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More about The Wild Coast, Port St Johns & Coffee Bay

General information and history

The hike starts in Port St Johns, a small town in Pondoland. Pondoland is a coastal strip in South Africa's Eastern Cape Province, stretching along the shores of the Indian Ocean between the Mthatha River to the south and the Mtamvuna River to the north, and up to 50km inland. Pondoland, the traditional home of the Pondo tribe, forms the northern part of the Wild Coast, a deeply rural and mostly undeveloped area, which extends south as far as East London.

The "Wild Coast" refers neither to the landscape nor people of the region but gets its name from an old nautical term which refers to the unpredictable sea conditions caused by the convergence of warm tropical weather and the Mozambique Current from the north and a colder Antarctic weather system from the south. Port St Johns is the largest town on the Wild Coast and is its unofficial capital. It is situated at the mouth of the 400 km-long Mzimvubu ("Place of the Hippo") River, which divides Eastern and Western Pondoland and which is one of the largest and most important (but the least developed) of South Africa’s rivers. It flows through The Gates, a spectacular 5km-long gorge of golden sandstone cliffs lined with verdant jungle, before reaching the sea at Cape Hermes.

The town has a subtropical climate and is surrounded by a type of subtropical evergreen forest known as KwaZulu-Natal Scarp Forest. It is situated within the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany biodiversity hotspot, and contains many species which are endemic to the area.

Port St Johns consists of several fairly widely separated areas, including the town centre (sometimes known as First Beach, although most of the beach on the western bank of the estuary was washed away by Cyclone Demoina in 1987), Second Beach, Agate Terrace, Mthumbane Village, Green’s Farm Village, Mpanto Village (at the entrance to The Gates) and Noqhekwana Village (on the way to the Poenskop estuary).

  • Prehistory - 1000 AD: The Wild Coast is inhabited by the San people.

  • 1000-1400: The ancestors of the Pondo people settle on the Wild Coast, displacing the San. It is impossible to establish exact dates, as there are no written records. However, the great Nguni migration of peoples from further north in Africa starts in the 11th Century. By the time Europeans and Xhosa people first encounter each other in the Eastern Cape in the 1750’s, the Xhosa have been established on the Wild Coast since time immemorial.

  • 1552: The wreck of the São João.

  • 1635: A Portuguese ship, the Nossa Senhora de Belem, runs aground at Agate Terrace.

  • 1820: The Pondo King, Faku, allows Christian missionaries into Pondoland.

  • 1844: A trade agreement is negotiated between King Faku and the British government of the Cape Colony. Port St Johns has been an informal trading post for some time but now has some recognition as a settlement, with only licensed vessels supposedly being able to trade here. However, illicit trade continues, including gun running. Customs duties are paid to King Faku.

  • 1867: Faku dies, and is succeeded by Ndamase.

  • 1876: Ndamase dies, succeeded by Nqwiliso as Chief of Western Pondoland.

  • 1878: A narrow strip of land on the western bank of the Mzimvubu, extending 14.5km upstream, is ceded to the Cape Colony government by Chief Nqwiliso in return for a cash payment of £1000 and for protection against his brother Umqikela, Chief of Eastern Pondland, who is attempting to take over the area. Part of Britain's interest in controlling the place is so that they can stop the sale of guns (which are being sold to the Basotho people - this later develops into the Basotho Gun War of 1880, which Britain lost) and also so that they can impose British customs duties on other, more innocuous types of trade. Later in the year, HMS Active arrives from Britain's colony at Port Natal with a small garrison. The ship mistakenly disembarks on the eastern side of the Mzimvubu River at Hobson's Landing and promptly declares it a British possession, to the consternation of the official who negotiated the settlement and is waiting for the money on the other side of the river. After some dithering the British simply declare both banks of the Mzimvubu to be their possession, separate from both the Cape and Natal colonies, and call it "The Territory of St John's". An existing small settlement at Agate Terrace is its capital. A fort is established upriver and named Fort Harrison (this is abandoned four years later and the garrison is moved to Port St Johns). In an extraordinary move, the expedition's leaders name the surrounding mountains after themselves: the smaller Mount Sullivan for HMS Active’s captain and the bigger Mount Thesiger after the army commander. General Thesiger is better known to history as Lord Chelmsford, who will command the British forces during the Anglo-Zulu War the following year and suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Zulus at the Battle of Isandhlwana. The names that this model of bungling colonial arrogance gives the mountains still persist, over 140 years later.

  • 1884: After some years of confusion, The Territory of St John's is absorbed into the Cape Colony. The European population of Port St Johns at this time is 200, half of them soldiers.

  • 1885: Port St Johns becomes embroiled in the colonial "Scramble For Africa". Following its unification, Germany attempts to catch up with its European rivals in the possession of colonies. Their plan is to establish a German sphere of influence extending across Southern Africa, including German Southwest Africa (later called Namibia), inland Boer Republics friendly towards Germany, and Pondoland - until now an independent kingdom. In one of several failed attempts to establish a colony in Pondoland, a German ship lands 1.5km upstream on the western bank of the Mzimvubu, but leaves within 24 hours (after learning that there are 100 British troops just up the road). The place where they land is jokingly called "New Germany" (the name stuck and it is now a picnic area).

  • 1886: Britain reacts to German interest in the area by annexing Xesibeland, a part of Pondoland. There is armed resistance by the Pondo people. Britain uses this as an excuse to make the whole of Pondoland a British Protectorate, thus thwarting German colonial ambitions.

  • 1894: Britain completes its conquest of the Eastern Cape by annexing the whole of Pondoland, with Cecil John Rhodes being in personal charge of the proceedings. The Pondo people, led by Sigcau (great-grandson of King Faku), are forced by military threats to accept the situation.

  • 1912: The Waratah disappears without a trace near Port St Johns.

  • 1942: Port St Johns ceases operating as a port.

  • 1953: The Pondoland Bridge is built, providing a road link between Eastern and Western Pondoland. Previously, vehicles had crossed the Mzimvubu River by pontoon.

  • 1960: The Pondo Revolt takes place as a reaction to the implementation of apartheid. The revolt is quelled by the South African government.

  • 1963: Pondoland becomes part of the Transkei "Homeland", with nominal autonomy but in reality dependent on South Africa's apartheid government. It uses the area to prevent the movement of black people to South African cities, except when needed as labour in the country’s mines, factories and homes. Port St Johns is specifically excluded from the Transkei, and remains an enclave of apartheid South Africa.

  • 1976: In a move condemned by the United Nations as a sham, the Transkei becomes a nominally independent country as a result of apartheid policies. Port St Johns is included in the "country" in order to convince Chief Kaiser Matanzima, the leader of the Transkei, to accept independence. The Transkei never gains acceptance as an independent country by any country other than apartheid South Africa. Most of the region's white inhabitants are expelled by Kaizer Matanzima's government.

  • 1978: Capital Radio 604, a rebel radio station which uses the Transkei's nominal independence to circumvent government censorship, starts broadcasting from Port St Johns. It proves popular among English-speaking white South Africans and broadcasts from Port St Johns until the fall of apartheid. A large reflector, the size of a drive-in screen, is used to broadcast the station's signal across South Africa. Over 50 years later it can still be seen atop Mount Sullivan.

  • 1981: Members of the disbanded Rhodesian special forces regiment, the Selous Scouts (including the unit’s commander, Colonel Ron Reid Daley) are engaged by the Transkei government to train their security forces. The Selous Scouts are billeted at Ferry Point until 1984.

  • 1994: Transkei is amalgamated into South Africa after the collapse of apartheid.

KEY DATES IN THE HISTORY OF PORT ST JOHNS

According to local legend, Port St Johns was named after a precolonial-era coincidence: a 16th-Century Portuguese caravel, the São João ("St John") was believed to have sunk here in 1552. Some say it happened on June 24th - the feast day of John the Baptist. Although the ship had certainly passed this way a few days previously, early charts of the African coast were inaccurate due to the limitations of navigational equipment of the time, and the wreck was later found to have occurred over 100km further north, nearer to Port Edward. However, a large river flows through a gorge with massive cliffs here, and there is a profile of a bearded old man which looks very much like a biblical saint in one of the cliff faces. This can be seen clearly from out to sea. Since it was a landmark to passing ships, and because of the story of the São João, sailors liked to think that it was the face of St John, and so the name stuck. There was no town or port, but sailors called the river St John’s River, although the bay into which it emptied was known to early English seafarers as Rosebud Bay, after the ship that first attempted to cross the Mzimvubu's sand bar.

It was not until almost 300 years after the São João sank that Europeans settled here. It had developed naturally as an informal trading station in the early 19th Century, with customs duties being paid to the Pondo king. However, the British government was perturbed by the selling of firearms, so in 1844 an attempt at a more formal trade agreement was made between the Pondo King Faku and the British government of the Cape Colony. Thus Port St Johns came into existence as an officially-recognised entity in Western terms. A generation later, a small area (including where the town is situated) was taken over by Britain, and a further 20 years of colonial machinations led to the annexation of the whole of Pondoland.

British domination of the area lasted until 1947. With the collapse of the British Empire and the rise of apartheid after the Second World War, the Wild Coast became part of the nominally independent "homeland" known as the Transkei, which ran along the coast from the Kei River in the South to the Mtamvuma in the north, and inland to the Drakensberg mountains. With the end of apartheid and the rise of the present democratically elected government in 1994, the Transkei once more became a fully-fledged part of South Africa.

The old port ceased operations in 1942. It had been used to ship goods such as timber and maize, and during the days of sail had been useful as a place for ships to stock up on fresh water and food, due to the suitability of the Mzimvubu's banks for farming. However, it had never been a good port, with at least 5 vessels having floundered on the sandbank. It had been obsolete as a supply port for decades due to technological advances in shipping and refrigeration, and siltation and the formation of a sandbank at the mouth made the river unnavigable except by smaller vessels. Several small coasters would put into Port St Johns every 2 weeks, their arrival timed to coincide with the spring tides, the deeper water at these times allowing them to pass over the sandbank. Tidal conditions often made this impossible, however, and if they arrived and found the estuary too hazardous to enter, the ships would simply carry on to their next port of call. So it had become an unreliable port, and an unusually high flood in 1942, which brought down a lot of silt from upriver, was the final straw. Another factor was that it was the height of the Second World War. An American merchant vessel had been torpedoed by a German submarine close by, and the survivors had made it to Port St Johns. The presence of U-Boats limited the amount of shipping along the coast. So the already struggling port closed, and has remained closed for 75 years. The only signs that it was here are a rusting iron ring and the remnants of a capstan embedded in concrete in the rocks at Ferry Point. Plans for the port's re-opening as a fishing centre are afoot - how this will fit in with Port St John's location within the Pondoland Marine Protected Area remains unclear.

 

Port St Johns retains some importance to shipping as the location of the Cape Hermes Lighthouse, a beautiful dressed-stone structure built in 1904 and still in daily (or rather, nightly) use. It (and the headland on which it sits) was named after a ship that surveyed the ocean floor in the area.

The last government census, conducted in 2011, put Port St Johns’ population at slightly over 6,400. The vast majority of inhabitants are members of the Pondo tribe and have isiXhosa as their mother tongue. The town’s main function is as a supply centre. It is surrounded by rural villages, whose inhabitants come to Port St Johns to stock up on goods from the town's wholesalers, supermarkets and building suppliers. In the days before the Transkei's "independence", it had some popularity amongst white South African holidaymakers, and even had its own hotel, the Cape Hermes Hotel, but this fell into disrepair and now lies abandoned and derelict. These days Port St Johns has a small tourism industry with a number of self-catering accommodation establishments, B&B’s, backpackers lodges, and a few small resort hotels. The Wild Coast is famous for its angling, and most tourists are weekend fishermen, or day trippers from further inland who want to go to the beach. It also attracts some South African domestic tourists during peak seasons - particularly 4x4 enthusiasts - but despite its numerous attractions the town has remained practically undiscovered as a destination for international travelers.

Work opportunities in Port St Johns are limited, with some of the people being employed either at the accommodation places or the shops in town, although most are involved in the informal sector - selling anything from arts and crafts to fruit at the roadside, or crayfish to tourists. Most of the people in the area receive some form of government grant, but subsistence farming and fishing remain vital to survival.

Port St Johns retains a very different feeling to the rest of South Africa, not only because of its isolation due to past political dispensations and the comparitavely small amount of attention it has received from the present government, but also because the hilly terrain has made development very difficult. So it remains a cut-off, predominantly rural and traditional area, with an atmosphere that is closer to Malawi or Mozambique than to the more Westernised parts of the country such as Cape Town or Johannesburg. The landscape, with its mountains, jungles and rivers, remains relatively unscathed by commercial developments, and is so archetypically African that it has been used in many movies which are set elsewhere on the continent. One of the earliest and most famous of these was Shout At The Devil, starring Roger Moore and set in Tanzania. More recently, some of the scenes from Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and set in Côte d'Ivoire were filmed here.

Coffee Bay is a small village of around 300 people. At one point during the late-19th Century, there were many coffee trees growing here, hence its name. The trees are thought top have come from a ship carrying a cargo of coffee beans, which was wrecked nearby. No record seems to exist of such a ship though, and the place may simply have been named on a whim.

Xhosa Culture On The Wild Coast

Traditional culture remains dominant on the Wild Coast, and life maintains an age-old pastoral flavour, although Western culture has had a big impact.

The Xhosa is a group of people, around 8 million strong, named after the legendary king uXhosa, who is said to have lived when there were still San people inhabiting the area.

Calling the people Xhosa is something of a misnomer: the word refers to a group of tribes who share a common language - isiXhosa - and a set of cultural values, spiritual beliefs and traditions, but they are not as closely-knit an entity as, for instance, the Zulu or the Basotho. The inhabitants of Port St Johns and the surrounding area are predominantly members of the Pondo tribe, and do not think of themselves as Xhosa. Others on the Wild Coast include the Thembu, Fingo, Bomvana, Mpondomise, Xesibe, Hlubi and many others. There is a tribe called the amaXhosa, but they maintain an identity as distinct as any of the others. Each tribe has a king, each area has a chief and each village has a headman.

The roles of men and women in society are more clearly deliniated than in Western culture. This is a pastoral society, where men are the protectors, fishermen and stockmen, while women look after the children and grow the crops, as well as collecting firewood and mussels from the rocks. Cattle play an important part, and are still seen as the main measure of wealth, with the payment of bride prices (lobola) in cattle remaining a requirement for marriage. Polygamy is traditional, but rarely practised these days due to the expense of lobola.

Traditional housing consists of round huts (rondavels) made of interwoven wood and covered with mud, and with thatched roofs. These are usually painted a light turquoise blue, a colour associated with the Pondo people.

Maize, a Central American plant introduced by the first colonisers of Subsaharan Africa, the Portuguese, forms the basis of the traditional diet on the Wild Coast.

Most teenagers - male and female - still undergo the traditional initiation into adulthood. This involves a period of tuition and seclusion, and in the case of males, circumcision.

Most people in Port St Johns believe in the power of magic. Beliefs about the afterlife differ significantly from those in Western culture, with the departed having a direct influence on the living. These are the ancestors, and are the intermediaries between those on Earth and God (uThixo). Sangomas (traditional spiritualists) are the interpreters of the ancestors' wishes, and are thus a powerful force. Christianity, imported by the early European settlers, has a strong hold, but is mixed with African tradition to create an interesting and (to the outsider) often bewildering cocktail of beliefs.

View of the Mzimvubu River from Mount Thesiger (Mpembeni)

View of the Mzimvubu River from the summit of Mount Thesiger. Mount Sullivan is on the left, Port St Johns and Cape Hermes on the right.

Face of St John in the cliffs of Mount Thesiger

St John's face in the 300 metre-high cliffs of Mount Thesiger - part of the origin of the town's name.

Antique map of Port St Johns

An early map of Port St Johns, on display in the town’s museum. Note that the town's name is spelled "Port St John’s" - the apostrophe disappeared due to naming conventions introduced in the 20th Century.

Natal steam locomotive

South Africa’s first train operated in Durban from 1860 until standardisation of rail gauges made it obsolete. The locomotive was shipped to Port St Johns in about 1880 to power a sawmill, but was thrown into the Mzimvubu River amid protests by the local labour force that it was taking away their jobs. After the Second World War it was recovered from the mud and this reconstruction, built on the original chassis, was put on display at Durban Station in 1948.

Cape Hermes lighthouse

Cape Hermes Lighthouse, built in 1904 and still in daily use.

The Gates, Port St Johns

Sandstone cliffs covered with Pondoland Scarp Forest line the approaches to Port St Johns.

Port St Johns creeper flower

The Port St Johns creeper is one of many species that occurs in the Pondoland Centre for Plant Endimism.

Wild Coast Museum

A display of African wildlife at the Wild Coast museum. Of the species that can be seen here, only the African Fish Eagle remains in the Port St Johns area.

Samango monkey

The forest around Port St Johns is one of the last refuges of the Samango Monkey.

Central Port St Johns

Central Port St Johns is a shopping hub for the surrounding rural areas.

Typical Wild Coast African village

Typical Wild Coast village at Noqhekwana, near Port St Johns.

Xhosa traditional ceremony

Sangomas (traditional healers / herbalists / spiritualists) performing a traditional Xhosa ceremony on the beach.

Bulolo Waterfall, near Port St Johns

Bulolo Waterfall - the walk through the jungle to reach the sacred falls is one of Port St Johns' attractions.

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