SUNDAY TIMES - Slackpacking is a fantastic way to explore the Wild Coast on foot
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Sunday Times Travel By David Alston, 2017-05-07 00:00:00.0

Slackpacking is a fantastic way to explore the Wild Coast on foot

Hikers make their way along an empty, pristine beach on the way to Kei Mouth.
Image: STEVE FRASER SMITH

David Alston and some '70-pluses' discover you're never too old to enjoy the delights of a coastal hike (especially when you're not roughing it)

"Remember to keep the sea on your left,'' was the parting advice given by our tour guide after surveying our "mature" party of 11.

We were setting out to tackle the 50-odd km "Combo Trail" - over four days with our luggage transported from hotel to hotel and only a day-pack to carry - from Wavecrest to Cintsa East on the Transkei's Wild Coast.

After a pleasant get-together at The Meander Inn in East London one evening, we set off for Wavecrest the following morning in a minibus.

After a two-and-a-half-hour drive (including 36km of dirt road from Butterworth), we arrived at our destination at lunchtime and had time to settle in before a sundowner boat ride up the Nxaxo River.

This was the first highlight of the trail and, as we motored slowly upstream among the mangrove swamps to gain shelter from the wind, we were followed by a noisy flock of trumpeter hornbills with added sightings of giant, pied and half-collared kingfishers and the distant cry of a fish eagle.

As we drifted on the glassy waters with the engine cut and only the sounds of nature to enjoy, civilisation already seemed far away. Wavecrest has a stunning situation at the estuary's mouth. Before we left the following morning, we saw two crowned cranes on the beach, now, alas, a rarity in the area.

DAY ONE: Wavecrest to Trennerys Hotel (14km)

The first part of the trail is through some coastal forest with indigenous trees such as ironwood, jackalberry, forest mahogany and various fig species. The birdlife includes Narina trogon and Knysna toucan.

After a walk of some 5km, we emerged onto the beach to be greeted by some amiable cattle.

After we'd crossed the Kobonqaba River mouth by canoe, we took lunch on the rocks near the disappearing wreck of the Jacaranda, a merchantman that ran ashore in 1971 on its way to Durban.

The going to Trennerys - another 6km along the beach - is fairly easy and we arrived mid-afternoon in time for tea, followed by a fiercely-contested snooker competition, a buffet-style dinner and bed.

DAY TWO: Trennerys to Morgan Bay (12km)

Soon after leaving the hotel, we passed two wetlands where African jacana, little bittern and African rail can be seen.

We then crossed the Gxarha River - it was 5km upstream that the visionary Nongqawuse had her vision in 1856 which led to a mass cattle killing, destruction of crops and famine - and we reached the Kei River shortly thereafter, crossing on one of the very few working pontoons in Africa for R2 per person.

After a packed lunch on the lawns outside the self-catering Neptune's Cove, it was full steam ahead for Morgan Bay, with a choice of route: either via the Cape Morgan Lighthouse through coastal bush, along a rocky coast and 2km stretch of beach; or a shorter walk over the golf course at Kei Mouth Country Club.

The Morgan Bay Hotel has a spectacular setting above the sea, and a wine-pairing dinner was a bonus.

The slowly decaying wreck of the 2000-ton coaster Jacaranda is one of several famous Wild Coast landmarks that hikers will pass while on the slackpacking trail from Wavecrest to Cintsa East. Image: MARK ANDREWS

DAY THREE:  Morgan Bay to Haga-Haga (12.5km)

A fairly steep climb on leaving the hotel up to the top of the Morgan Bay cliffs is a slight challenge, but we were rewarded with fantastic views up and down the coast. One can then descend again to the sea or continue on a shorter route along the cliffs, meeting up just before the Double Mouth campsite. An interesting crossing of the Quko River followed, but as it was low tide, we were able to wade across and keep vital parts of our anatomies (and packed lunches) dry.

Next came 8km of sand - where, apart from shells, pieces of Ming pottery and beads from the wreck of the Santa Espiritus in 1608 can still be found - all the way to Haga-Haga, where the hotel is practically on the rocks and one is lulled to sleep by the sounds of the sea.

DAY FOUR: Haga Haga to Cintsa East (16.5km)

This was "the longest day", but we were blessed with perfect weather and nudged on by the slightest of easterlies at our backs.

There is indeed "a tricky section over a rocky headland" shortly after departure, but with mutual encouragement and help, it was successfully negotiated, and we arrived at the beautiful Pullens Bay before tackling the next 6km along a rocky shoreline, with much marine life in pools to explore. After our final lunch on the beach, it was 8km of firm sand into Cintsa East and our final destination, Crawfords Beach Lodge, which towers above the coastline. A delicious tea, final libations to the weather deities and a sumptuous buffet brought our experience to a close and we reluctantly departed by combi for East London after breakfast the next morning.

So what are the attractions of the trail?

First of all, the enjoyable walking - the route can be tackled by anyone who is reasonably fit - and the camaraderie of being with like-minded people.

Best of all, the trail covers a truly spectacular part of South Africa's coastline that is still relatively pristine. During four days of walking we saw very few people. It was a privilege to experienced nature at its most beautiful, and we all felt a sense of renewed enthusiasm for the "troubled paradise" that is South Africa. Do it soon, in case the threat of mining, which stills hangs over the area, becomes a reality.

PLAN YOUR TRIP

CONTACT: The trail was efficiently organised by Helen Ross of Wild Coast Holiday Reservations (e-mail meross@iafrica.com or phone 043-743-6181), who will gladly tailor the trail to meet your needs as there are different starting and end points to choose from. Prices vary according to the number of walkers: R7,165pp (group of six) to R6,185pp (18 people), all inclusive.

GUIDES: Use the guides who are on offer - they are knowledgeable and helpful, know which paths to take, can tell you a great deal about Xhosa customs, and you'll be providing employment to the local community.

WEATHER AND TIDES: Autumn is probably the best time to do the trail. The weather is mild, usually fine, and wind is at a minimum. Choose dates when low tide is the middle of the day - it makes walking on the beach and crossing rivers a great deal easier. And finally, walk slowly: daily distances are not long and there is so much to enjoy along the way.