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Port St Johns is not some designer location, but a third-world town which houses a fascinating medley of characters and blends extreme poverty with unsurpassed natural beauty.
Port St Johns is located approximately midway between Durban and East London on the Wild Coast of South Africa, a 250-km stretch of unspoilt coastline between the Mtmvuna River in the North and the southern Kei River. The rugged Wild Coast has a sub-tropical climate with humid summers and mild winters.
The town was established around 1880 and, although it had many natural advantages, the river shallowed so much that the last vessel to dock there did so in the 1940’s. The Port St Johns region is also known for the quality of its (illicit) marijuana production, which is most often cultivated in inaccessible valleys or hidden between crops of maize.
Port St Johns is located approximately 900 km from Johannesburg and can be reached by Route N3 via Underberg and Kokstad. An alternative route, albeit 100km longer, is the N1 to Bloemfontein and then via Aliwal-North and Elliot. This route affords an opportunity to also visit the popular Aliwal Spa Holiday Resort .
At the time when Germany annexed the current Namibia and created German South West Africa, they also established themselves at St Lucia Bay and in the area which is still known as New Germany. Needless to say the British government in the Cape were not happy and appointed a British Resident, Mr John Scott, to Eastern Pondoland. The residency was set up at Fort Donald near Kokstad and on 15 September 1884 Port St Johns was officially declared part of the Cape Colony.
There are various theories as to the origin of its name, some believing it to be related to an imaginary image of St John on the left cliff beside the river, others stating that a Portuguese vessel had passed there on 24th June (St Johns Day) or that it was believed to be the site where the Sao Joao sank in 1552. Historians also believe that Port St Johns may have been the site of the second European landing when the Nossa Senhora de Belem was grounded at the site of the current Outspan Inn in 1635. Other famous shipwrecks along this treacherous coastline include the Grosvenor (1782), Waratah (1912) and even modern day casualties such as the Aster (1999) and the BBC China (2004).
The town is situated on the banks of the Umzimvubu (Mzimvubu) River, which literally means “home of the hippo” and has its source in the mountains of Lesotho. Originally an area some 10km distant from the rivermouth had been cultivated to supply passing naval vessels with fresh produce and by the 1880’s the town was established. Due to the shallowing of the river it has not served as a port since 1940 but developed into a popular tourist destination.
After the region was incorporated into the independent Transkei in 1976 it started declining and has not yet fully recovered, although there is ongoing improvement in developing the region since its re-incorporation into South Africa in 1994. Many South-African statesmen have their roots in the Transkei, including Nelson Mandela who is from the Thembu-tribe and a direct descendant of King Ngubengcuka. According to custom the Royal heir is selected from the “Great (Right Hand) House” and the “Ixiba” or Left Hand House from which Mr Mandela is descended, served to council the rulers.
The region has an almost sub-tropical climate with lush vegetation ranging from dune forests which give way to dense forests and, further inland, become grassland. Sandstone is predominantly found to the north of Port St Johns, whilst to the south there is the Karoo System. Precipitous cliffs and narrow gorges are a feature of the Egosa Fault which runs parallel to the coast at Port St Johns and has resulted in the formation of spectacular waterfalls such as the 146m-high Magwa Falls and the Waterfall Bluff where the Mkozi River plummets directly into the sea.
Fishing is abundant and one option is to take the rowboat ferry across the river to fish from Long Beach and Agate Terrace. Further north is Poenskop (meaning “bald head”), where you will encounter pure, isolated Africa and some good catches of Garrick & Cob.
Hiking and bird watching: enjoy the forest by walking to the top of Eagle’s Nest, the cliff which overlooks Port St Johns. There is abundant flora and birdlife and it is the only place where the Streptocarpus ssp grows. More than 250 bird species have been identified in the region.
Sardine Run: this annual event during June/July provides great opportunities for dolphin and whale watching, although the more common species can be seen all year round.
Visit the Silaka Nature Reserve
The Gap & Blow Hole is best visited when the sea is rough and water is forced up to 20m into the air through the blowhole. Visitors are advised to be cautious – there have been instances of people being sucked-in, never to be seen again. To get there, take the mTumbane Township road (between town and 2nd beach) and walk down from the end of the road.
Visit the airfield on top of Mount Thesiger and enjoy the superb view from the end of its 1,2 km runway. There are also excellent bird watching opportunities at the two dams en-route.
Learn a bit about Pondo culture by visiting the Isinuka Springs where the foul-smelling, sulphurous mud and water is used for medicinal purposes.
Take a stroll to the Cape Hermes Lighthouse which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2004 and enjoy the view from there. Permission to see the interior can be obtained from the lighthouse-keeper.
Another option is to take a walk in the forest, encounter unique butterfly species and stroll along the Ntafufu River. Signboards are available on the Lusikisiki road about 20 km outside Port St Johns. One can also visit the Majola Tea Plantation about 12 km outside town and enjoy the spectacular scenery, or visit the Magwa Tea Plantation and also take in the highest waterfall in the Transkei.
Explore the diverse bird and marine life of the Umgazana River, which is great for snorkelling and fishing and is home to the southernmost mangrove swamp in Africa where Black, Red and White mangroves can be found. Access is from the Mpande road off the R61 approximately 20 km from PSJ. Another place of particular interest is the Mkambati Nature Reserve, which offers unique flora such as the Mkambati Palm, stunning waterfalls and a selection of wildlife.
Port St Johns offers a wide variety of accommodation options ranging from backpackers such as Amopondo and camping facilities, to upmarket guesthouses such as the Umzimvubu Retreat and iNtaba River Lodge. Alternatives include the Outspan Inn, which is located alongside the river, Cremorne Estate which offers log cabins on the other side of the river, and Sunlof which is located near the golf course.
Due to its local availability, seafood is a feature on most menus. Dining options include the Wood’n’Spoon and Delicious Monster at Second Beach, a venue which specialises in vegetarian dishes. Umzimvubu Retreat offers an a la carte menu which features international and Thai cuisine. Other recommended dining venues are the Fish Eagle, which is located directly at the river, and N.E.W.S on Main Street, adjacent to the Outspan Inn.
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Silaka Nature Reserve is located just south of Port St Johns at 2nd-beach on the Wild Coast (formerly the Transkei).
|Silaka is a 400-hectares nature reserve which features coastal forest and grassland, offering forest trails, birdwatching and fishing opportunities. It is also home to small mammals, bushbuck, monkeys, Cape Clawless Otters and Burchell’s Zebra. Flora includes lichens, orchids and Aloes. Accommodation is provided in thatched self-catering, serviced bungalows and the reserve is often used as one of the stops for the 5-day Port St Johns to Coffee Bay Trail.|
Port St Johns
“This small but beautiful coastal reserve lies in a forested valley south of Port St Johns, and stretches from Second Beach to Sugarloaf Rock. Trails lead to evergreen forest and provide the opportunity to view elusive birds such as Knysna loerie, Cinnamon Dove and Grey Cuckoo Shrike. The Gxwaleni River flows through the forest and you should look out for the Half-collared Kingfisher and long tailed Wagtail at fast flowing stretches.
Giant forest trees are clad in mosses, lichens and epiphytic orchids, while lilies bloom on the forest floor. Blue Duiker and Bushbuck are indigenous to the forest but are secretive and seldom seen. Facing the sea are grassy hills where the stately Aloe Ferox blooms in winter. The Natal Red Rock Rabbit lives among boulders and introduced Blue Wildbeest and Burchell’s Zebra graze the palatable grasses.
At the reserve, there is a rest camp that consists of fifteen thatched bungalows, each with two bedrooms, fully equipped kitchen, bathroom and braaiplace. The fifteen bungalows accommodate six people and each has a view of either the forest or the ocean. You should bring your own provisions, although the shop nearby at Port St Johns will have almost everything you need.” according to Open Africa
Regardless of whether you are a nature lover or history enthusiast, for sheer variety there is probably very little which beats a trip from Cape Town to Durban via the famous Garden Route. The scenery is amazing and there are ample opportunities to enjoy splendid beaches along the way (such as at Jeffrey’s Bay, which is a renowned site for surfers) and also to take in natural indigenous forests. Indeed, one of the highlights of any such trip must be the Tsitsikamma and Storm’s River region of the Eastern Cape. Adventurous travellers are sure to enjoy doing the Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour or, for the brave, there is the Bloukrans Bridge Bungy Jump which is listed by Guinness World Records as “the highest commercially operated Bungy Jump in the world”.
For the more laid-back traveller a visit to the Addo Elephant National Park is very highly recommended, as is a visit to the Cango Wildlife Ranch and, of course, the Cango Caves in the Oudtshoorn vicinity. The opportunity to visit an Ostrich Farm and ride one of these feathered beauties is also available.
Further north you will pass through what was formerly known as the Transkei and encounter rural habitats and relaxed coastal villages such as Coffee Bay and Port St. Johns. The latter is a small, typical Third World town which attracts many European tourists due to its spectacular natural surroundings and relaxed, friendly atmosphere. PSJ is also the (unofficial) South African capital of “ganja” (marijuana), which probably accounts for the myriads of backpackers who pass through the region. And, of course, home to the eccentric and much publicized Ben Decker (artist/actor and ex-politician wannabee) who lives in a cave with a stunning 180 degree sea view.
Located at the mouth of the Umzimvubu River, the town combines virgin forests with stunning ocean views and is pure paradise for any nature lover who wishes to explore its many hiking trails, discover secluded waterfalls and awesome views from the top of Mount Thesiger. I’ve been privileged to spend a few years as a “local” (before returning to my Cape Town roots) and can highly recommend a stay at the Umzimvubu Retreat Guest House.
For those who prefer to add some bright lights to their itinerary, major cities en route such as East London, Port Elizabeth and, of course, both Durban and Cape Town offer everything you may desire. In brief, no matter whether you are seeking natural splendor, historical highlights, an adrenalin rush or sophisticated city life, the Garden Route combines it all in a breathtakingly beautiful package. A large selection of guided tours are available, including various packages from African Sky.
Background information on the Garden Route Sea Kayaking Trails:
These trails are situated along the famous Garden Route. This stretch of coastline runs from Mossel Bay in the south to Port Elizabeth in the north and is served by the N2 national road. The Garden Route offers the visitor a mild climate, long stretches of beach, lakes, mountains and lush indigenous forests.
But it is severely threatened by over-development and unless substantial controls are put in place, it will be overwhelmed by its own popularity and South Africa will lose a unique and irreplaceable part of its heritage.
The Garden Route offers visitors a huge selection of accommodation options, from camping to luxury lodges and a myriad guesthouses and bed and breakfasts. There is also an endless variety of activities, from gentle hikes in the forests to adrenaline-pumping abseils, steam train excursions and visits to cultural sites such as the rock shelters of the Khoisan (the original inhabitants of the area).
Nature is the real drawcard here and there are a number of stunning private, municipal, provincial and national nature reserves. From a paddling perspective, this area offers warm-water sea paddling with its associated marine life, as well as numerous opportunities for exploring the many lakes and estuaries.
South African Tourism : Heritage, Ocean Views and Wildlife
The Eastern Cape coastline, which stretches from beyond Port Shepstone on the south-east coast to Cape St Francis in the south, is the ideal destination for those who like to holiday in peace and quiet. Holidaymakers who favour home comforts are advised to choose from among the many beach hotels with their idyllic lagoon and beachfront settings. Party animals, surfers and young backpackers find their own in places like the ocean-facing city of Port Elizabeth, the river port of East London and the surf havens of Jeffrey’s Bay (or J Bay) and Cape St. Francis.