Secret Cutwini

Everyone knows about Mfihlelo Falls, despite the name meaning secret.

Even more famous Pondoland places are Waterfall Bluff and Cathedral Rock – probably the reason many people visit Cutwini in the first place.

However, there is much more to this village than spectacular rock formations and rivers that tumble directly from cliffs into the sea. It is definitely worthwhile to stay a little longer than the usual single night en-route from Rhole to Manteku and explore the hidden spots that only the locals know. I spent a week there recently with my friend Penny, and share some of the treasures to entice you to do this too.

Firstly, is it Cutwini or Khuthwini? Cutweni as Google suggests or Khuthwini as the locals told me is the isiXhosa spelling? There are not even any official road signs to help on the drive coastwards from Lusisikisiki. Unimpressed at being ‘off the map’, an enterprising, tourism minded person simply added the name of the village to the turnoff signboard!

In less than an hour’s drive from the bustling town named for the rustling sound of the abundant reeds (Lusikisiki), you arrive at the edge of the escarpment. You absolutely must stop to take in the view. After all, the wide-open spaces, fresh air, clean water, breathtaking scenery and relatively intact ecosystems are reasons that urbanites love to visit the area. It is a great place for a holiday, no doubt about it. Particularly as you are able to contribute directly to the community economy by hiring local guides and sleeping in homestays.

I had visited Cutwini a couple of times before and decided to return despite it not being the most picturesque village on the hiking route. The apartheid government driven Betterment Scheme consolidated scattered settlements into villages (ostensibly to prevent overgrazing, but you know Apartheid…). Cutwini was created this way, with many of the 260 families currently living there having been relocated from the more productive land further inland. It is difficult to grow crops in the sandy soils of the village and I heard that some families are considering simply going back to their original land as it is uninhabited.

One of my main reasons for choosing to spend an extended time at Cutwini was the lovely hostess – Noxolile Dwetye. I had spent a night with her before and loved her friendly, welcoming style and the fact that she clearly loved her dogs. Also, through a friend with whom I have walked many Mpondo kilometres, Vuyani Mbuzwa (also a Cutwini resident), I learned of the special spots that hikers pass by as they try to reach the next village before dusk. So Vuyani, who is a partner in Pondoland Walking Safaris, organised our extended stay.

Often to the annoyance of fellow hikers, I cannot help but focus on the dogs! They are generally beautiful, but when they are suffering in one way or another, it is heartbreaking. The kids and goats may be suffering too, but I particularly notice the dogs. Adorable Thokie had just had puppies when I last visited – they were tucked up in old blankets behind the chicken coop. Thokie had since died, but I am pretty sure that two of the household dogs – Shoprite and Stompie – were her offspring (those ears!). Danger (middle) was a new addition.

We did our best to keep the dogs out of our rondavel, as the next guests might not be as friendly as we are. So they spent a lot of time sitting with us on the step when they were not romping around the yard or curled up very tight in the clump of Juncus they slept in. All such sweet creatures.

Despite living in ‘paradise’, as most holidaymakers describe Pondoland, life is not easy if you are there all of the time. Water may be fresh and cold, but it needs to be carried from the spring. Sweet potatoes might be particularly delicious, but it must be back-breaking planting and harvesting an entire field. The fields and forests might be full of plants used in traditional medicine, but the nearest conventional clinic is in Mboyti – a long walk across the grassland, through forest, over rivers and along the beach. There may be space to graze lots of cattle and goats, but when a goat somehow gets into the neighbour’s garden and has to be picked up and over the fence by the teenage girls, who probably have a pile of homework and still have to help with supper and wash their uniforms before they can go to bed, it must surely feel like one chore too many.

However – here we were in paradise. Vuyani and his brother Mlungisi Mnyenjwa were determined that we should have the best time and suggested excursions. They too were excited that we would be exploring the spots that they are not usually able to share. We were to take paths used only by locals.

Mlu hopes that more tourists will make Cutwini the centre of their Pondoland adventures and regularly stay for 3 or 4 nights. “This is a good place to live. We have the sense of looking after each other. We are not alone.” he tells us. Vuyani plans to build a simple lodge overlooking the Cutwini Gorge on the edge of the village.

Day 1

On our first day, after a hearty breakfast, we did the tourist thing – walked to Waterfall Bluff, Cathedral Rock and Mfihlelo Falls. Apparently, there are less than 20 waterfalls that drop into the sea in the entire world – and we saw two within a couple of hours!

It was a long day, windy and hot. I was thrilled to have a dip in the gorgeous Mamba Pools to cool down. Mamba Pools is well known and much loved by hikers.

We did not have to rush, which meant I could stop often to admire and photograph plants along the way. This Stangeria eriopus – imifingo – is always interesting to come across. We saw lots of them. In this area, dried slices of the underground stem are crushed and fed to livestock to prevent sickness.

When we arrived home in the late afternoon, a basin and bucket of warm water awaited us. I am always astonished at how refreshing washing in just a litre or two of water can be and shudder to think of my extravagant baths in the Midlands. I am fortunate that I actually fit right into the basin, but even if you can’t, you soon get the hang of it.

Travellers Tip: definitely take a sponge – it makes the process a lot easier and more satisfying.

Then there was supper. Always an array of dishes, carried from the kitchen by a succession of daughters – Noxolile has eight daughters – and laid out on the table in our rondavel. We feasted each evening on mashed pumpkin (grown by Noxolile), Swiss chard, carrots, coleslaw, a bean stew, occasionally boiled potatoes and various starches like rice, pap or samp.

Day 2

On our second day, we packed our picnic lunch early, despite not having such a long day ahead of us. We were very pleased to have salad ingredients included with our steamed bread and boiled eggs every day – and with the addition of carrots, dried tomatoes and pesto from home, it was a perfect picnic. We often had a block of yellow cheese to share too – which tasted really nostalgic!

Travellers Tip: take your own reusable containers so that your lunch is not wrapped in foil each day.

Today we headed towards the ocean. Goats were everywhere, with quite a few grazing on Mgcagcana hill right beside the sea. We stopped in the shade on the beach, before wandering in the direction of Mboyti. Mlu told us that his great-grandmother had grown up in a clearing in this forest beside the beach. The spot was called kwaMpovani which means place of the ants.

From the beach we could see a rock formation in the forest, that was apparently a waterfall.

There are always cattle on the beach. It’s a Wild Coast classic. I have heard that they spend time here to get away from the ticks. Often they are seen paddling in the shallows and even drinking some seawater. They move surprisingly fast.

We had our picnic in the vegetation above the beach after swimming in the ocean and uMkosi lagoon. It was hard to find a spot to sit with all the Haemanthus albiflos, Drimiopsis maculata and tiny Aristea growing everywhere. Understory plants included plenty of Carissa macrocarpa and Hibiscus penduncularis. It is always nice to see familiar garden plants in their natural environment. It looked like the cattle had been snacking on the Dracena aletriformis.

We filled our water bottles in the Mnyegane river which winds all the way down from near Cutwini village. I think the name means ‘eel’. It is always astonishing to be able to drink from the rivers, although our guide was very careful to suggest which ones we should avoid.

We walked through the forest along the path that Cutwini locals take to get to the clinic. We tried to imagine someone who was ill scrambling up and over the rocks that doubled at the cattle path too. It was obvious that this path provided easy access to the forest for muti collectors. Many, many trees had pieces of bark removed, but none seemed to be dying – mostly, they were healing the wound and getting on with growing.

It is always fun to come across plants that we don’t usually see in the Midlands forests – like Asparagus falcatus scrambling up the trees, Mitriostigma axillare – the Small False Loquat, Polygala esterea (a Pondoland endemic) and Carissa wyliei. Familiar, but different.

Then we popped out alongside a river – the Mtambalala river – and were astonished to find that we were at the top of the rocky waterfall we had seen from the beach. It was magnificent and such a surprise. We determined right then to return and spend more time at this beautiful place.

Day 3

Each morning I rose early to watch the chickens and goats nibbling homegrown mealies for breakfast. Such a beautiful locally made basket to hold the maize.

I had brought seeds from home for Noxolile and she gave me pumpkins and maize from her garden to plant.

It was an extrememly windy day to sit on the edge of a cliff, but when in Pondoland… We were rewarded with a frolicking whale as we sat across from the Sentinel – another astonishing rock formation in the ocean.

My flower find of the day was Pachycarpus asperifolius.

The next surprise was mhlana. Which really was a secret spot that only local boys know about. A steep, narrow gorge, unnoticeable until you are upon it – with a gap that gives one a view of the sea. How many times could we gasp in amazement? The surprises were seemingly endless.

Sometimes when we got home to hot tea, the snack offered was sweet potatoes. This made perfect sense actually – a sugary carb – much better than a slice of cake, but just as satisfying. Noxolile and her friends were surprised that we usually ate sweet potatoes with their skins on, and carefully peeled them for us.

The kids all peeled their own. Eating slowly like this means that one really enjoys the food – savouring the texture in your hand and flavour in your mouth – with convivial company. A classic Slow Food gathering.

The moon was full during our stay. The view as it rose over the ocean and hills was incredible.

Day 4

We had heard a lot about the Msikaba Vulture Colony – particularly in the context of the N2 which is being built along this coastline. In places, the new road is just 3 km from the sea, with bridges across the Mtentu and Msikaba gorges that will cost billions. These are some of the most ecologically diverse, sensitive and unspoiled spaces left in South Africa. There has been determined resistance from the community to the proposed road that will divide the villages of Sigidi and Mdatya. We support their efforts but fear their rights will be bulldozed and the biodiversity – including the vultures – compromised forever. We set out to visit the vultures and passed many construction vehicles along the way.

Sitting on the edge of the gorge, we watched the birds for at least an hour. there were hundreds and hundreds of them, flying in and out. Truly astonishing and well worth visiting if you are in the area.

On our return from Msikaba, an articulated truck delivering the most enormous water tanks to the construction site had taken the wrong road and got stuck in the sand, blocking the road. We stopped to help. Locals joined in, fetching shovels from their homes, collecting rocks and giving advice. Eventually the truck moved on. A little incident illustrating all the undocumented impacts this construction will have. The dust from the trucks racing along past previously tranquil homesteads is annoying enough. Imagine when there is a high-speed tar road? Goats! Children! Dogs! Frogs! Chickens!

Keep up to date on the road and mining resistance with Amadiba Crisis Committee on Facebook-

When we got home Mlu set off with the dogs to check on the homestead cattle, which he had not seen for days. How on earth would he find them in the hills we wondered? “They have their favourite places, just like humans,” he assured us. He did find the cows, “they are all in the same What’s App group and stick together,” he quipped, but the bull had wandered off – perhaps following some other cows to another village? He would head out again another day to search for him and ensure he was doing well.

Day 5

On the escarpment above Cutwini, there are acres and acres of tea plantations. This is Magwa Tea Estate which has been through some difficult times, but now with the intervention of the Eastern Cape government is being brought back to life. While picking tea in the sun all day is not the easiest job, there are few other employment opportunities in the area.

We wanted to buy some single-origin tea, so stopped at the factory to ask. We invited in warmly and given a tour of the operation by supervisor Japie. It was fascinating. The machinery is clearly very old, but most of it still works and almost 100 people are employed here. Everyone seemed to be busy and perfectly pleased to get on with their jobs.

Magwa Tea is obviously named for the famous Magwa Falls. As with many things in the area, we were quite unprepared for how spectacular it was – even without much water flowing. The drop into the gorge is 147 metres. The photos give absolutely no idea of the scale.

On our way home, we visited Fraser Falls and Angel Falls. Without lots of water, Fraser Falls is not memorable, but Angel Falls was very lovely. A place of spiritual significance and used for many rituals. So if you happen upon it on a quiet day, as we did, it’s great, but when there are ceremonies taking place, it might not be a good idea to stop.

The fragrance of fresh amagwinya greeted us when we got home! Noxolile was making them for our picnic tomorrow. By now we felt comfortable enough to join her in her kitchen for conversations and share a bottle of beer on the lawn in the evening. The spaza shop along the road sold very cold Castle, which went down well – especially on the day Bafana Bafana beat Mali.

Often neighbours would join us. Even the sub-headman’s wife came to see who we were! I gave Noxolile a copy of Mnandi and everyone pored over it, telling me the local names for the plants in the imifino section and sharing their ways of making isisgwamba and other traditional dishes.

Day 6

Our choice is to spend a lot of time in one location and we knew we loved Mthambalala, so asked Mlu to take us back there. We crossed the top of the Mnyegana river near the village. It is a classic Pondoland scene – Syzigium cordata on the bank, flat grey rocks and clear water.

He took us along a new route – a narrow path on a steep slope. The wind was howling and we had to hold onto our hats as we edged our way along.

We heard samango monkeys barking in the forest as we took in the view.

Down to the beach and then, back up through the forest to Mtambalala Falls. What does Mtambalala mean? we asked. “Your body relaxes when you swim in this river and you will sleep.” replied Mlu. It was seriously relaxing – we spent almost 3 hours just sitting on top of a waterfall looking out to sea. Perfect.

We had time to scramble upstream to find other hidden spots, quiet pools and interesting flowers. I was really excited to discover Urticularia sandersonii on the damp South facing rocks beside a waterfall. I have never ever seen or heard of this before, and I had to ask my flower-friend Christeen Grant for help when all my searches for an id were in vain. This tiny plant (the flower was the size of the nail on my little finger is only found Pondoland and just North of Durban – so seeing it is an exciting occurrence. Unfortunately, the light was very poor and my photographs are feeble. I include this one anyway, to remind me to look for it again on my next visit. I have since discovered that it is carnivorous. Tiny bladders on underground stems capture the micro-organisms which inhabit saturated soil. The visible parts of the plant are not carnivorous.

Day 7

On our last day, we decided to explore the tributaries of the Cutwini river. The path was well-trodden as it left the village as it was the path the women take to do their washing in the stream. This pool on the Sososo river looked really inviting and thought we’d have a dip on the way home.

We were intrigued by a patch of wet clay in the Mqondwa area. It was really deep and cows are sometimes stuck here. In times past the clay was used to decorate houses.

We crossed the hills, passing cattle herders and cattle and goats wandering along on their own. They knew exactly where they were headed.

At the Mqondwa river, we found a shady spot under an umdoni tree and relaxed. While wallowing in the shallows, I looked up to discover a horseman crossing close by and a little later, a man carrying a pick and a backpack stopped to chat to Mlu. He was a muti collector. It was interesting to be closer to the village where real life happens, even though it still seemed pretty isolated to us.

What a joy to have hours to sit in the shallows and explore the stream. I battled to photograph Monopsis udenticulata because of its interesting pinky-brown colour and tiny Xyris capensis flowers proved almost impossible in the shade.

Rivers here all have large clumps of Palmiet (Prionium serratum) growing in them. This plant is a natural water filter and also helps slow down floodwaters.

We didn’t get to swim in the pretty pool on the way home, because women had brought their basins of washing and the water was now murky and unappealing. We observed that the stream below the pool was running pretty clear after filtering through the Palmiet. It’s a marvellous plant – hopefully, used a lot in artificial wetlands.

For our last night, Noxolile made our favourite – ujece – steamed bread. She invited us to see how she did it. First mix the dough, then leave it to rise while wood is chopped. A fire is made in the corrugated iron shelter where the young chickens have snuggled up for the night, and a big cast iron pot set to boil. She made sure there was plenty for us to take for padkos the next day too. Yay!

We had intended to stay just 5 days, then move on to Port St Johns or somewhere. After a few days, we counted all our cash and asked if we could stay another 3 nights. So glad we did. It was wonderful to take things slowly. Have plenty of time to sit still, to explore crevices, puzzle over flowers, cartwheel with the kids, tickle the dogs and not feel exhausted at the end of each day’s hiking.

Mlu was the perfect guide as he was also happy to sit quietly for as long as we wanted, to discuss the trees, rocks, flowers and insects endlessly, to kindly answer our random questions. He loves where he lives, and now we do too.


Travellers Tip: Follow Pondoland Walking Safaris on Facebook, or contact Vuyani Mbuzwa for some secret advice – 078 975 4471

5 Comments Add yours

  1. naturebackin says:

    A fantastic post Nikki – so interesting and I enjoyed your photos. How lovely to be able simply to relax in such beautiful spots and not constantly be on the move.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Christeen says:

    My spirit sings with the slow moving time you and Penny spent at Cutwini, as always you make a place and people come alive with your relaxed writing and stunning photos…. next time! 🙂 xxxx


    1. Definitely next time. Pick a date my dear.

      Liked by 1 person

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