It’s a cliché to say that a country is one of stark contrasts. It’s just been said so many times about so many countries. But with South Africa, it’s really true.
One day I’m drinking sumptuous craft beers in a hipster ale house in a gentrified neighborhood of Cape Town; another day I’m squatted down in a hut in a village with no electricity, sipping a piercingly sour maize-based brew called umqombothi from a communal pot. Both are equally South Africa.
Leaving behind the wealthy Western Cape and heading further east to a region called the Wild Coast, it’s almost as though you cross an invisible border. Mediterranean scrub and modern buildings make way for wooded savanna and African villages with pastel-colored roundhouses. This is Xhosa country: less tamed and much more traditional.
It’s also much poorer. At one of our stops along the way, I help our bus driver hand out bread and fizzy drinks to kids from a village. Our arrival creates a little commotion as everyone turns up from everywhere to collect these little gifts. After we distributed them all, our driver proudly showed us an album with photos of several families that he’s helping to support.
While the level of inequality can be staggering, visiting these less developed places will show you a very different side of South Africa, and a whole different culture as well.
The Wild Coast: it’s wild
The Wild Coast is a somewhat remote region reached via country roads ruled more often by goats and cows than by cars.
As our bus swerved around cattle and school children waved as we pass, I was excited to have arrived in such a different place.
My main stop in the Wild Coast was Coffee Bay, a place that oddly has nothing to do with coffee (the origin of the name is unclear), though it does have a gorgeous bay at the mouth of a small river, surrounded by green hills and plucks of subtropical bush.
I have to say, the Wild Coast is aptly named. The coastline here is craggy and unpredictable. Cattle from the local farmers is mostly unimpeded by any fencing, so you’ll find plenty of goats, cows and sheep roaming freely around town. On a morning walk along the beach, I found a whole bunch of horses resting at the shoreline, their manes waving in the salty wind.
Apart from the raw and beautiful nature, you’ll find only a small village here with a smattering of lodges and backpackers, and that’s just what’s so wonderful about this place. People come here just to surf, to hike the coastline, to learn about the local Xhosa culture, or to simply wind down for a little while.
Visiting a Xhosa village
I stayed at the Coffee Shack, a backpacker hostel that supports the local community through education projects, Fair Trade tourism, and cultural tours and homestays. They arranged for a guide who took us through fields and hidden paths around the village, while explaining different aspects of traditional Xhosa life.
One particularly interesting example were the initiation ceremonies that boys must go through to pass into manhood, which involve ritual circumcision and spending a month in seclusion. We also visited a sacred pool in the forest that is used in various rites, and were shown how people use red limestone to produce paint for their mud-wall houses.
The houses are simple and often have just one room, typically devoid of furniture except for some cabinets for storing pots and utensils. We sat on the ground in one of these roundhouses as some of the mammas cooked up a lunch. They made us a bean stew that was totally delicious, and I eagerly went in for seconds.
Less to my taste was the maize-based beer called umqombothi we were offered later. It comes in what looks like a milk carton, has to be shaken well before use, and is then poured into a pot. It is tradition to squat and then lift the pot with both hands before taking a sip.
This stuff is much cheaper than regular beer and is apparently a big favorite here, though it tasted so terribly sour that my tastebuds rejected it loudly and unanimously. Maybe it’s just an acquired taste?
Something that seemed telling of the local level of development was what it said on the side of the umqombothi carton: instead of “don’t drink and drive”, it warned not to drink and walk on the road.
Hiking to the Hole in the Wall
There are several popular hikes in the area, one of which leads to a beach with an interesting rock formation called the Hole in the Wall.
Even though it was misty and, at times, raining heavily, I thoroughly enjoyed this hike. Rain or shine, it’s a walk you don’t want to miss.
With verdant green hills flowing from a rugged coastline, the landscape reminded me almost of Ireland—if it weren’t, of course, for the subtropical plants and trees, or the traditional teal, pink and orange Xhosa roundhouses dotting the landscape.
We passed many craggy outcroppings where locals scavenge for oysters and mussels. They harvest so many here that even though I was staying in a low-budget hostel, they offer free oysters and mussels on certain days.
The path continued along crumbling cliffs and past a small waterfall, when suddenly my guide shrieked and jumped up with his arms flailing in the air… and I could just see a big snake slither away into the bushes. It turns out these snakes are venomous, so it’s worth watching your steps.
A guide didn’t seem strictly necessary though, as the path is easy to follow and apart from a startled snake there seemed to be few other dangers. If you head south along the coast, you simply can’t miss the trail.
The endpoint, the Hole in the Wall, is a spectacular place with some big cliffs bursting out of the ground. The beach is a great place to swim, relax, and have a picnic, but there’s also a café in the nearby village where you can restock or refuel.
If you do take a guide you get a free ride back to Coffee Bay, which is nice if you don’t want to walk the same path back. We rode back by pickup truck, occasionally picking up other villagers as hop-ons along the way.
Coffee Bay travel tips
The Wild Coast was easily my favorite place in South Africa. I was on a tight schedule, but if I was travelling long-term, I know that the Wild Coast would be a rabbit hole that I could disappear into for quite some time — but it’s absolutely worth paying a shorter visit, too.
- I stayed at the wonderful Coffee Shack, which has been a local institution for over 15 years. It’s a chilled out backpackers with a leafy garden area, a campsite, and dorms and private rooms inside traditional roundhouses. Family style dinners are served every night. The atmosphere is awesome.
- If you’re looking for something more mid-range with only cottages and private rooms, try Geckos B&B.
- Coffee Bay has some of the cheapest surfing lessons in the country; it’s just 50 rand for a 2 hour lesson, including board and wet suit rental.
- Internet is syrupy slow as it’s by satellite link only, so this is not the place to upload your 10 GB GoPro videos! But if you just need to check your e-mail, you’ll be fine.
- Older reports still refer to a nightmarish road full of potholes between Coffee Bay and the main road at Shell Ultra Garage, but when I visited a nice new road had been constructed. The journey takes about 2 hours now instead of 6.
- Apart from shorter day-hikes, there are also 4- and 5-day hikes to other towns like Port St. John, during which you sleep in village home-stays (your luggage is transported by car to your endpoint). Judging by the stories of other travellers I’m convinced this is a phenomenal experience, and if I had more time I would have signed up for this in a heartbeat.
Coffee Bay is a popular stop in the Wild Coast, but certainly not the only one! Others include Bulungula, Cintsa and Port St. John.