EVA MELUSINE THIEME goes slack packing in the Eastern Cape
I liked the sound of “slackpacking” – picturesque beaches, porters to carry our luggage, hot meals, warm beds at cozy inns every night, and a constant guide at our side so we wouldn’t lose our way. The five-day “Wild Coast Meander” promised pure luxury cloaked in faux hardship one could brag about afterwards.
But we were in for a surprise. The day we wrestled for eight long hours against gale force winds, the hardship felt very real indeed. With hoods cinched around our faces and legs stinging from the whipped-up sand, we trudged on, conversation impossible in the howling wind, but any self-pity stifled as we gazed at the backs of our porters carrying our heavy packs into the same unrelenting wind. In my imagination they had been strapping young men instead of these elderly women from local villages clad in slipslops and thin shifts.
Another surprise came at the end of the same tiring day. I was peeling off sweat-caked socks with stiff, freezing fingers while my husband rifled through his backpack. “What the f—!” he yelled, as if bitten by a tarantula. He held up a large boulder he’d discovered at the bottom of his pack – a “present” from our friend Mike. A lot of scheming ensued on how to get back at him. This involved the splashing of water and the tying of many complicated knots into unsuspecting shoelaces.
Thankfully, pleasantly warm days following frigid mornings, while the pace became more leisurely. This gave us time to admire the scenery, stop for pictures, or have our guide point out birds and animal tracks. Occasionally he would dig under a bush in the hillside and reveal a “miden,” – a mound of seashells discarded by the Khoi-San Bushmen who roamed this land in ancient times. He also treated us to a stanza of the “Tongue Clicking Song,” a must when traveling in Xhosa territory.
The Wild Coast has never been developed. Formerly a “bantustan” to foster the apartheid regime’s policy of separate development, it is now a rural and impoverished part of the Eastern Cape. Much of the farmland along the Wild Coast is held as communal property by the Xhosa tribe and cannot be purchased by private citizens.
For five days our group – four couples and two teenagers – traversed open pastures, wide sandy beaches, and dense forests teeming with birdlife. The only signs of human habitation were occasional rondavels on distant hillsides, a rickety suspension bridge, and scattered groups of cows wandering onto the beaches. Where the rivers were too deep to cross on foot, we clambered into “ferries” comprising a canoe and a ferryman collecting R2 as his fare.
Each family hotel we stayed at along the route featured more cliché-inspiring views than the last and our accommodations were always spacious and elegant. But the feature most appreciated upon arrival was unfailingly the bar. We would have paid a fortune for that first glass of Chardonnay, but when we added and divided our entire bill for drinks, boat rides, and – yes! – massages at the end of the week, it came to the equivalent of $80 per person. Travel in South Africa, once you’ve paid for the flight to get there, is laughably affordable.
One of the biggest pleasures of our hike was the gratuitous whale watching from almost every vantage point. Our South African friends who had vacationed here as children were certain there had been no whales in those days. Even though whaling was banned by South Africa as far back as 1935, it has taken this long for Southern right whales and humpbacks to make these waters their breeding grounds again.
When the end of our Meander approached after a rather modest 56 kilometers, we all agreed we’d happily walk all the way around the Cape of Good Hope to the windswept Skeleton Coast of Namibia, trailing our entourage of porters, especially if we’d continue to be wined and dined like royalty.
I’m definitely a convert to the slackpacking cause.
Hotels on the Wild Coast Meander:
- Kob Inn – a friendly if a bit dated family hotel with many activities on offer. If you plan an extra day to acclimatize, you can play tennis, ride mountain bikes or horses along the beach, or enjoy a sundowner cruise.
- Mazeppa Bay – here you take your sundowners to a wild rocky island accessible by way of a rickety suspension bridge.
- Wavecrest Beach Hotel and Spa – offering an inlet to a mangrove-lined lagoon on one side and an expanse of beach and rolling dunes on the other, especially picturesque when viewed from the Jacuzzi on the hotel verandah while sipping a cappuccino.
- Trennery’s Hotel – white washed, thatch-roofed chalets under indigenous trees.
- Morgan Bay – Nice amenities and a resort-type feel. Our 3-room suite could have slept half a soccer team.
- The Wild Coast Meander can be booked through Helen Ross at Wild Coast Holiday Reservations