Ask the locals and they’ll tell you the Jikeleza Route, bordering the Wild Coast north-east of East London, is a beach-bush-food-art sort of place where, as the surfers say, happiness comes in waves.
Beach walking has its own rhythm. We’d been striding the seashore for some time, enjoying the seagulls skimming the waves and marvelling at the way rocky points gave way to sandy coves, tempting us to stop and plunge in for a quick swim. Our muscles were loose, our strides long, and the kids in the group kept finding small treasures that kept them darting ahead: delicate seashells, bits of red coral and curiously shaped driftwood.
The warm, subtropical coast north-east of East London is perfect for practically any beach activity, from fishing and snorkelling to kite boarding and horse riding. It’s a prelude to the traditional Wild Coast of the old Transkei, but still offers good infrastructure and family accommodation geared to all budgets.
We’d opted to walk a section of the informal Shipwreck Trail and started with the Kockett family at their Driftwood Studio in Rainbow Valley, with a browse around gifted sculptor George Kockett’s gallery. The small settlement of Rainbow Valley is surrounded by the Kwelera Nature Reserve at the southern end of the Jikeleza Route. The reserve has been declared the site of South Africa’s 10th national botanical garden, but few people know about it as it’s still in the planning stages.
The coast is rocky here and wild winter storms were the nemesis of many a sailing ship in centuries past. On the beach at Sunrise on Sea, the boys found an abandoned sandcastle to spar over. This was pretty much where survivors of the Santo Alberto, which was driven ashore in 1593, camped before setting out on the long walk to the Portuguese settlement at Delagoa Bay in Mozambique. When we stopped for snacks from our backpacks, I wondered what the unfortunate castaways ate? Did they feast on alikreukel (sea snails) and crayfish? Or even know these delicacies existed in abundance on this coast?
Crossing the first river at Kwelera Mouth to Yellowsands brought its own excitement when George Kockett arrived with his paddle ski to ferry our hiking party across. The mouth here is a favourite surfing hangout.
More sandy coves unfolded as we walked beyond the river. On Chintsa’s 18-kilometre sandy bay, a group on horseback trotted past us, distracting us from the antics of the students catching warm waves of happiness under direction from their surfing coach.
Chintsa is the heart of the Jikeleza Route, with a sprinkling of shops and restaurants, and is where I opted to park off for a few days after the hike. Sitting on the deck of my favourite cottage at Buccaneers Lodge & Backpackers, I had a fine view of the Chintsa River lagoon, where a kite boarder was taking advantage of the fresh breeze to hone his skills. Repeated fish eagles’ cries lured me off my lounger and I strolled down to the river and paddled a canoe out to get a better look at the battle taking place in the air between three of these magnificent raptors.
The next day I decided to track down the source of the excellent craft beer I’d enjoyed in the pub. Emeraldvale Brewery is the brainchild of farmer’s son Chris Heaton, who has turned a hobby into a successful business. At weekends the farm buzzes as outdoor-loving East Londoners work up a sweat on the bike trails before the serious business of tasting fine ales, fortified by good food from the restaurant. Musos strum their stuff and the kids have a jumping castle to keep them happy.
Making the difficult choice between a bush and beach holiday is something you don’t have to do in this part of the world. Graham Stanton of Inkwenkwezi Private Game Reserve was one of the founders of the Wild Coast Jikeleza Route. “Jikeleza means meander in Xhosa,” explained the jovial animal lover.
An interaction with trained elephants, rescued from being culled in Limpopo, is one of the highlights for both day visitors and overnight guests at Inkwenkwezi. Elephant keeper Patrick Raseasala rattles off interesting facts about elephants while giving each person a chance to feed treats to these gentle giants.
The reserve’s rolling hills are bisected by lush river valleys and you could be anywhere in Africa – until the game viewing vehicle crests a hill and you see the Indian Ocean in the distance. A variety of plains game strutted their stuff, grumpy buffalo ignored us and a young giraffe lay on the ground resting while his mom grazed acacias nearby.
In the thick bush of the 100-hectare lion camp, the reserve’s white lion pride was initially scarce. We eventually found the big kitties, dozing on a hillside with a fine view of Chintsa River. “White lions are not albinos,” explained ranger Brandon Young. “They get their pale colouring from a rare recessive gene.” Cameras clicked and the lions looked regal.
This was a different wave of happiness to what we’d enjoyed on the beach – but on the Jikeleza Route, it seems you can have it all.
By Marion Whitehead