4 days, 73km of wild coastal running in the Eastern Cape (Transkei)
The Transkei roads are hectic. There are two routes through the Eastern Cape – the N2 via Kokstad and Umtata or the old Port St Johns road via Port Edward, Flagstaff and Lusikisiki. Common denominators on all of them are the pedestrians, cattle, dogs and goats, and taxis that drive with complete disregard for the rules. Add bone jarring potholes and speedbumps along the older roads, which deteriorate steadily as they journey away from the main routes. It’s challenging, and it makes the coastline very remote, rural and untamed, but it’s absolutely worth the effort if you want to experience the wild places of the Transkei.
The best way to move up and down the coast is on foot – either hiking or running along the beaches and headlands, and staying over at the local hotels and backpackers dotted along the route. The Pondo Drifter North Trail Run does this brilliantly, with wild running through beautiful scenery and comfortable accommodation at Drifters camps and lodges.
The #PondoDrifterNorth starts out from Cremorne Estate at at Port St Johns and ends 80km north at Msikaba. It isn’t a race – it’s about enjoying the experience and the scenery so it’s really chilled and the groups are kept small, and you make great friends over the four days. The terrain is moderately technical – beaches, cattle paths, grassy headlands, some rock hopping and some faster running on jeep tracks.
We started out on Day 1 from Port St Johns to Manteku, after several days of torrential rain in the area, so parts of the trail were muddy and the rivers were swollen with flood water.
The jeep track soon gave way to beaches dotted with cattle and steep grassy headlands.
There were loads of river crossings and most of us chose to splash or wade through them, with only a few people troubling to take off and put on their shoes and socks each time. We ran (and walked) along the shoreline and through villages with cornfields, chickens, and brightly painted round huts , with laughing children shouting greetings at us and asking for sweets.
26 km later, down a steep hill into a forested valley surrounding a large estuary, we reached the Drifters Greenfire Manteku Adventure Camp, tucked behind the sand dunes and coastal forest.
The tented camp borders on glamping with proper beds and en-suite hot showers and toilets. We loved the meals area which was a thatched deck with views over the sea. The staff were excellent and the food was wholesome and delicious.
Day 2 saw us cross the estuary in canoes before clambering through a muddy forest and up Poenskop.
A 10km trot over wild beaches and onto coastal paths took us to our next night’s accommodation at Mbotyi.
Mbotyi River Lodge felt like the last word in luxury to a bunch of grubby runners. Situated at the mouth of the Mbotyi River it has great rooms, a pool, bar, games room and restaurant. The short day meant we had plenty of time to relax and enjoy the place.
Day 3 is the longest day (28km) and the most spectacular, with two massive waterfalls falling directly into the sea, endless dizzying cliffs and massive surf pounding the rocks along the way. We had a ball, swimming in the rivers, posing for pics and loving the views.
We ended the day at Drifters Port Grosvenor at Lambasi, where we stayed in traditional rondavels (round huts) that reminded me of the summer holidays I’d had in the Transkei as a child. The rooms were simple but had hot showers and toilets en-suite. We were ravenous and the food was good. Soon we were settled on the forested deck with sundowners, chilling and chatting with the waves breaking in the background.
Day 4 was a quick 9km run to finish at Msikaba. We stopped at the wreck of the Grosvenor on the way – you can’t see the wreck itself, but there are remnants of attempts to salvage the treasure off it, including a ridiculous attempt to tunnel under the sea to reach the wreck.
On our taxi transfer back to Port St Johns, we stopped off at a vulture colony – this was a huge highlight for me and I egged the taxi on into 4×4 territory, through bogs and marshes to reach the colony. A few hair-raising skids through the mud got us through and we stopped at the Msikaba River Gorge bordering Mkambathi Nature Reserve. Hundreds of vultures circled on the thermals above us and perched on the cliffs below. Vultures are incredibly endangered so it was wonderful to see such a healthy colony in a natural habitat.
Thanks to Hano and Sonja Otto from Trisport for organizing a really fantastic experience – they put heart and soul into their events and it shows.
To find out more about the Pondo Drifter North Trail Run visit their website www.trisport.co.za