Hiking South Africa’s Wild Coast

Hiking South Africa’s Wild Coast
Courtesy Mtentu Lodge
Hiking South Africa's Wild Coast through the spectacular Mkambati Nature Reserve.

Some beaches are best enjoyed with umbrellas, lounge chairs and cocktails. But to experience beaches such as Mkambati, hiking shoes and canoes work better.

That’s because there’s no roads leading to the beach. Hidden inside a nature reserve along South Africa’s Wild Coast, the only way to travel there is by hiking along the Mkambati River or paddling up the coast.

That inaccessibility is why even many South Africans don’t know this beach on a sheltered bay, although it’s one of the world’s great rarities.

Where the river meets the sea, it tumbles over black cliffs in one of the few waterfalls to pour directly into the ocean. At least, when the tide is high the water pours directly into the ocean. At low tide, the water falls onto the beach where turtles nest and otters splash.

Natural wonders

“There’s a hole in the waterfall itself that we call the jacuzzi,” says Russel Hartshorne, who co-owns the nearby Mtentu Lodge. “It’s not warm, but the water bubbles up around you.”

Because the land is owned by the communities who live there, Mtentu operates in agreement with the surrounding villages, which receive a portion of the proceeds.

During the austral winter, usually in late June or early July, the Sardine Run passes the coast — an epic aquatic migration of, yes, sardines, but also the whales, sharks, dolphins and birds that feed on them.

The Sardine Run is unpredictable — more so in recent years as the ocean has warmed and currents have shifted. During the best years, the bay bubbles with sea life that skirts the beach, while the river runs turquoise blue.

In the summer, from November to February, giant kingfish circle in their hundreds, for reasons still unknown, before swimming back to sea. Then the waterfalls are smaller, but the water is better is swimming, says Hartshorne.

Incredible walks

The river actually forms a series of waterfalls as it heads to sea. Just 50 meters above the Mkambati Falls, the Strandlooper Falls make a nine-meter drop that hides a cave where baboons make their homes.

The most intrepid hikers climb to the top and jump into the river, flying past the baboon hideout.

About 2.5 miles farther up, the Horseshoe Falls crash in an even more dramatic drop, while deeper in the reserve, the Swallow Tail Falls are only for the hardiest.

Even the canoes can’t make it there. After another two mile paddle, the canoes get parked for a last half-mile trek that takes an hour to scramble over boulders, swim across ponds, and climb to the 100-meter falls hidden in a breathtaking gorge.

“In a day you’ve done between a six and 10-kilometer walk, and you’ve seen three really beautiful waterfalls,” Hartshorne says.

Along the way, the wildlife on land is less dramatic than in the sea, at least by South African standards. Eland, zebras and gnus appear among the gray rocks and green grass, while the baboons periodically let themselves be known. Cattle roam freely inside the reserve, including along the beaches.

Travel plans

The Mkambati Nature Reserve hugs the Indian Ocean.

The nearest major airport is in Durban, anywhere from two to four hours away, depending on the location of the lodge in the reserve.

To get to places like Mtentu Lodge, it can be faster to stop in Port Edward, and then hike, cycle or ride horseback along the beach into the park. The roads do get there, eventually, along a very round-about route — made faster in a 4×4 that can make the journey off-road through the reserve.

This is one of those parts of the world where Google Maps doesn’t excel, so it’s best to carry a map and follow directions to the letter.

Much of this land in the Eastern Cape was set aside as a “homeland” under the apartheid regime, part of the racist program of separate development, which meant the homelands weren’t developed at all.

Mkambati sits inside a region called Pondoland, part of the former Transkei. Now it’s fully incorporated into South Africa but the land along the coast has been declared a protected zone.

Bongani Mlotywa grew up in the region, and now organizes hiking trips of up to five days through Pondoland that include homestays in villages where water is still drawn from wells and toilets are euphemistically called “long drops”. His company, Absolute Wild Coast leads tours by foot or on horseback, with porters available if needed.

Lodges like Mtentu are also totally off the grid, finding ecologically minded solutions like solar showers for their wooden cabins and stilted safari tents.