Road Report #10
The Wild Coast
As we left Addo National Park this morning the first thing we noticed was a monkey sitting high up on top of a telephone pole. Below him a platoon of his buddies were scampering back and forth across the road. But the moment we stopped they were spooked and disappeared into the scrub.
This morning we are traveling up the coast on the R72. This road constantly offers up awe insipiring vistas of the ocean. The coastline is one of gently folded hills, think of a ruffled skirt. Down the valley of each ruffle runs a river. As it reaches the ocean, the ruffle opens into a broad sandy beach. Each time this happens we come on a bridge over the river with spectacular views of the surf crashing onto the open beach. This happens again and again and again. I am amazed that one stretch of coastline can offer up this much scenic beauty.
We stopped at the waterfront of a small town called Kenton on Sea to make lunch. The beach is wide with endless expanses of gold sand fronting the brilliant turquoise Indian Ocean; a stiff wind creates a white froth at the crest of the surf. Even in this wind the fishermen are out in full force, casting their lines off impossibly long rods. In amongst the rocky headlands, protected from the full force of the gale, children play in the sand building the same castles with moats and towers that children all over the world have done for millennia.
Eventually we come to East London, a big city some 370 km from our morning start. It’s time to find a caravan park. None of the listings in our directory provide driving directions so we punch in “accommodations” on the GPS and head for what it suggests, some 27 km out of East London.
We seem to be driving into the countryside forever and are wondering about the wisdom of it all, but eventually we come to a sign: Areena Riverside Resort. It’s not the place we were heading for but we’ve learned to stop when we see something promising. The term “resort” sounds expensive but we’re tired so we ask at reception. It isn’t expensive and this serendipitous stop will probably be our all-time favourite campsite ever.
What’s so wonderful about this place are the animals. There is a big gangly giraffe named Abby, shorthand for Abnormally Large Baby. He is a rescued orphan who was hand raised at the property. Last year he achieved sexual maturity and would break out of his enclosure to hump the light standards, breaking several in his enthusiasm. This year they found him a lady and she is now carrying the next generation.
There are ostriches, several pairs, ducks and geese and peacocks and guinea fowl. There are deer and nyala and wildebeest. Many of these wander at will. At nightfall the ostrich couple settled down at the foot of our stairs to sleep, blocking our exit but providing a unique security service.
The camp is set on a beautiful river that begs one to jump into a canoe or kayak to explore. We met several people who told us that they used to come here on weekends and holidays. Once they retired they moved here permanently, living in a unique kind of structure (to us, anyway). There are caravans (travel trailers) which have been more or less permanently situated. Onto the front of this they add a tent that is designed to fit snugly onto the full length of the caravan and gives them an “outside” room that fully zips up and has a floor and is weather proof. Onto the front of this, many build a wooden deck. The resort has many of these units for rent but there are others which look to be self-owned and are intensively personalized with the bric a brac of genteel senility.
It is supposed to snow tomorrow.
Port St Johns
Leaving this Garden of Eden we continued east up N2 to Port St John’s. This area of the Eastern Cape is known as the Wild Coast. For many reasons, I suspect. When we were here ten years ago it was a no-go zone for whites. This is a “very black” area of South Africa. That is very noticeable as you drive. There are none of the tidy little Dutch or French or English twns with their farm stalls and boutique shops.
This is dusty, dirty, raw Africa, the streets teeming with thousands of people. The main road through the town may be tarred or it may be dirt. Certainly the expanse between the road and the shops will be dirt. Directly in front of the strips of retail shops, everyone who cares to claims a patch of space to set up a stall. They sell oranges and onions and shoes and clothes , tires and brooms and DVDs; anything and everything. It must make the rent-paying retail shops crazy because the squatters often sell their produce for peanuts. I paid 5 Rand for a bag of 8 tomatoes right outside the Spar Grocery store. That is less than a dollar and I am sure that being a tourist I was charged a premium price.
White people are a rarity in these towns. Even so we never appeared to be of any interest to anyone, either negatively or positively. Children are sometimes drawn to the camper because it is a unique looking vehicle. If we are stopped to shop and the back door is open while I am loading groceries in they will stop and stare, peering around the corner, fascinated that we are carrying our house on our back.
The villages march up and down the terrain which is very different from what we’ve seen before. It’s as if coastal South Africa were wearing that gathered skirt I mentioned earlier. Along the upper ends of those folds people build their homes, perching one brightly coloured rondivill above another. Three or four or five homes, in close proximity are often painted the same colour, identifying them, I imagine, as a family compound. The roads that connect these villages of people wind up, down and around, it takes hours to get anywhere. There are lots of cars but even more numerous are the Toyota mini-buses packed to the gunnels with people, the roof and a trailing wagon holding whatever needs to be carried. There are frequent pull-offs where these mini-buses stop to get passengers. Up and down the roads people line up, waiting patiently for their ride. It takes a LOT of patience to be a poor person in Africa.
The homes are very tidy; exceptionally so. Not a scrap of garbage to be seen; gardens neatly rowed, animals confined to kraals. But that is personal territory.
The public spaces in towns are filthy and filled with heaps of garbage. They are also a challenge to navigate through. There is one main road, packed with shops, which are extended out by the aforementioned squatter-vendors, which are fronted by parked mini-buses and vehicles which are fronted by delivery trucks. People are everywhere, walking, laughing, clutching their parcels and babies and chickens. We have to thread our way through each town without hitting anyone or anything. It can take a while but we have also learned patience. We will get there when we get there.
We arrive for the night at Port St Johns. The beach here is again, a place of spectacularly rugged rock formations, surf crashing and foaming over the rocks, licking the sand as it surges and retreats.
We have picked the Bulalo Resort from the Caravan Park Directory. Could have been a better choice, I am sure. This is the worst park we have been in on this trip. They try, they really do. They have been raking the sand and sweeping the cement. But this park was probably built 30 or 40 years ago and nothing has been replaced since. So it is literally falling apart.
But the electricity works and we are in a pretty spot on the grass, in front of the river. The security guard is a very friendly guy who laughs at Steve’s jokes. We settle in for the night. At first it is really warm and we pull out the chairs and read our books outside. As soon as the sun goes down it gets cooler but it never gets cold.
In the morning we head off again, this time into the rain and fog. The fog is really intense for the first few hours. Very difficult to drive and very dangerous. Most of the vehicles approaching us are not highly visible because they are not using their headlights . This practice, married to their predilection for passing anywhere and everywhere, inspires us to drive very defensively.
The terrain is the same as yesterday except that today it is gradually but certainly becoming semi tropical – sugar cane plantations, palms, and banana trees. Monkeys are frequently sighted although they are shy and flit away immediately. There are more of the black towns with their dusty streets, horrendous congestion and masses of people.
Then we cross the border from the Eastern Cape to Kawazulu Natal and everything changes, right there in the middle of the bridge to the town of Port Edwards. Immediately the streets are paved with boulevards of bougainvillea and jacaranda trees. The houses are trim and affluent. The parking lot of the mall is fully paved and there is no dust, no dirt, and no street vendors.
Continuing on to Port Shepstone we go inland 22 km to Oribi Gorge Nature Reserve. We have booked a campsite – it is basic but good with a scrupulously clean and up-to-date ablution block. The campground has a very nice walk out to a viewpoint over the gorge. We also drive down into the gorge and that is also very pretty. The primary reason for visiting this reserve would be to hike amongst its multitudinous species of wildflowers. This being winter… we carry on the next morning.
We left Oribi under cloudy skies but once the sun warmed the air, they burned off and the bright blue African sky we love is back. We find the old coastal route, R102 and travel along the ocean shoreline. The beaches between Port Shepstone and Durban are spectacular – wild and passionate, with huge surf and endless expanses of gold sand. We stop to walk. Locals are enjoying their beach, surfing and surf fishing which is where stand on the beach or even wade into the surf, casting with exceedingly long poles that send the line zinging for miles. Kites fly the thermals and children build castles. Today is Saturday so there are lots of families about. We’ve had the great fortune to be invited to stay at our friend’s ocean-front flat in Winkelspruit. We’ll check out Durban from here.
Our first stop in Durban is the uShaka Aquarium. This is a full day experience for families, a lot like Sea World in the USA. The aquarium, billed as one of the world’s largest, has been cleverly built into the bottom of an old freighter that is rusting on the shoreline. It is all simulated, but excellent.
The displays of fish from the Indian Ocean are amazing. I was particularly taken with the tanks full of soft coral and sea anemones- breathtakingly beautiful. Equally beautiful were the jelly fishes, among the world’s most ethereal and delicately elegant creatures. The sea horses were lovely. The female lays her eggs into the male’s belly sack. He fertilizes them, incubates them and goes into labour to deliver live sea horses who emerge fully formed and independent.
The shark tank is huge and teeming with really BIG sharks that don’t look at all friendly. At specific times a diver goes down inside a shark cage. He sticks a fish head on a stick and waves it around outside the cage when sharks wander by. They don’t seem all that interested, obviously overfed. Just the same, you would not find me swimming around in there outside a cage.
We watched the dolphin show. It relies heavily on loud pounding music and “trainers” who boogy around, shaking their booty in an attempt to get the crowd engaged. The dolphins do the usual synchronized jumping routines.
It was an interesting day; well worth the 95 Rand we paid ($12 Cdn). As we were leaving a group of young drummers and dancers erupted into frenzied action on the concourse in front of the entrance. They appeared to be dancing for the joy of it. There was never any solicitation for funds, or DVD sales or anything but sheer exuberance on their part. When they finished they simply picked up their gear and ran off together laughing and singing.
We followed up the aquarium with a walk on the waterfront. The streets are full of vendors – the usual carvings and jewelry; also handbags, shirts, towels, t-shirts, sunglasses, you name it. There is a lovely malecon with swimming pools, wading pools, waterslides, etc. Hundreds of families were strolling this area. There is also a long pier, off of which people were cheering on the surfers who were landing on the beach in front of us.
This whole Wild Coast / Durban experience has been such an eye opener for me. For years I’ve heard what a dangerous place this is and what a hell hole Durban is. What I found, over the whole length of the Wild Coast was unparalleled scenic beauty: the villages on the rolling hills of the inlands are neat and pretty, the beaches are as good as or better than anything I’ve seen elsewhere in the world. The people are friendly and very busy keeping their own life together. Durban is a pretty ocean-front town with lots of families out strolling the waterfront in the late afternoon and evening. No doubt there are areas best not visited, but so it is with any large city in North America or Europe.
Southern Africa is bustling and beautiful and a wonderful
place to visit. Next up: Richard’s Bay the Drakensburg Mountains,
the Battlefields and Kruger National Park.