Trans the Kei is where you find the real deal
Whenever I hear anyone talk about the Wild Coast, I think of the 280km shoreline of the former Transkei in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, which stretches like a lynx and twists like an eel between the Great Kei and Mtamvuma rivers.
Here, you can throw off your shoes and walk for miles on a big, empty beach. Maybe the only creatures you’ll encounter are Nguni cows loping along and stopping to dream and lick up splashes of saltwater from the rocks. Maybe you’ll watch a clutch of sand plovers scurrying along the water edge, their legs moving as fast as lightning and all in unison.
Sometimes, you might even greet some humans: children playing while their mothers forage for shell food on the rocks, or a fisherman who’s put down his rod to dive for crayfish.
You’ll probably dip in the (usually) warm Indian Ocean and marvel at the treasury of shells that wash up on the shore, relentlessly.
The Wild Coast that I know has always been off the beaten track. This is where you go to wrap your body in a kikoi and little else, step off the beaten track, take a walk on the wild side and live out all the magical cliches. It is impossible to go back to your normal life as anything else but new.
A land of extremes
It’s truly one of the most magnificent spots on Earth, endowed with spectacular scenery, wild seas, cliffs, indigenous forests, waterfalls that drop directly into the sea and wonderful people. But it’s also a land of extremes: the Wild Coast edges an area that remains one of the country’s poorest.
The Transkei (over/trans the Great Kei River) was the first of apartheid’s “independent homelands”. As the policy of “separate development” was rolled out, there were four of these territories, carved off from “white South Africa” to house black people. These largely inhospitable areas, unserved and underserved, were the dumping grounds for the majority of our population.
The homelands were a conclusion of apartheid. In the strangest irony (to me, anyway), this was where people went to escape the surface laws of apartheid – the Group Areas Act, Mixed Marriages Act and the like – as well as forced military conscription of young white men.
The Transkei and the other “homelands”, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei (known as the TVBC states), were poor and were kept poor. Today, they still bear the scars of poor or non-existent infrastructure and high poverty levels. Shocking roads and expensive data (when it works) still cut people off from the world. Of course, there have been improvements since the end of apartheid in 1994 – more clinics, schools and electrification (when it works), among other things. Still though, according to this City Press article, 2,873 communities in the Eastern Cape have to travel more than 5km to reach their nearest healthcare facility. That’s just one example.
Powerful branding, naturally
But the Transkei has always had something incredible going for it – the Wild Coast, with pretty powerful branding that has risen naturally from this asset.
Somewhere along the line, someone decided to bestow the name, the Wild Coast, on the strip from the Kei River all the way to the city of East London. As a child, I remember this being called the Pineapple Coast, which I guess does not have the quite same ring as the Wild Coast.
When I’m grumpy, I call it lazy marketing, even theft, and a stunning lack of imagination – and I suspect the culprit was a tourism authority. Even when I’m not grumpy, it irks me to hear people talk about the Wild Coast when they actually mean the better-off, more developed, more built-up coastline west of the Kei.
About the land
I grew up in the Transkei. My parents, a motor mechanic and a bookkeeper, scraped together enough money to buy a tiny shack on the Wild Coast and a “permission to occupy” (a PTO) a piece of land. This system remains in place today. Almost everywhere along the Wild Coast and inland in the Transkei area, you don’t own the land. Apartheid warped the traditional land ownership system and it is aligned with ongoing poverty, lack of security of tenure and slow development. That’s not the case west of the Kei River; during apartheid, white people owned the prime properties on the Pineapple Coast – outright. There were no PTOs involved, unless perhaps you were buying within a resort shareblock type of arrangement.
Land tenure in the Transkei remains complicated and contentious. For a good explanation of some of the issues, take a look at The Transkei Wild Coast: still waiting for something to happen by East London researcher Mike Kenyon and consultant Mike Coleman. Their article, by the way, dates from 2017 and places the Wild Coast in the former Transkei. “The coastal belt of the former Transkei Bantustan has long been known as the Wild Coast because of its natural beauty … and the lack of high-impact development,” they write.
I’m genuinely intrigued by this usurping of the name of the Wild Coast. In the early 2000s and even into the 2010s, the Wild Coast still meant the Transkei coastline. Annual reports of the Eastern Cape Development Corporation referred to it as the Wild Coast, as does the Wild Coast Spatial Development Initiative from 2004.
Hazel Crampton’s rather brilliant book, The Sunburnt Queen, first published in 2007 describes the Wild Coast as the area between the Mtamvuma in the north and the Kei in the south. “I fell in love with the Wild Coast the first time I ever went there,” she writes. “… there was something about the Wild Coast that knocked my socks off and kept me going back again and again …” I couldn’t agree more.
Go with the flow
My friend, Henry, is a fisherman and one of the cleverest people I know. He watches the sea from the sea and the shore, and he reckons the name and the location of the Wild Coast are all to do with the Agulhas Current. This warm current flows down the east coast of South Africa, veering very close to land along the Transkei coastline before heading away further offshore from around Kei Mouth. This current is fast and it is strong, and with the help of strong winds, it whips up wild seas with huge waves. Yes, shipwrecks up and down the Wild Coast bear this out.
“Even on the calmest day with the calmest sea, you will see the sudden sharp movement of water heading out to sea from around Kei Mouth,” Henry says. “That’s where you know the Wild Coast starts.”
Can’t beat that explanation. And honestly, whatever it’s called and whoever tries to muscle in on its name, the Wild Coast will always draw seekers of adventure and solace.