Port St Johns is an interesting and intriguing town. An hour’s drive from Mthata, in the OR Tambo district of the Eastern Cape, it squats at the foot of a deep gorge, where forests cling to the sides of cliffs, and observes the Umzimvubu River, sliding over the shifting sands of its estuary into the Indian Ocean.
The complex indigenous forests that surround the town feel tropical. After driving across lands denuded of woodland there is Sneezewood, Stinkwood, Yellowood, Fever Trees, Cycads, umlungu mabele (a customary name for a tree that made me chuckle, ask an isiXhosa speaker what it means and why), Umnquma. There are grasslands, wetlands, scarified rocks and mangrove swamps. According to one hard-to-come-by tourist guide, there are 50,000ha of indigenous forest, 130 species of endemic vascular plants…
The first time I visited Port St Johns (PSJ), its tropical vegetation, bustle, colour and integration reminded me more of a West African port town like Takoradi in Ghana, than of something sitting on the coastal shelf of South Africa. For as long as I’ve known it, PSJ has had a reputation as a place that refuses to comply. The punk kid on the wild coast block, a sneer’s throw away from the horrors of the formal settlements of the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast. Once upon a time PSJ was the home of Capital Radio. Today, Capital Radio is memorialised by a big rectangular booster looking like a cinema screen that still stands atop the cliffs above Ferry Point Road. Long redundant. It is also known as a place of integration, neighbourliness and easy access to the Sativa plant, one of the crops that grows profusely and profitably on that part of the coast.
On 23 December 2015, as I walked up to the bar at the Jungle Monkey backpackers to the riddims of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, all seemed to bode well. Not a Christmas jingle in sight or sound. But PSJ is more than the sum of its counter-cultures. In its own eccentric way, Port St John’s mirrors our history. It is said to be named after a Portuguese ship wrecked on the notorious wild coast in the late sixteenth century. Two British sailors, Theisiger and Sullivan still lend their names to the mountains that bridge either side of the Umzimvubu River. For pre-colonial centuries it was part of the territory of Mthwa clan who, in the 1800s allowed white traders to settle there. Later, in a territorial dispute between Chief Nqwiliso, the son of Chief Ndamase and the Mthwa Great House, the whole town was ceded to the Cape Colony in return for colonial recognition of Nqwiliso. It remained that way for a long time until in 1976, with the Brits long gone, it was “given back” by the National Party government to the Bantustan Chief Kaiser Daliwonga Matanzima as a sweetener for Transkei accepting “independence”.
So, not only is it a trading town, but it is also a traded town. First it was a black community, then for over a century a white colonial enclave, and now it is overwhelmingly black again. Its one hotel, the Cape Hermes, is now a skeleton. Its me-too pretensions of grandeur overgrown by bush. Thankfully its overestimation of self, of becoming a typical white tourist resort came to naught. And so what?
Over the holiday period I took a five-day walk on the wild side of the Wild Coast. Astounding beauty aside, our small trek made me witness to a different country, its governance (or lack thereof), the scale of deprivation and some of the “small” things that could be done to generate decent livelihoods (short of the overthrow of capitalism which some argue is the only road to lasting reform! Nudge nudge, wink wink).
Photo by Mark Heywood.
The start of the trail is inauspicious. A path slips off the lagoon on Second Beach that takes you all the way to Coffee Bay, or beyond that to Gonubie should you have the luxury of time and strong legs. Over five days and four nights, you cross empty unspoiled beaches, mangrove swamps, fields of ganja, the Mngazana, Mnenu, Mdumbi and Mthatha rivers. You start to live by the time of the tides, necessary to work out when to arrive at rivers while they are still wadeable. Otherwise it’s a local rowing boat that acts as ferry. I first walked this trail 20 years ago. In those days it was run by the Eastern Cape Provincial government as part of its department of tourism. It was tightly organised, requiring permits and permissions. One year I was even made to turn back by a trail ranger, for walking the trail from Port St Johns to Port Edward in the wrong direction. That was then.
Today the designated huts that hikers used to stay in are dilapidated shells. But here lay opportunity number one. Into the gap have stepped a small number of local entrepreneurs who make small businesses out of organising guides for hikers and organising accommodation along the way. One of them is Wild Coast Hikes. It is operated by Jimmy Selani, a local artist and once upon a time Rasta, his dreds now cropped.
You might ask who needs a guide? Well, unless you are very familiar with the area, you do because, along with the hikers’ huts, the clear trail markings have gone too. And here is an example of how tenders-to-pals ekes its way into the most mundane areas of life. A young man, Sisa Felani, was our great guide. According to him, and evident from his eruptions of umbrage every time we came across a stupidly placed white arrow, a tender for the laying of markers on the path was awarded. But it was given to someone without commitment or interest in the trail.
Photo by Mark Heywood.
As a result, sporadic white arrows pop up only at points when the path is patently obvious, where they are least needed. At points where the human path intersects with cattle paths, diverge or disappear so do the arrows. As we progressed through each day’s natural splendor one or two things kept hitting at my thoughts.
The first was seeing how the drought and changed patterns of climate have withered the household gardens. In our urban lives drought is equated with watering restrictions. Thou may not fill thy swimming pool or wash thy car. In rural areas like the former Transkei, drought dries bore holes, and makes living off the land more and more precarious. Household gardens look dry and infertile. The young are pushed from the beauty and possibility of this land to the shit and squalor of the so-called informal settlement. The second thought flows from the first.
The wild coast must rival the most beautiful coastlines in the world. There is great potential for an economy based on eco-tourism, one that could support both the environment and its local communities. With initiative and advertising, support and assistance the wild coast trails might seed a real tourist economy, one diametrically different from the one that laid its foundations in the apartheid years.
The former Transkei is like a rural conurbation; low density humanity spreads itself across overlapping villages. But this is humanity left behind. People who live here have limited (if any) access to water and electricity, no access to jobs, an ambulance is as rare as a politician, and the OR Tambo district has the worst health outcomes in the country (How that can be, God only knows). Here only marijuana and the forests seem to thrive.
For fours nights, after each tiring day’s walk, we strayed a few hundred metres from the coast and stayed in the villages of Madakeni, Tsweleni, Hlukeka, and Tshani. We were guests for R250 a head with families who have forever lived this coast. We had the privilege of talking to passers-by, learning about the James’, Kings and Banks of the Eastern Cape, the Xhosa-Xhosa and the Mpondo-Xhosa and, from one young “dog” how crops of marijuana, grown undetected in the indigenous forests, provide him a livelihood in Grahamstown. And despite the cash-poverty of our hosts we were fed well with steam bread and local chicken, slept comfortably on mattresses on the floor of a rondavel, were given sumptuous breakfasts and Ricoffee in the morning. Showers were under rudimentary buckets hung from rafters with Zuma-esque shower heads, water taken from nearby taps and the toilets were, well, pit toilets.
Photo by Mark Heywood.
Of course, one thing never far away was Castle Lager or Coke. We may joke – but that also tells you something. The alcohol economy. Those five days and the thoughts they gave rise to made me wonder why so many of my progressive friends take their holidays in ugly coastal conurbia, pumping money into crass multi-national hotel chains and fast food restaurants. There is something so much better on offer. A small power to alleviate poverty and inequality, to show solidarity, lies in the life choices we make.
South Africans need not be so poor. We may be short on water, blighted by the legacies of colonialism and apartheid, paralysed by a failing education system, bedeviled by corrupt leaders. And all of these must be fixed. But in the meantime we are rich in natural resources, resourceful human beings (if only they were given a chance) and history. What we lack is a new imagination and a government that spots opportunity and has a real commitment to aiding the poor. Indeed, as soon-to-be-departed Business Day editor Songezo Zibi argued in a recent article, “we must work to provide new opportunities in areas in which people without matric can work. To me, this suggests reinvigorating the primary sectors, such as agriculture, and then the services economy, which requires short-term training, such as tourism.”
How about it? DM
Main photo: Port St Johns sunrise by Meraj Chhaya via Flickr
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