Sun, Wind, and Cows on Beaches: An Unforgettable Hike along South Africa’s Wild Coast (Part One)

When we – reluctantly – left Johannesburg in early 2013, I knew we had made the most of our three years in Africa. We had seen the continent up and down from Cairo to the Cape of Good Hope and East to West from Pemba Beach in Mozambique to Swakopmund in Namibia. We had been to its highest peak in Tanzania and into the deepest sea when diving in Zanzibar. It’s hard to imagine that we could have squeezed even one more week of exploration into our busy lives.

And yet I always regretted never having seen the Wild Coast, that fabled place that conjured images of Where The Wild Things Are in my mind’s eye. I still keep a copy of the children’s classic by Maurice Sendak on my bookshelf, dog-eared and well-worn. I suppose I must have always had a yearning for adventures to parts unknown, even if scary things might lurk around the corner.

Imagine my delight this past July when out of the blue we received a phone call from our South African friends. Two spots had opened up in their group going on the Wild Coast Meander a mere three weeks later, and would we be interested in joining?

Not typically ones to make quick plans, we dropped everything and booked our flights via Atlanta to Johannesburg. Our kids were old enough to stay on their own for 10 days, we reasoned, and so we brushed away any feelings of guilt or worry. The Wild Coast was calling!

I’ve always said that nowhere but Africa are you so pampered when embarking into the wilderness, and this is very true for the Wild Coast too. The name might make you think of deserted landscapes and rugged terrain to be conquered by sheer power of will, but in reality porters would be carrying our bags and we would walk along mostly flat stretches of beach ending at a nice hotel – and inevitably its bar – every afternoon. Our South African friends called it “slackpacking,” a term we immediately embraced as the ideal junction between adventure and luxury.

coastline at Kob Inn on South Africa's Wild Coast Meander
The vessel for our sunset cruise at Kob Inn, making or a beautiful photo prop.
hikers on South Africa's wild coast
Hiking along the Wild Coast with a group of friends is great fun! Photo: Jacky D.

The Wild Coast Meander is a leisurely hike following a 56 km stretch of coastline along the Indian Ocean roughly halfway between Durban and Port Elizabeth. Depending on just how slack your pace, this takes from four to six days of walking. Our group – four couples and two teenagers – started out at Kob Inn, a friendly if a bit dated family hotel we reached by shuttle from East London after we’d caught the early flight from Joburg.

At the time of booking, it seemed like a good idea to spend an extra night there to relax, giving us a chance to ride – or rather mostly push, in my case – mountain bikes along the beach, trot horses through the pounding surf, and take a sundowner river cruise in a rickety motor boat supplied by the hotel. Later, however, we discovered that the hotels got progressively nicer as well was more secluded along the way, and wished we had planned a day of rest at one of them instead.

One of the big questions we pondered quite thoroughly:  Why did we come across so many cows standing on the beach? No one seemed to know the answer, but we were grateful to the cows, because they made great photo props.

Perhaps they do it simply because they can. I mean, who doesn’t want to stand on a beautiful beach without another soul invading your space?

cows on the beach on South Africa's wild coast
One of many cow sightings on the Wild Coast Meander

It was when we had to cover a whopping 22 km the next day that the Wild Coast lived up to its name.

A quick note about the Wild Coast Meander hotels:

Kob Inn, located approximately three hours Northeast of East London, is where you begin your hike. Offers many activities like tennis, mountain biking, horse riding, boating.

Mazeppa Bay Hotel is tucked among lush tropical plants in a gorgeous setting. Amenities include swimming pool, tennis court, trampoline, beach volleyball, and a private island with suspension bridge.

Wavecrest Beach Hotel and Spa sits on the banks of an inlet with a mangrove-lined  lagoon on one side and an expanse of beach and rolling dunes on the other. Best features: outdoor jacuzzi, cappuccino maker, and full spa offering massages.

Trennery’s Hotel has an African ambiance. Rooms are white-washed, thatch-roofed chalets tucked under indigenous trees, and dinner is served off the braai.

Morgan Bay is a good spot to add another day when traveling with family, as it features large 3-room suites sleeping six, and a number of activities, but it is less secluded than the other hotels.

The Wild Coast Meander can be booked through Helen Ross at Wild Coast Holiday Reservations:

P O Box 8017 Nahoon
East London
Tel  043 7436181
Fax 043 7436188

We woke to a blustering wind that we were to wrestle against for eight long hours without reprieve. We doggedly put one foot in front of the other, hoods tightly cinched around our faces and legs stinging from the whipped-up sand. Silently we trudged on, sometimes in pairs, sometimes single file, conversation impossible in the howling gale.

Take Mazeppa Bay Hotel, for instance, where we arrived on our second day after a short two hour walk over sun-drenched pastures and across the most stunning beach I’d ever seen. We climbed a long staircase through lush tropical vegetation, past a secluded infinity pool and a rather ancient tennis court, and found ourselves looking at a charming collection of cottages, each with its own small garden perfectly suited for an afternoon nap.

My favorite feature was the ginger house cat that insisted on squeezing between my Kindle and me when I stretched out on the lawn in front of our room.

Sufficiently rested and supplied with a sundowner from the bar, that evening we backtracked our way down to the beach and at its far end crossed over to a rocky island by way of a suspension bridge that would have been well placed in an Indiana Jones movie.

I held my breath as I gingerly placed my feet on the swinging planks and had to close my eyes when I came to the inevitable part – why do all suspension bridges have this part, right in the middle? – where a cable had snapped and the railing was interrupted. But once safely across, it was an awesome feeling to plop down on some scattered boulders, point our toes to the East, and ponder the big questions in life while the surf pounded onto the rocks below.

When it was time for our lunch break we threw down our daypacks, opened up our paper bags – lovingly packed every morning by that hotel’s staff – and each found a sunny spot behind one of the many rocks to eat our sandwich in peace and with a good helping of the relentlessly whipped-up sand.

But any self-pity we might have indulged in had to be swallowed when glancing at the backs of our porters carrying our heavy packs into the same unrelenting wind. What in my imagination had been a troop of strapping young men in reality was a gaggle of frail looking elderly women wearing colorful wraps and flip-flops.

Suspension bridge at Mazeppa Inn on South Africa's wild coast
The suspension bridge at Mazeppa Bay Hotel


South Africa's wild coast
Beach between Mazeppa Bay and Wavecrest. You can see the ripples in the sand from the wind.
South Africa's wild coast
Can you think of a better spot for a lunch break? Photo: Andy V.
rest stop on a beach during wild coast meander
Yours truly on the right with a less than enthusiastic expression. I was grouchy because of the endless wind and the sand between my teeth. Photo: Andy V.

What renders the Wild Coast particularly beautiful is the succession of river mouths separating one beach from the next, some mere trickles of water, and some fast-flowing streams. Several times that day we had to take off our shoes, roll up our pant legs, and wade through the crystal clear water.

The best river crossing awaited us at the next destination, Wavecrest Beach Hotel and Spa, where hotel staff manned canoes to transport first our bags and then us across the wide river whose banks it was built on. But we scarcely took in the gorgeous surroundings. With single-minded fervor we dragged ourselves to the large pool deck, stripped our feet off their boots and lowered them into the delicious hot water of the Jacuzzi, not willing to move again for a good long time, except when it was announced that in addition to the beer and wine we’d been guzzling there were massages to be had.

river crossing during wild coast meander
One of many river crossings on foot.
South Africa's wild coast
The view from Wavecrest Beach
Wavecrest Beach Hotel and Spa on South Africa's Wild Coast
Wavecrest Beach Hotel and Spa – a welcome sight after 22 km of hiking against gale winds

Later in our room we were silently rifling through our backpacks to get them ready for the next morning when Noisette yelled as if bitten by a tarantula. “What the f— is that?” he said, and pulled out a large rock he’d discovered at the bottom of his pack. “What the hell is this doing in my bag?” And then with dawning recognition: “This time I’m going to kill him!”

To be continued… Stay tuned for Part Two!

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