Wandering about for a week admiring plants, rocks, birds and the moon is my idea of heaven. When the wandering takes place in the Pondoland Centre of Endemism accompanied by bio-cultural diversity enthusiast Sinegugu Zukulu, it is as close to paradise as I can get.
Last week, a group of wildish women gathered beneath the incongruous neon lights of the Wildcoast Casino to walk along the coast to Port St Johns.
We were not entirely sure what to expect, knowing only that we’d be staying in local villages overnight and that the first day’s walk would be 22kms – mostly along the beach. I was pretty certain that the aloes would be in flower, and was not disappointed.
Edges are always places of abundance and where the sea met the shore was no exception – Carpobrotus, palms, Coastal Silver Oak and Aloes fringed the beaches and each river estuary was different from the one before.
Sinegugu explained that the Pondoland Centre of Endemism comprised a narrow coastal belt based on the Msikaba Sandstone Formation – shallow sandy soils, home to a great many plant varieties, many of them endemic to the area.
Gnidia splendens and Polygala myrtifolia were everywhere – so interesting to see popular garden plants in their natural environment. Burchellia was nestled amongst rocks, avoiding the worst of the coastal wind.
We came across lots of Imbachane – a strong flavoured grass, particularly good cooked with amadumbe, apparently. isiThunga (lemongrass) was collected for thatching – bundles were stacked on rocks to dry. This grass has numerous other traditional uses, from intoxicating bees so hives can be robbed, to bathing infusions for young girls during their rites of passage.
Another plant we found fascinating was Palmiet (Prionium serratum)– growing in the rivers – filtering water through woven fibres. This fibre is often found washed up on beaches and only occurs in this area.
Naturally, I really enjoyed learning about the medicinal and traditional uses of the plants we came across – this Berkheya leaf with an elastic white film on its underside, is used to wrap around wounds. I have forgotten its name.
On our right (we were heading south) bright splashes of yellow in the veld – Morea spathulata
As we walked we snacked on the ripe red fruit of Carissa macrocarpa – uthungulu – and particularly enjoyed finding the sun dried ones, with an interesting flavour. Carissa fruit is rich in calcium, magnesium and phosphorus and a good source of vitamin C.
Often, it felt like being in the Drakensberg (but beside the seaside) – especially when we encountered many little Erica plants.
We also tasted also Syzigium cordatum -Waterberry or uMjoni. We tried some Rhus berries which were reminiscent of popcorn.
We walked along cliffs and scrambled up and down rocky hills,
always with bright orange aloes for company.
Astonishing waterfalls rushed straight into the sea, we explored interesting rock formations, crags and caves and watched in awe as enormous waves crashed onto the rocky shoreline.
Every day was completely different and full of delightful surprises.
Each day, we spotted Yellow Throated Longclaws – thankfully always in pairs, as our guide and bird call expert, Vuyani Mbuzwa, told us that locals believed seeing one alone brought bad luck! We also saw lots of raptors and a group of Ground Hornbills. We didn’t spot a Natal Robin (Vuyani’s favourite bird.)
We stopped often to swim in the estuaries and the waves. The most idyllic spots imaginable.
We were able to fill our water bottles as we went as the rivers were unpolluted. Rivers had interesting names describing plants and animals or local customs. I’ll need to look at a map to remember them, although our guides knew them all.
Sinegugu always had an interesting story to tell about the shipwrecks, plants or people.
Wonderful trees included Milettia (umzimbeet), Ficus, Milkwoods, Coastal Silver Oak. I would have liked to explore the forests a bit more. We came across the as yet unnamed Cussonia which Tony Abbott discovered a few years ago.
There were many that I had not ever seen before and had no idea what they were – perhaps someone can help out with identification? Although, I don’t expect that the plants knew their names, so it doesn’t really matter…
I did recognise this magnificent Pavetta – Small Bride’s Bush. Loved the contrast with sea in the background.
Lots of clumps of Senecio – poor things, they have been “hybridized to death” and their cousins spend their whole existence on window sills in Europe. Eish, humans.
After our coastline stroll/tramp/gambol we headed inland each afternoon to our village accommodation. There is a coastal “no development zone” of one kilometre which undoubtedly has had an impact on the conservation of this precious biome. One afternoon, we stopped to chat to an elderly man and I spotted these Erythrina branches (used as fence posts) sprouting enthusiastically!
I heard tree dassies screeching at night as our rondavel was close to the forested slopes. We slept with the door open to watch the full moon.
We crossed the Ntafufu estuary (up to my waist) where my parents spent their honeymoon in the 1950’s. Probably hasn’t changed much since then. Red, White and Black mangroves occur here and we spotted crabs with one huge claw in the mud amongst the seedlings.
Before we knew it, we were almost in Port St Johns. Large stands of Albuca faced the sea – apparently known as the Port St John’s lily. Also used extensively in traditional remedies.
Unbelievably, parts of this coastline are under threat from mining. There is strong opposition in the community, but much support is needed to keep this treasure intact. See www.swc.org.za for more info on the campaign.
contact Sinegugu Zukulu or Vuyani Mbuzwa to plan your own Walk on the Wildside:
Sinegugu: firstname.lastname@example.org 083 231 1985
Vuyani: email@example.com 078 974 4471