By DAVID ALSTON
After careful surveillance by our tour organiser, our group of 14 golden oldies were sternly admonished to ‘keep the sea on our left’ before we left East London by kombi after a reunion at the Meander Inn. Here, friendships were resumed and body parts checked to ensure they were in more or less in working order for the 54km that lay ahead. We reached Kob Inn, our first destination, by lunchtime so we could walk along the Qora river banks or pursue other nautical activities in the afternoon. Kob Inn has a great location, with waves thundering onto the rocks below the bar area, and it’s a good place start to start the walk as there are only 6km to walk to Mazeppa Bay on the first day.
With a canoe taking us across the river after a leisurely breakfast the following morning, there was still plenty of time to enjoy 4km of beach walking and a further two along the hillside overlooking the sea before arriving at Mazeppa in time to savour our packed lunches. The undisturbed dune forest just before the hotel overlooks the Umnebele River mouth, which gets its name from the Stink Ebony Tree – its southernmost limit. Further up the valley, Narina Trogons and Olive Bush Shrikes can be seen. The main attraction at Mazeppa is ‘The Island’, which can be reached by a somewhat precarious suspension bridge, but with lowering skies and the wind increasing, most of us opted for the comfort of the lounge and libations to the weather gods to keep us dry during our morning walk. In passing, the main item of ‘Roast Beef’ on the Vegetarian Menu at dinner did give the vegans in the party something to think about!
Following an early breakfast, we were ready to tackle ‘The Longest Day’ – 22km to Wavecrest – but with favourable walking weather (overcast but virtually windless) we were confident that the route, which is level for most of the way, would not present any insuperable difficulties for the various replaced hips and knees that were present in some of the party. We set off through some dune forest before emerging onto the beach, where we encountered the first group of many cattle – such a feature of the Transkei Coast – who watched us go by with baleful looks but an amiable demeanour. Alas, there are now very few Nguni to be seen.
With heavy rains having fallen the previous week, high seas were running and the normally pristine beaches were littered with driftwood. Several blind rivers were now open to the sea and needed to be negotiated – luckily none were more than knee-high, thus preventing the possibility of an unscheduled nude beach party. And having wisely chosen days where low tide was in the morning, the strong surges that often accompany the incoming tides could be avoided. By the time we reached the Cebe River, where another packed lunch was enjoyed on the sand dunes, we had broken the back of the walk and completed the last 8km along the beach to be ferried across the estuary of the Nxaxo and Ngqusi Rivers to the hotel – just ahead of an unexpected thunderstorm.
The half-way point
Wavecrest is the half-way mark of the Meander and overlooks one of only two rivers on the Transkei Coast where mangrove forest can be found, but the weather prevented a planned outing up-river to see them and the abundant birdlife at close quarters. Because of the variety of habitat types close to the hotel, seven different kingfisher species and other specials such as the White-backed Night Heron and African Finfoot can be seen. Sadly, the Crowned Cranes that used to roost in their hundreds in the mangroves are now few and far between as man’s ever-increasing impact on the environment continues to make its presence felt. A roaring fire and further libations however, did much to quell our disappointment at not being able to go out, and an early bed was the order the day after taming a distance that some of us had regarded as daunting.
And so on to Trennery’s the next morning, a distance of 14km, which commences with a spectacular 5km through dune forest where Giant Pock-Ironwood, Small-leaved Jackalberry and Forest Mahogany are present, in addition to plentiful birdlife. Emerging from the forest high above the beach, we gazed down at towering waves breaking on the shoreline and sending clouds of spray high above the rocks – probably the result of storms out to sea, signaled by thunder and lightning the previous night. After crossing the Kobonqaba River by canoe, we had lunch at the wreck of the fast-disappearing Jacaranda, a merchantman that ran ashore in 1971 en route to Durban. From there on in, it was a relatively easy walk to Trennery’s, first along a rocky shoreline (where we saw the first of an encouragingly large number of Black Oystercatchers) before a long stretch of beach brought us to the hotel and out of a drizzle that had threatened intermittently during the day.
With Morgan Bay beckoning, we set out the next morning in bright sunlight, and nudged along by the gentlest of North-easterlies, soon came to the Gxarha River, where Nongqawuse had her vision that led to the killing of cattle and mass poverty among the Xhosas in 1856 – a truly tragic episode in South African history. The Great Kei River was reached shortly thereafter – the old SA-Transkei Border – and crossed by pontoon, after which we had lunch on the lawns outside a holiday establishment that welcomes walkers provided they buy ‘liquid refreshments’ – and who could refuse after a hard morning’s walk?
The run(walk)-in to Morgan Bay features a gentle climb through dune forest up to a lighthouse and a steeper descent back to the coast where the remains of an ill-fated titanium-mining venture can be seen, followed by about 2km of beach to the hotel, which has been family-run for over 70 years and still lists every guest’s name on the dinner and breakfast menus – so be careful what you get up to! (A shorter route over the golf course at the Kei Mouth Country Club can also be used, but you miss the spectacular views of the coastline, which is what makes the Transkei Coast so special). It was with heavy hearts that we boarded our transfer back to East London the following morning, but the memories of the Meander will be with us for a long time to come. Do it, before this beautiful part of South Africa becomes too exploited.
If you go:
- Contact Helen Ross of Wild Coast Holiday Reservations (email firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone (043 7436181). She will tailor the trail to meet your needs as there are different starting and stopping options. Prices, on an all-inclusive basis, vary according to the number of hikers. All the hotels offer comfortable accommodation and adequate food, and with luggage transferred from place to place, all one need carry is a day pack.
- Use the local guides and/or porters that are on offer – they are knowledgeable and helpful, know which paths to take, and you are giving employment to the local community.
- The trail can be done all the year round except during the December/January School holidays.
- And finally: walk slowly – there is so much to savour along the way.