Try a coastal adventure on the Eastern Cape’s wildest side, on a bike
The part of the Wild Coast most accessible from Johannesburg is Port Edward to Mbotyi. This is also one of the Eastern Cape region’s wildest sections. The route entails riding on small paths and grass, and sometimes pushing over rocks.
For a ride, two essentials are required: a Slingsby map of the area; and tide tables for Port Edward to ascertain when low tide will allow the crossing of three river mouths – Mzamba, Mnyameni and Msikaba.
In winter, these river mouths are likely to be ankle shallow but in summer they cannot be waded across except at low spring tide. On a recent trip, however, we floated our bikes across at high tide easily using a plastic lilo taped into a survival bag — although this is a last resort because it is extra baggage and energy is needed for inflation and deflation.
The ride starts on the long beach south of the Wild Coast Sun complex. A little way down the beach is a petrified forest, exposed in reefs at low tide.
Beach riding entails riding as close to the surf as possible, always bearing in mind that seawater is not good for bicycles. Left unserviced after being kissed by seawater, a bike can quickly corrode to scrap.
Riding in this surf zone is mesmerising. Hard sand turns to soft with no warning. Hard is an absolute pleasure; the best way to cross soft is at speed.
On this trip, the daily distances are not far. With (say) 7kg of luggage, the first day to Mtentu Lodge takes four to 10 hours, depending on river crossings, wind direction and fitness. The incredible sea is always on the left, the beach, rocks or cliffs are ahead, and the grass to the right. On the first day we came across only one fisherman on the shore.
The Wild Coast has remained wild primarily because of a 1992 Transkei government decree proclaiming that land within 1km above the high watermark is a conservation area on which no new buildings may be erected. Sometimes, just sometimes, governments do the right thing.
The beach alternates with rocky stretches and headlands. As there is no set trail, you have to decide which route to take.
On the first afternoon you will pass bare red dunes (one of the "small deserts" in the area), and ride on titanium-coloured sand. This indicates the area of proposed titanium mining which, if it happens, will be a tragedy. At Sikombe, we turn inland to pick up the grass track to Mtentu Lodge. Unlike the coastal strip, there are plenty of inhabitants inland who can help with regular route checks.
The road to the lodge is inauspicious, rutted and eroded. But the lodge, which overlooks the Mtentu gorge, is good value with excellent meals. The neighbouring campsite, with fixed tents and beds, is also a good option.
Spend a day exploring the gorge. It has remarkable high cliffs, waterfalls and pristine forests. David Attenborough filmed the legendary giant kingfish on this river. The predator fish swarm into the estuary from November to February. For a few weeks they circle, seemingly for no reason, then return to the ocean.
The next day, use the lodge’s Stygian boatman to cross the river into the Mkambati Reserve. This most beautiful reserve, which was once a leper colony, is deserted.
You will definitely see zebra framed against the green grass, grey rocks and the sea, sky and streams. You will also see eland, gnus and baboons
Don’t try to ride down the shore, but follow the two-track which leads from the mouth inland. You will definitely see zebra framed against the green grass, grey rocks and the sea, sky and streams. You will also see eland, gnus and baboons.
Eventually you reach a concrete two-track along which you can whizz, all the way to the Mkambati Reserve River Lodge at the south end of the reserve, overlooking the Msikaba river mouth.
If possible, take another day off to explore this beautiful area, including Gwegwe and the vulture restaurant. Stay in the reserve’s stunning lodge. As it is self-catering, you will need to carry some food or buy a few tins from the spaza shop. You can also stay in the Drifters tented camp over the Msikaba river, also self-catering.
The next day brings more beautiful coastal scenery but, being out of the reserve, not so pristine inland. On this day you want to make as much distance as possible before Waterfall Bluff headland so the best place to stay is Drifters’ Luputana (self-catering) tented camp with beds, but bedding has to be booked. If you want to buy food from a spaza, take the inland road route to the camp, which passes nondescript settlements mired in poverty, which is a dose of reality.
The next day, follow the coastal path from Luputana to Waterfall Bluff headland, a series of sandstone cliffs.
The 100m Waterfall Bluff waterfall is claimed to be one of only 19 world-wide that falls into the sea. Best of all, ride the area in June and see the sardine run from the headland, when the sea boils with a feeding frenzy of sardines, sharks, dolphins and diving gannets.
This area is not a reserve. Although no one lives here, there are plenty of cattle. You ride along cattle paths sometimes, but more often over grass.
After Waterfall Bluff, strike inland to traverse the rest of the extensive massif by crossing its three rivers upstream where their valleys are shallower.
After crossing the Cutweni river, arch back to the edge of the massif where it tapers off, and descend down a rutted route to the beach before Mbotyi. All of the rivers are easily walked across.
Mbotyi is an uninviting town and I ended my tour there.
If you have more time, proceed down to the coast to sleep the next night at Drifters tented camp at Mntafufu and then on to Port St Johns.
• Payne is a route scout for Spekboom Tours.