The Pondo Trail, Pondoland

Besides a previous Wild Coast hike from Port St Johns to Coffee Bay, Pondoland, The Wild Coast and the Transkei have constituted a gap in my outdoor experience of South Africa. The beauty and the undeveloped nature of the coast south of Port St Johns wetted my appetite for more, especially the fabled Pondoland coast to the north, which had apparently retained more of its wilderness nature. And then, as if out of the blue, a former colleague at the university invited me along to make up the numbers for her extended family group booking on the The Pondo Trail, a commercial, slackpack 65 km, 4-day hike through the Mkambati Nature Reserve, down to Manteku. The Pondo Trail is immensely popular and booked out a year in advance, and this trip was to be a nostalgic return to places of youthful memory for members of the family. I was both honoured and grateful to be invited to share the experience with them.

The Pondo Trail hugs the coast and crosses a few beautiful estuaries as well as rivers that fall off the sandstone sheet, that characterises Mkambati, directly into the sea. Walking is fairly easy, with few elevation gains, sandy and grassy paths with few if any loose rocks, and long beaches. Although two days feature distances in the region of 20km, conditioned hikers would find it easy going. In wet weather, the trail would get muddy and there are marshy areas to cross, so your feet will get wet, and of course there are plenty of opportunities for swimming – and jumping off cliffs if you are so inclined. As mentioned, the waterfalls that cascade off the rocky coast are unique and spectacular sights, and they include Mkambati Falls, and the Horseshoe and Strandloper Falls upriver, Waterfall Bluff where the Mlambomkulu River plunges 60m into the sea, and Mfihlelo Falls – the Secret Waterfall. The latter are two of the 37 waterfalls worldwide that debouch directly into the sea.

Trail groups assemble in Port Edward and have the options of sea or road transfer to the trail head. If you like a bit of adrenaline and don’t mind getting wet, I would highly recommend the fast-boat transfer of about 32 kms. The offshore dash takes about an hour, features a launch through the surf and a bumpy, high-speed ride – and you will get wet. We were quite surprised when the boats veered into a rocky inlet with no beach, into which the Mkambati Falls tumble.  Here we had to jump in and take a short swim to a rock ledge. So have the right clothing and waterproofing for this.

I can’t walk through a landscape without wondering about the geological forces that shaped it, whether what we see now is the way it has been for millennia, whether humans have modified the ecology, what beings have travelled this same way …  Everything about the Wild Coast stems from its geology. Many a ship has foundered on the rocky ledges and benches and smashed into the sheer cliffs that characterise the coast east of Mboyti to Mkambati, and undoubtedly contributed to its name and reputation. This is the abrupt edge of the pale, grey, quartzitic sandstone sheet known as the Msikaba Formation. It produces soils that are sandy, nutrient poor, with low moisture capacity and high permeability, which in turn made occupation by pastoral and agricultural peoples unattractive. According to archeological studies the Mkambati area has been sparsely populated for more than 2000 years, and this is probably one of the reasons why the land was deemed worthy of conservation. However, there is also evidence that hunter-gatherers have exploited the area, and modified the ecology by fire, for between 150 000 and 500 000 years.  Another  more recent reason for low-density settlement would be the establishment of a leper colony in 1899, because of its isolation. It was only in the 1950s when a cure for leprosy was discovered, that Mkambati ceased to function as a leper colony. In the intervening period Mkambati had been largely devoid of human settlement.
Strandloper Falls
Approaching Horseshoe Falls

Shark Point

In 1979 the then Transkei Government created the  Mkambati Game Reserve for hunting tourism, but that proved unviable, and eventually, after 1994, the reserve fell under the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency. Mkambati has proved to be conservation worthy as the Pondoland Centre – the area between the roughly between Port Edward and the Egosa Fault east of Mboyti – harbours the Pondoland Centre of Endemism, which means that it is one of the principal centres of plant diversity on Earth. Once again, its uniqueness stems from the Msikaba Formation sandstone that provides habitat for plants that are uncommon or absent from surrounding soils. The Pondoland Centre of Endemism is a component of the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany biodiversity hotspot, one of two in southern Africa, and of 36 worldwide. The Pondoland Centre boasts at least 2253 different plant species. By comparison, Britain has 1692 native plant species.

The coast and seas offshore are also wild and special. A marine reserve was initially proclaimed in 1991 off Mkambati and in 2004 the Pondoland Marine Protected Area was established. The MPA extends from the Mzamba River to the Mzimvuba River, and a core, no-take-by-boat area is maintained between Sikombe and Mboyti, a sea area of approximately 400 square kms with buffer zones on each side.

Crossing the Msikaba estuary
Paddling on the Msikaba
Arrival at Luphuthana camp
So, you could treat a hike on this Wild Coast as simply another fun adventure in a remote, wildish, beautiful place – or you could experience it with a more discerning eye and prior knowledge of what makes it ecologically and culturally unique. The guides on this trip, one of whom has a degree in environmental science, definitely triggered my desire to learn more about Mkambati through the information and knowledge that they imparted.

Cathedral Rock
A curious Madagascar eel
Of course, no travelogue about this portion of the Wild Coast would be complete without some reference to its notoriety for shipwrecks. As resource-rich as the coast was to hunter-gatherers and the locals, so inhospitable it was to European survivors who found themselves marooned here. They starved and died by the hundreds in their attempts to reach either the Cape or Delagoa Bay after surviving shipwrecks, although their interactions with the local amaMpondo people were peaceful and non-violent. Many of these ships were Portuguese caravels, galleons and carracks en route between the East Indies and Europe. One such ship was the São Bento, a carrack, which foundered in the Msikaba river mouth in 1554. Eventually only 23 of the 472 souls on board made it to Delagoa Bay.

But another famous wreck, that of the English East Indiaman, Grosvenor, was the one that piqued my interest, not so much because of the story about its foundering or the travails of the survivors and the absorption of some into the amaMpondo, but because of the subsequent, still visible, attempts to salvage the treasure which it was reputed to be carrying. The Grosvenor struck a submerged rock of Lambasi Bay (the bay of mussels) on the 4th of August 1782. Many attempts to recover the treasure were launched over the centuries, but the idiosyncratic one that stands out and epitomises the hubris of late-British Empire imperialists, was the attempt launched by the Grosvenor Bullion Syndicate of 1921, of which Arthur Conan Doyle was reputed to be a shareholder.

The syndicate tunnelled through the rock (see photo below) to a site under the supposed location of the wreck with the intention of blasting a hole into which the wreck would fall, and then they were to dredge the artefacts out using a steam-driven winch. But they ceased to operate. Subsequently, there were many schemes, until the myth about the treasure was finally put to rest in the 1940s.

The tunnel to the Grosvenor wreck

Approaching Mboyti
Crossing to Manteku
So, would I do this walk again? Definitely. And I intend to explore much more of the Wild Coast in the coming years if fate allows.

My Pondo Trail photo album

Source: much of the above information was obtained from the excellent book Mkambati and the Wild Coast: South Africa and Pondoland’s unique heritage by Div de Villiers and John Constello.

Mzintlava River at Manteku at dusk