Tibby and I travelled up the Wild Coast of South Africa for ten days from 11th October 2010. The Wild Coast stretches for about 600kms from just north of East London to just south of Port Edward on the east coast next to the Indian Ocean. We found this rural area to be very populated with almost no vegetation. The beaches and coast are spectacular but the hotels are disappointing. Almost the only reason to visit this area is the excellent Umngazi River Bungalows but it is very far from everywhere.
This area is now part of the Eastern Cape Province but was previously called the Transkei. It is the home of the Xhosa people and most of the rural area is still managed by the Xhosa Chiefs who authorise members of the tribe to build houses in specific locations. As a result this huge apparently rural area is heavily populated. Wherever one drives there are houses and people to be seen. The density of houses is not great but one will typically see twenty houses for every kilometre travelled. It is highly unusual not to see houses at any one time. Most households own cows and goats and these are out grazing everywhere including next to the road. Most houses do not have electricity and so they rely on either paraffin or wood for fuel. The combination of grazing animals and a need for wood for fuel means that there is almost no vegetation. Just rolling hills with houses and people and animals. In a few places there is forest maintained by the Forestry Commission. One of the most attractive roads that we travelled on was between Lusikisiki and Mbotyi River Mouth where we passed through both forest and a large tea plantation.
The houses vary in size and type. Many houses are still traditional single room round mud huts with thatched roofs. Increasingly multi-room brick built rectangular houses with tin roofs are being built. Every few kilometres there is a school with pupils dressed in school uniforms. The major road is the N2 which runs from East London to (eventually) Durban about 75kms from the coast. Minor roads, mainly in gravel, run from the N2 to the coast. There are many rivers running to the coast which inhibit roads along the coast or parallel to the N2. Those roads that run north to south tend to be in very poor condition where speeds seldom exceed 30kph and every minute or so one comes to a stop to negotiate a pothole, ditch or animal.
The attractive part of this area is the coastline, known as the Wild Coast. It is underdeveloped, generally inaccessible by car with beautiful beaches and many rocks. Many ships have been wrecked on the rocks of this coast. In most places where a road reaches the coast there is a hotel with lovely views and access to a beautiful beach, fishing and hiking trails. Some of these hotels have been there for eighty years, have many regular visitors and are generally full over the Christmas and Easter school holidays. The owner of Kob Inn, Daan van Zyl, explained to us that, except for Umngazi River Bungalows and Mbotyi River Lodge, all the other hotels are on long leases from the government. His lease has eighteen years to run but he knows that the government will not extend the lease and that he will have to walk away from the property on its expiry. The government is under pressure to live up to its commitment nationally to oversee a redistribution of land from the current white owners to black occupants. In such a political environment they will not extend the stay of the white owners of these hotels. That inevitably results in minimal capital investment and reduced maintenance which is already causing some of these hotels to become run down.
Our generally downbeat view of the area was certainly not helped by the fact that for the first six days it rained on most days, was overcast most of the time and on the one day blue day the wind was very strong. In warm sunny weather the coast will be even more impressive than we already found it but I suspect that the interior will be just as populated and stripped of vegetation.
We experienced the following hotels:
Inkwenkesi Game Reserve
This 5,000ha reserve is about 30kms from East London and is south of the Kei River and so is not in the Transkei. This a toy reserve rather than a real game reserve. They have twelve lions but they are kept in a 100ha camp which means they are easily seen but cannot hunt or roam. They have three elephants which are kept in a boma and are hand fed by tourists. They have two cheetahs which are kept in cages near the reception and visitors are allowed to enter the cages. This is not even a zoo. It is a circus. They go through the pretence of being an exclusive game reserve and take you from the main gate to your camp in an open game drive vehicle along very bad tracks, which gives one the sense of being in the real bush.
Each couple is accommodated in a tent about 10m x 5m, pitched on a wooden floor with a concrete base at the rear under the en-suite bathroom. The furnishings are comfortable even if they lack taste. There is a dining room a few hundred metres from the tents on the crest of the hill with a lovely view. On a game drive we saw blue wildebeest, zebra, nyala and warthogs. Because the reserve is small one is aware of buildings, lights and a quarry on the edge of the property. There is also a real sense of poor management and even meanness. The once grand entrance gate is now run down and used for storage; there is a pile of building rubble just inside the gate; twenty emus wander around the drive (emus are not indigenous to South Africa and were acquired because a desperate farmer was selling them cheaply); while waiting in the reception the peace is disturbed by the boss in the back office shouting instructions or queries to the reception staff every minute or so and the white towel in the gents toilet was filthy. In the tents the excuse for coffee that is offered is Ricoffy which must be the cheapest instant coffee available. There is a complimentary half bottle of Chateau Libertas which is so cheap that it is undrinkable. I sympathised with my fellow diners as they struggled through tough T bone steaks. The final indignity is that a game ranger is assigned to a group of people and he is clearly instructed to eat with the guests. I shuddered as our game ranger described an awful view of South Africa to our fellow Irish guests and was relieved to finish each meal so I could escape from his inane chatter. Their main business seems to be coach loads of foreigners who must leave with a terrible view of what game viewing is in South Africa. Occupancy has clearly been low so I was able to negotiate a 50% reduction in the standard rate at the time of booking but even this reduced rate was more expensive than any of the other hotels. Avoid this game reserve.
All the following hotels are graded as 3* yet the differences in quality (and price) is significant.
We checked out of Trennerys three hours after arriving because it was not a good experience. There is an aerial photo of the hotel in 1959 in the bar. I suspect that it has been in decline since then. The sea is hidden from the hotel by vegetation on the dunes although there is an attractive beach beyond. That is the only attractive feature as this hotel is not being maintained and is run down. There is a general sense of wear on all the buildings and grounds. The fence around the tennis court fell down a long while ago and was not replaced. The bedroom furnishings seem to be decades old. Two tiles were broken in the bathroom. The corners of the floor in the bathroom looked filthy although I didn’t get any closer to check. I ordered a steak sandwich for lunch and an inedible chunk of meat was delivered. I asked for a toasted sandwich instead and was told that the sandwich toaster was broken. We escaped as quickly as we could.
What a difference! What a delight! This hotel has nothing fancy about it but it is well organised and maintained. The rooms are fairly compact but comfortable. The en-suite bathrooms have both a shower and a bath so no need to battle with a shower curtain.
The bar and lounge area is large, comfortable, inviting with a lovely view over the rocks to the sea.
The dining room was a bit dark on a gloomy day but the food was good and the service attentive. But most of all I was aware that the owner was present and cared. He talked to the guests in the bar before dinner and ate in the dining room. He runs a good hotel and it was a pleasure to be there. We also enjoyed walking for 2.5kms along the coastline to the mouth of the Qora river.
Bang! We came down to earth with a jolt. Ocean View has, like all these hotels, a magnificent position overlooking the beach with good views of the sea. However, management was not to be seen and as a result the experience of a guest is not good. The mattress left us with back ache. The bed linen was so worn it had bobbles on it. The towels were insubstantial before they were used by the previous 1,000 guests. The plastic toilet seat was so thin that it bent when the lightest of people sat on it. Dinner was a disappointment from the soup over thickened with flour, tough fried fish that was not identified and cottage pie that had a sloppy filling and tough crust. The hope for a decent cup of coffee was dashed when I was told that they would not be using the filter coffee machine and that I should use instant coffee. It appears that many guests must leave early because they require one to pay for accommodation on arrival. And the cheek of it was that it was more expensive than Kob Inn.
Mbotyi River Lodge
And then things got a lot better! Mbotyi River Lodge is well run and well maintained. It feels like a modern hotel rather than a place caught in a time warp. Our room was very comfortable with everything in good order. The bed linen was fresh. The bathroom worked well. The dining room is a beautiful room. The lounge area and bar work very well. There is a lot to eat although we weren’t very excited with some of the choices. The grounds are well maintained, well laid out with beautiful views.
Umngazi River Bungalows
And then we arrived in heaven! Umngazi River Bungalows is so superior from all the previous hotels in every respect. It has the most spectacular location with views and access to a wonderful beach as well as a substantial river.
We had spoiled ourselves and booked one of the honeymoon bungalows. It was big, attractive, and comfortable, with lovely furnishings. There was a huge bath and a double shower with a view of the sea. The views from the room were spectacular.
There is a very comfortable lounge and bar. There is a huge choice in the dining room with the ability to eat outside in good weather. And most important there is service. Wonderful service in reception, in the dining room, in the bar, everywhere! This does not happen by accident. One is very aware of the presence of management who keep an eye on everything. We did a sunset cruise up the river and saw a fish eagle swoop to pick up the fish thrown from the boat.
I did a 9km walk to the Umngazana Mangrove Swamps with a guide called Freedom and three other guests which included a 20 minute canoe ride and a wonderful walk back along the beach.
The next day Freedom took Tibby and me on an 8km walk to see the Sugarloaf Rock. From cliffs high above the sea we saw a school of twenty dolphins, a cruising shark and four whales blowing.
The only negative is that the well regarded spa appears to be under resourced and was fully booked. The hotel was not full but there were more guests at this hotel than at all the other hotels combined. In my view if you are going to visit the Wild Coast stay only at Umngazi River Bungalows. Don’t bother with the rest. If you want to stay as long as seven days consider taking their fly in package flying from Durban.