South Africa is blessed with some of the most beautiful coastal trails that traverse across forests and mountains and along splendid beaches
Affirming this is the phenomenal scenery, quite unlike any other in South Africa of the Wild Coast - any outdoor enthusiast worth their backpack-weight in canned food, needs to check this off their golden coastal hikes list.
From Coffee Bay to Port St Johns, the trail hugs a stretch of coastline along the former Transkei homeland, and is unspoiled and barely touched by development.
Unique sights such as waterfalls that drop into the sea, herds of cows roaming the beaches, massive caves only accessible by foot and green rolling hills that rush into deeply etched river valleys - provide a fantastic spectacle along the way, with no shortage of photo opportunities for the 'Gram.
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Historically, this 300km stretch of coast was dubbed 'wild' due to its notoriously rocky headlands that ended the voyages of many ships.
It is these same headlands, backed by brilliant green hills and in-between deep rivers that provide the diverse walking landscape hikers enjoy so much.
I know after exploring the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape with a group of strangers, but they quickly turned into friends after sweat, bruises, blood and a couple of cold drinks at the many village stays and backpacker spots along the way.
It's a five-day and four-night hike from start to finish along the coast. I kid you not, nothing is as breathtaking as seeing herds of cows chilling along the beach listening to the hum of the waves banging on the rocks.
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Day 1 - Coffee bay to Mdumbi Village
The hike started off on a rainy note but, at first, it didn't discourage us. We were not well prepared for the rain, so the only thing we had as protection were plastic bags to cover ourselves as well as our backpacks.
Ten minutes into the hike, no jokes, we were pretty much re-evaluating our choices.
With each little slippery uphill came a "I wish I was at home in warm blankets," but the minute we gradually made our way past the colourful huts, towards the downhills - the long walks by the beach were the sign of relief we all had been waiting for.
Jimmy Selani, the owner of Wild Tours was the head guide of the hike and a very amiable guy to have around. He is well-known among the people of the villages you will subsequently sleep at as you progress with your hike.
At some point, I lost count of all the hill and mountains we climbed, but I do remember the walk to Mthatha River and the slippery slope when we tried to go and see the caves that were used as hide-outs by ANC members during the apartheid era. But the road was steep and too dangerous, given that it was raining.
At Mthatha River, we were met by two gentlemen that gave us a lift in their boat to help us across.
After a long walk along the beach, we finally got to Mdumbi Backpackers where we spent the night.
Day 2 - Mdumbi Village to Hluleka Nature Reserve
The next morning was a little bit different. There was less enthusiasm and more sleep. Waking up at 07:00 felt a tad bit unusual, but nonetheless we hit the road again and this time without any rain.
However, little did we know that this would be the trail that almost broke us.
Literally, we were balancing on narrow pathways and by the time we tried to catch our breath there would be another one followed by long stretches of beach in between.
Some 23kms later at the gates of Hluleka Nature Reserve, we were not talking to each other, not because we were angry but because we were out of breath, our bodies were sore and we all felt like death or something pretty much close to it. Here you get to understand why preparation is everything.
But nothing could replace the opportunity of taking in the beauty that was Hluleka Nature Reserve. The reserve has the best of both worlds, you have nature and animals on the one side and at the same time, you have this incredible view of the ocean where you can often spot whales.
Added to that, the place is so cheap that for a weekend getaway you'd spend just under R2 000.
Day 3 - Hluleka Nature Reserve to Mpande Village
This was my breaking point but I had to fake it till I made it. Not only was my body in pain, but I also had a sore knee due to a slight twist while on the trail the previous day. Yes, it was now catching up to me.
With mountains to climb and beaches to see, at some point, I was almost like "hurt now and cry later" as we came across a river about waist high deep with slippery stones. Not fogetting through out this process we had to carry our bags on our heads, as there was no boat to do it for us .
We were in the middle of the hike and there was no way we could turn back.
We must have taken over 100 photos while making our way across the hills to Mpande Village. Around every corner, you would be hit with a picturesque view that you had to try to engrave in your memory.
Of course, there were also fun facts along the way either. The best example of this was seeing my fellow hikerLife of a TravelBug's facial reaction every time we would pass huts with a high pile of sticks gathered over time by the women of the house.
In the Nguni tribe, this signifies that the more sticks the women have gathered the more hard-working she is, thus making her more desirable.
That night we stayed in Mpande Village where we showered in homemade bucket showers - Something drought-stricken Cape Town should try.
The was a first for me though, exciting stuff, I tell you.
After getting a full spread for dinner, we all gathered around the fire and shared stories about everything, from childhood folktales to Tokoloshe (an African evil spirit) before making our way to the huts where we slept.
I hadn't slept in a hut in a very long time since the one we have back home in Keiskammahoek, King Williams Town. This has now been turned into an "office" where family meetings are held in.
From a distant memory, sleeping in the hut brought back early childhood memories of when my cousins and I used to sleep together as kids, when we came for the December holidays but this was no laidback holiday as I was on a mission. A mission to tick one of SA's most iconic hikes off my bucket list.
Day 4 - Mpande Village to Mngazana
This was by far the shortest hike of the trip only 10km. However, I was still in pain and everyone was waiting for me to call it a day but I wasn't going to let that happen.
All the way, I kept telling myself, "You came here to do this hike and you will finish!".
One of the beauties of the experience was that this was the day that involved many happy locals along the way.
We must have met tons of locals making sure they got their greetings in.
Some curious locals wanting to know where we going, where we were coming from and to check out the crazy folk who had decided to tackle such a long trip.
Everyone kept giving us that "better them than us" stare every time we would give them an answer to their questions.
After walking for what felt like hours with little breaks, we ended on a beautiful beach in Mngazana where the braai was all set up and ready to feed us up.
After lunch, we made our way to Mngazana Village accommodation. That night we had a guest of honour, the king of the area.
He could not be prouder to share the history of the Amampondo and Nguni Tribes. The night was spent filling our bellies with some good homemade food and 14 quarts while we reflected on the hike thus far.
Day 5 - Mngazana to Port St Johns
A lot of the route involved downhills which one would think is ideal but became a bit strenuous on my now bruised knee.
The hike started rainy and then we moved on to windy and the last day we spent cooking in the sun - like many pockets in SA, you can experience four seasons in one day.
Visit Eastern Cape and South African Maritime Safety Authority, the two official sponsors of the trip, truly saved the best for last.
We spent the night at Intaba River Lodge getting pampered at their in-house spa. We were treated like royalty from the accommodation to the food to the spa treatments.
And to top it all off, it was Jimmy's birthday. We stayed up very late. In the morning we had a medal presentation for all those that finished the 5-day hike.
Finally it was time to hit the road. At the end of it all, we had covered over 83km, something I never thought I’d ever do. I enjoyed every moment, even the hardest patches.
Now thinking about it, I would do it over and over again.
What your need to know if you go:
Hiking the Wild Coast, it is something for the whole family and has a bit of everything along the way. This is an ideal activity for any type of vacation.
The hike can be taken a downward stretch or vice versa or only in snippets as you can start anywhere you find convenient along the route.
A bit of warning though, the distances are not accurate - keep in check with your guide - but who can complain when one is surrounded by such amazing beauty and tranquillity.
For those who are not keen on dragging heavy backpacks and luggage, Wild Tours also offer a 'slackpacker' option where luggage is transported from one overnight stop to the next.
Of course for those who prefer the traditional hiking trails, staying in more humble backpackers or even bringing along your own tents, they can assist with logistics to ensure a well organised, hassle-free trip. They also provide trail descriptions and maps, local guides and return transfers to simplify your Wild Coast hike experience.
Where: Wild Coast, Eastern Cape
Contact: Within South Africa: 082 507 2256 / Outside South Africa: 00 27 82 507 2256 / e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, www.wildcoasthikes.com