The Wild Coast

While we designated today a driving day, we will pass through a unique part of the country—the Wild Coast. What makes this area unique among the parts of South Africa we've visited is that it was formerly the Republic of Transkei, one of the homelands, or Bantustans, set up by the apartheid government for the Xhosa people.

These bantustans were areas designated as separate countries with separate governments, but were never recognized internationally. Transkei was one of the largest but had a troubled existence before being abolished (along with the other ten homelands) in 1994 when the apartheid government crumbled.

Today, this part of the country remains underserved and the scars from the homelands era are readily apparent. But, there is a new venture afoot, one that will bring development and preservation to the land. Hopefully, in a decade or two, this land will rise to that of the rest of South Africa.

Map of our trip through the Wild Coast

Our trip through the Wild Coast.

The driving will be easy: take the N2 as far as we can today. Coming out of Grahamstown this morning, the towns fall off dramatically. Peddie is the next town about 50 km away, and between lies miles of grassy hills with sparsely populated towns.

Another 52 km and we'll be in King William's Town, where I was determined to visit the grave of Steve Biko. Biko was a hero for me in my late teens and twenties and his writings and philosophy, if you will, had a great influence on me. He was just one outspoken cog in the anti-apartheid machine, but he rose above contemporary leaders and was able to inspire people to fight the policy with dignity and respect. In September 1977, he was murdered in police custody at the age of 30. In 1997, five former members of the police admitted killing Biko and applied for amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They were not prosecuted.

We drove around King William's Town trying to find the cemetery, and once we did we pulled into the empty field and parked the car. It was hot out, a stark difference from the Garden Route. We were met by a man who offered to show us Biko's grave. I talked with him about some of the history and about his experiences, but I think there was a bit of a language barrier too.

Beyond King William's Town we continued east, took the R63 which bypassed East London, and picked up the N2 again. We're now in what was once the Transkei State, and it shows. The road is not in great shape. There are no shoulders, livestock—mostly goats and cattle—are roaming all over the grassy hills along, and occasionally in, the road. Once I had to stop suddenly to avoid hitting someone's goat, and the shepherd was not far away. Mainly, it's small, rural towns atop grassy, treeless hills and mountains.

Butterworth, or as it's known by the Xhosa, Gcuwa, is a large town with over a quarter-million people and is unlike any town we've seen thus far. The entire town is like an open market with people selling their wares all over the streets. In many areas there are no sidewalks, just dirt. And, people are everywhere—the sidewalks are jammed and people cross the street any place they please. We have entered another cultural realm of South Africa. We didn't know this yet, but our experiences in this town will be replayed over and over today as we drive from town to town.

By about 1 pm we began to get hungry, but this area is so underserved that we needed to figure out a new solution for food this afternoon. There are no appealing restaurants, cafes, stores, or markets to speak of, but we needed some food for lunch. We decided to stop in a small town called Dutywa. This town was as hectic as they come: loud music and people everywhere. It's hard to fathom where all these people come from—the streets and sidewalks are chaos. It has the feel of a large city, but it is only a small town with fields of green stretching toward the horizon all around us.

We parked the car along the road and ventured out. The feeling here is not dissimilar from Broadway in Washington Heights, where I live in New York City, only it is amplified here fifty times. We went into a grocery store across the street and the store was hectic too. We picked up some fruit and bread and a few other staples. Part of the store was absolutely rank and I saw roaches in another part, but it was food and most of it was packaged in plastic or peel.

This town, and all the towns along this Wild Coast, are the real Africa. When I think of Africa, this is more along the lines of what I imagine—not the Euroesque towns we've seen thus far. In about an hour and a half, we will arrive in the largest town: Mthatha, the dusty, chaotic, former capital of Transkei with over a half-million people.

Like previous towns we passed through today, the streets and sidewalks are teeming with people. But, in this city the streets are also jammed with cars, and many of the traffic lights were out, which leaves intersections feeling like a free-for-all. We took things slowly here. On the edge of town some school children were getting out for the day and the parade of kids from this school seemed to go on forever. I had about 400 in my graduating class, so I can relate to large schools, but I had trouble imagining how many kids were in this school. We drove for over five minutes and still did not see the school from which these kids emerged.

On a day when we'd hoped to cover some distance, we weren't getting very far. These towns are few and far between, but they are slow going. We did emerge from Mthatha and the next town was Qumbu.

As we progressed east, the sky was turning gray. With all the unknowns in today's drive, we did not need rain to come in and muck things up. One of the last large towns in the Eastern Cape is Mount Frere, perched on the edge of the mountains along the border with KwaZulu-Natal.

As we drove toward the KwaZulu-Natal border, the sky became dark, but the colors were unusual. Rain was around us, but the atmosphere glowed orange-yellow, and we later saw a rainbow as we drove into Kokstad.

We decided, with some hesitation, to stay at the Oribi Gorge Resort. This is, by our standards, a modest hotel on the edge of the gorge, but by South African standards, this is top-notch. We were not happy about the cost, but there is literally nothing else around and this seems like the best option. But, first we need to find it.

It's dark now, and we've turned off the N2 onto the Oribi Gorge Road, a narrow, overgrown road that is still wet and steaming in the late summer heat. It is very dark along this road—no lights and no houses around. The road, it turns out, goes through the gorge and eventually emerges on the opposite side where we soon found our hotel. It wasn't that late, but it felt like it was midnight.

We checked in, and caught the tail end of dinner. I had a rump roast while Jackie had a whole fish. A glass of wine was in order while we looked over the map and pondered our options for tomorrow.

Soon, we grabbed our tripods and looked to the dark night sky. First, we shot from the terrace outside our room, but there was a lot of light there.

Later we ventured onto the grounds of the hotel. We are in the middle of nowhere—there is no town nearby nor are there any other buildings in sight—the hotel lies at the end of a mile-long dirt road and is surrounded by fields.

We felt comfortable with our surroundings and walked down the dirt road a bit, just to escape the flood lights from the hotel. We tried to take some photos of us among the stars, but found it difficult to stand still long enough to remain sharp.

We'd been out on this road for about an hour stargazing and taking photos. It was after midnight now and we were getting a little tired. With our cameras on the ground in the middle of a few-minute exposure, suddenly we heard a low-pitched grumble, something definitely animal in nature. As soon as we heard it, I grabbed my camera and ran, and Jackie followed suit. We stopped about 30 feet away and looked back. Jackie fired her flash to see if anything was in the road, but we saw nothing. Meanwhile, my camera was still exposing, and I got the distant lights as we ran and the ghostlike profile of jackie when her flash fired. We wondered if we will find out tomorrow what the guttural sound might have been.

This morning we had a quick breakfast at the hotel, then struck out to see the gorge. There are overlooks just south of the hotel. It was a blue-sky day, and bloody hot outside. We are slowly creeping toward the more tropical side of South Africa.

Aerial view of the Oribi Gorge, South Africa

Aerial view of the Oribi Gorge.

We asked the woman at reception two questions this morning. First, what is growing around the hotel in all these fields? The answer: sugar cane. Second, what might that grunting noise we heard on the road last night have come from? She laughed and told us there was a field with horses beside where we were stargazing last night. We were slightly embarrassed, but also relieved.

We did not stay out in the sun too long—we had a lot of ground to cover today. We drove back out through the gorge, just to see what we missed last night.

We will try to get up to St. Lucia today, a small town on the coast near the Mozambique border. Luckily, the N2 road improves today, even becoming four lanes for awhile. The road dives toward the coast at Port Shepstone, then heads to Durban. We bypassed this large city—we didn't hear too many good things about it—and continued up the coasts. Yesterday it was the Sunshine Coast, the Shipwreck Coast, and the Wild Coast. Today, it is the Hibiscus Coast, the Dolphin Coast, and our destination, the Elephant Coast.