Port 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.

Travellers' Reviews

4 Reviews from SA-Venues.com travellers. All reviews are verified.

Verified reviewexcellent

We always have a wonderful time in Port St Johns. We go every year.

January 2013

April & Cliff (Bloemfontein)

Verified reviewexcellent

There are a number of ways to arrive in Port St Johns. The 133 bends in the road from Lusikisiki is a popular choice. However, walking from Port Edward along the beach, hills and cliffs is definitely the best way. It’s quite easy actually – all you do is go down to the beach at the Wildcoast Casino and keep walking. It’s a natural extension of the KZN South Coast. Walking gives one a unique perspective – a sense of place which is not achievable when driving through or flying over. Communities have opened their homes to overnight guests. Rondavels provide comfortable accommodation, and meals are feasts of traditional delights like steamed bread, sweet potatoes, samp and beans, fresh fish and imifino(greens). Water conservation is a way of life when buckets have to be carried up steep hills. Bathing in just a few litres of steamy water is perfectly possible and quite enjoyable too. Sitting under the stars around mielie cob fires inspires storytelling - the most interesting way to learn about culture. Local guides share stories of curious river names, astonishing shipwreck survivors, traditional uses of plants and local customs. It is ground up tourism, with passionate locals driving the process. “No more going away as migrant workers” says guide Vuyani Mbuzwa. “Home is best, I feel proud of my community and our environment.” The amaMpondo people have inhabited the area for centuries, generally living simple, satisfying lives in harmony with their environment. The Pondoland Centre of Endemism is a biodiversity hotspot. Over 2000 plant species occur there, with almost 200 found nowhere else on the planet. Conserving biodiversity (the variety of species) is critical for sustaining human existence. Besides the plants and animals, the area is famed for beautiful river estuaries with fabulous names: the Umtamvuna, the Mzamba, the Nyameni, the Mtentu, the Mzikaba, the Mkweni, the Lupatana, the Mlambomkulu, the Khutweni, Ntafufu and the Mkosi. Astonishingly, the water in most of the rivers can still be safely drunk. The coastal rock formations provide perfect places to climb into caves, view spectacular waves crashing on the shore and waterfalls cascading straight into the sea. After many days strolling along the sand or across the hillsides, stopping often to photograph flowers, dip in the ocean and to admire the views, we rounded the Poenskop corner and saw Port St John’s in the distance. We were rowed with gusto in a rickety boat crammed with passengers, across the uMzimvubu. From the middle of the river, we spotted a welcoming looking deck on the other side. Turned out to be the Fish Eagle Cafe, so we ordered cold beer and pizza straight from their oven and felt lucky, very lucky indeed, to have enjoyed such gracious hospitality in Pondoland. Rod Haestier from The Creek kindly fetched us. He also made us delicious vegetable curry for supper after we had indulged in hot baths and clean clothes. In the morning, he fired up his boat “Knuckle Cracker” and took us out to sea to see the dolphins. What an experience – the wind in our hair and spray on our faces, with the waves full of fins and tails. Afterwards, we relaxed over breakfast at the enchanting Delicious Monster Café on Second Beach, watching the cows on the sand. A quick stop at the Flee Market provided ample opportunity to do a little shopping - for beads and bags, local vegetables and preserves too. The busy Spar provided packets of local Majola tea to savour once we got home with our memories of the very nicest way to get to PSJ – by simply wandering South.

June 2012

Nikki Brighton (Dargle)

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