Eastern Cape DestinationsPort St Johns, Wild Coast
The wildness of the coast with its deep gorges and impenetrable forests, mangrove swamps and the primitive force of freak waves that caused many a shipwreck along this region of the coast, have not quite managed the attempt to tame them by colonial order, since Port St Johns inception in 1878.
The setting of Port St Johns is possibly the most dramatic in the country and the drive from Umtata to Port St Johns is one of the best journeys on the Wild Coast. The Umzimvubu River cuts a huge gorge right to the sea where it then squeezes between the river’s edge and the red stone cliffs of the gorge. Twin mountains, the Thesiger and Sullivan, lie on either side of the river mouth like bastions and are regarded as the gates of Port St Johns, which, despite this splendour, is largely a magnet for hippies, eccentrics and backpackers. Three good beaches, excellent fishing and a rather chequered history, involving the growing of cannabis instead of tobacco, might account for this.
Port St Johns also offers a unique blend of cultural richness. The Xhosa culture, both traditional and modern, is always apparent. You will see a sangoma (traditional healer) strolling along in all his finery, hear the thumping sound of kwaito music from a furniture store, and dodge the ever-present voracious mini-bus taxies.
This vibrant noise and colour is contrasted with some crumbling reminders of a colonial history. In the streets you will hear Xhosa, Afrikaans and English as well as foreign languages from the steady stream of tourists seeking the unusual. Dense bush encroaches into the town at any opportunity and a short walk will take you into silent forests. The sea is always close, crashing onto the rocky shores which guard the secluded beaches.
There is some debate over the origin of the town’s name. Some attribute it to the Portuguese wreckage of the Sao Joao said to have run aground near the mouth of the Umzimvubu River in 1552 but it was then discovered to have settled further north up the coast near Port Edward. Others say that you can see the profile of John the Baptist carved in cliffs close to the river.
The river mouth was known for a while as Rosebud Bay and the estuary was a convenient venue for trading and smuggling until the British annexed the area. The lazy charm of the decaying colonial grandeur in the town belies the organised tourist infrastructure that provides accommodation, restaurants and craft shops.
This is prime hiking country, with forests and trails and more than 250 species of birds. Other activities in the area include: canoe trips, horse trails, golf, dolphin and whale watching and some excellent fishing.