from village to village. If you keep going, you could be walking for two weeks along the coast.

And a great thing is that there are no roads. There is no way to get to those places easily with a car. Only if you’ve got a four by four and a lot of time can you reach those beautiful stretches of coastline, where you see waterfalls falling into the Indian Ocean.

Another destination I love is called Port St. John’s. It’s a bigger town, but it’s a great base, because you can do a lot of things in the area. There’s the same connection with local culture. And a lot of films were shot there, because they’ve got an incredible vertical cliff, 400 meters high, hanging over the Indian Ocean. If you’ve watched the movie Blood Diamond, you will recognize that the scene at the end — where Leonardo DiCaprio is going up the mountain and trying to get away — was filmed in Port St. John’s.

Then down the Wild Coast, there are more villages that have turned to tourism. Places like Bulungula, where they have seen what was done in Coffee Bay, so they too created some accommodations and invited people to come and enjoy nature and discover the local customs.

A thing I love about being in the Wild Coast is that you don’t see that kind of tourism which is based on the idea of “come look at the locals and have pity on them”. Instead, you go there and are inspired by their way of life — how sustainable they are, and how happy, and how freeing and liberating their life is. They are just tending to their livestock, living in a simple way on that stretch of coast. I find it liberating to be there.

Places where history was made

In the Wild Coast you will also find Nelson Mandela’s village, Qunu, where he had his homestead. Nelson Mandela himself, as well as a lot of the ANC — the party that fought apartheid and eventually took power when they had free elections in South Africa in the 90s — have their roots in the Wild Coast.

The Transkei Region, where the Wild Coast is located, was an independent state for 18 years. That happened partly because it’s an inaccessible area. There is not much infrastructure in terms of roads and airports. You need time to get there.

I imagine during apartheid times the rulers would have struggled to control this population in the oppressive way they were able to do it in places like Soweto.

And this is probably why in the Wild Coast they keep traditions which you see across a lot of the rest of Africa, but which you don’t often see in other parts of South Africa, and certainly not in a place like Cape Town.

I’ve always loved going back to the Wild Coast. The first time I went was for a few days, passing through. The second time, I stayed for two weeks, learning to surf in the mornings and working in the afternoons. Next time I went, I did a road trip. I took a big tent and spent two weeks going up and down the coast, stopping in all the places that were accessible. The fourth time, I’d found out about the hiking and the horse riding, and I wanted to cover the whole coast riding or walking. So it was just backpacking, stopping at many small places and feeling the peace and tranquility of the rural Wild Coast way of life.

I believe this is a destination you will want to put on your bucketlist. Maybe you’re not going to go there now or even for a couple of years. But keep it in mind. And when you do go to South Africa, ask yourself — can I add an extra week to my stay, so I can make it to the Wild Coast?

By Stephen Bailey. Edited by Beatrice Becker.

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