Kate Turkington follows in the footsteps of the legendary Portuguese explorer as she hikes South Africa’s inaugural Diaz Trail.
As a survivor of South Africa’s now legendary Wild Coast Meander, I set out with Nita Ross, initiator and pioneer of the Wild Coast Trails, fellow traveller Coral Reynolds, and David Lawson, a recently tamed farm boy from the deep Karoo and now a beach and coast guide extraordinaire, to walk the Diaz Trail along the Eastern Cape’s Sunshine Coast. We spent the night at the AA top award-winning Quarry Lake Inn in East London, graciously run by Sue and Martin Goldswain, before beginning our walk at Woody Cape in the Greater National Addo Elephant Park. On the first morning as we clamber over a high dune, breathtakingly lovely beaches stretching as far as the eye can see cue us to the natural wonders ahead – ancient rivers pulsing into the sea, the largest shifting dune field in the southern hemisphere, mysterious legend-enshrouded shipwrecks, black oystercatchers pecking at the rocks, a cruising dolphin or three, curious sea sponges and little sea critters lining the foam-fringed shores and finally the Great Fish Wetland in the Kap Nature Reserve.
It’s a five-day trail where all you need to carry is your daily survival kit of sunscreen, camera, binocs, swimsuit and water – your overnight baggage is taken by road to the nightly stopovers. And it’s essential to pack good companions – walk the trail with testosterone-packed achiever wannabes, whingers, whiners or uninteresting introverts at your peril, whilst a highly developed sense of humour is simply non-negotiable. The Ides of March favour us with low tides and a full moon.
So let’s go
On Day One, as you stand on the high dune that overlooks the beach in that first breathtaking moment, your heart will soar. In the misty distance, where an early morning heat haze is beginning to shimmer over the sea, lies Bird Island, home to huge breeding colonies of Antarctic and common terns.
Now it’s a leisurely six-hour ramble to Cannon Rocks, past ancient shell middens, nautilus shells, natural springs and a couple of fascinating shipwrecks with hair-raising and poignant tales of hope and promise, disappointment and despair, death and destruction. Of ladies in crinolines trekking along inhospitable beaches, dying babies, the building of small boats from driftwood, snatched meals of seaweed and shellfish and, on one occasion, a journey’s end in far-off Mozambique for a tattered remnant of survivors. That night we are initiated into one of the Trail’s most memorable secrets – the hospitality of the Eastern Capers. Each night will be spent with different locals in homes ranging from a multi-million waterside mansion on Port Alfred’s Marina to a converted beach shack at the Fish River mouth. Tonight we are in a huge seaside home where three charming ladies of the area treat us to fresh oysters and the daily fish catch, washed down with single malt whisky. We’re told the first of many singular local tales, which sometimes make Herman Charles Bosman’s stories seem like Little Noddy. A local self-made man of means has just married a new wife and ordered a new king-sized bed. There are now two wives of the same name in the same tiny village. King-sized bed is delivered to Wife No.1 by mistake. ‘Thank you,’ she says cheerily as she signs for it. Wife No. 2 hasn’t the cheek to ask for it back.
Day Two takes us across a sheltered lagoon and on to the historic site of the Diaz Cross, planted by the intrepid Portuguese explorer in 1488 on the way to the Fish River as he and his crew searched desperately for fresh water. (The spring he discovered still bubbles behind a hotel in Port Alfred.) After a bird-rich sundowner cruise up the Bushmans River, the longest tidal river in Africa, we spend a comfortable, hospitable (and riotous) evening at Kenton-on-Sea with the legendary Wilmot family, where we are regaled with tales of cross-dressing Methodist ministers, uninvited guests who stayed the night and then enjoyed breakfast, of the Boets and Swaers, of the Frontier Wars and skirmishes that arose after Britain and the 1820 Settlers decided to form a buffer zone against the Xhosa nation.
Day Three takes us along ‘South Africa’s Best Beach 2001’, from Kenton-on-Sea, across the Kariega River mouth by small boat and along more golden deserted beaches to the Kasouga River mouth. Tonight we sink into lavish luxury in the home of Mr Port Alfred himself, the dynamic and charismatic Justin Steyn. Annie, his partner and mother of David, our guide, plays on the grand piano as the wine flows, the conversation becomes more and more animated and the good times just continue to roll.
Day Four takes us along seemingly endless white sand dune beaches to Riet River, via Fountain Rocks, Oyster Rock and the Rufanes River. We goggle at the beauty of the Three Sisters, stark rock formations marching into the sea, where we munch our hearty sandwiches overlooking Sharks’ Gully and the Blowhole. After another wondrous sunset river cruise where we sip chilled white wine as the fish eagles cry and a kamikaze mullet jumps into the boat and tries to mug Bev, the Sunshine Coast Tourism Guru, we stay in the unique brick-and-wood home of Lynne Nettleton, which perches on a bluff surrounded by thick coastal bush and overlooking the miles of ubiquitous golden beaches. In the distance the Fish Point Lighthouse, built in 1898, glimmers briefly every few seconds. We sit on the huge wooden deck overlooking the canopy and the sea beyond as hanging shards of glass sparkle in the trees and wind-chimes murmur softly in the evening breeze. The magic of the trail continues.
Day Five takes us from the lighthouse to the mouth of the Great Fish River. That night we canoe leisurely up the Kap River, gliding past steep krantzes dominated by century-old cycads, as trumpeter hornbills wail and an inquisitive water monitor cruises alongside our canoe. We are in a world of absolute solitude and peace. We sleep in a wooden beach house, lulled yet again by the soft boom of the surf and rustling palms.
Take time out, refresh the soul, sharpen your sense of wonder and beauty, enjoy extraordinary hospitality, fireside tales and memorable accommodation, and treat yourself to an experience where each day is spent on some of the most scenic beaches in the world, and each evening in the warmth of quite remarkable, comfort-filled hospitality