Port St Johns will surprise you, pay it a visit
I overcame my fears and joined tourist guide Sonwabo Khangela to kayak around the Bulolo River. Photo: Yoliswa Sobuwa
Staying in Johannesburg is life in the fast lane and you hardly have time for yourself.
So I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit Port St. Johns, a small town on the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast next to the Umzimvubu River, for a bit of rest and relaxation.
After driving almost an hour from Mthatha, I reached the densely forested town.
The first thing that struck me was that the city hasn’t developed very much. Most of the buildings are very old so you might think that the city is mostly tuck shops but from there well known retailers operate in different and smaller spaces in this city.
The first hours were depressing when I realized that I had booked accommodation more than 30 km away and I had to quickly find accommodation nearby. When I was busy organizing this, there was a load shedding and the whole town went dark with no cell service. That was my biggest struggle during my stay in the small town.
However, I ended up at The Lodge on the Beach which is located on Second Beach and has great views and is a stone’s throw from the water.
I felt so victorious standing on the Port St. John airstrip where you have the full view of the small town. Photo: Yoliswa Sobuwa
The lodge is 100 years old and also pet friendly. There is no access to television and all you hear around you is the relaxing sound of the waves crashing onto the beach.
The next day, I explored the city with a kayaking adventure down the Bulolo River, which flows to Second Beach and the ocean. When I heard about this activity from my tour guide, Sonwabo Khangela, the owner of Ngcambu Tours, my heart skipped a beat for a second.
I mean I can’t even swim in a kids pool so why would I want to risk my life kayaking?
I had so many “what if” thoughts running through my head, but I still ended up in one of the kayaks I shared with Khangela as the spirit of adventure took over. I soon forgot my fears and anxieties because of the beautiful and rejuvenating moment, it was so refreshing paddling down the Bulolo river, guided all the way from Khangela.
READ: For R50 you can hike one of the most beautiful hiking trails in the world
I was so proud of myself for overcoming one of my fears and doing something I never thought I would do.
Khangela said this is the same river where lifeguards are trained in the area. When asked what inspired the idea of kayaking, Khangela said he was part of a Wild Coast Environment SA program that promoted tourism and capitalized on the abundant natural resources in Port St. Johns. He explained what the program entailed:
It was a year contract and we were taught to be tour guides and patrol our beaches. So one day during the program we got the opportunity to visit East London for a business workshop. Some of the activities they introduced us to were kayaking and I was impressed.
He said during the workshop they were also taught how to start a business from scratch.
“After my contract expired I started selling Yellowwood to raise money to buy two kayaks but they had no pins. In 2019 I became a tour guide and did an apprenticeship. In the end I got a certificate and two kayaks from Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism. In 2020 I registered my company, but then unfortunately Covid-19 happened,” he said.
READ:4 things you didn’t know about working on a superyacht
However, Khangela said he is fortunate to have support from Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism and he is now one of the best tour guides in the area offering kayaking. Business is slowly but surely picking up as the country opens up after Covid.
He said he started the kayak business for people to entertain themselves rather than spend all their time drinking. He is joined by 11-year-old Khanide Peyana, who said he would like to paddle at a much more professional level. Khangela’s home is near the river and he parks his kayaks there.
I like being in the flow, it’s a good workout and I love exploring the water. It gives me a sense of peace.
He said that there are few job opportunities in their small town and not everyone can move to the big cities. Therefore, many young people had to create their own means of survival.
Buyisile Ncalelo, 30, sells clams and oysters on Second Beach, something he’s been doing since he was 16. He said:
I lost my parents at a young age and had to drop out of school in 9th grade to do this job so I could buy groceries and toiletries. It’s not an easy task because you can get swept up in a strong current, but it’s the only way for me to survive.
In a good week he makes about R500.
Buyisile Ncalelo, 30, was 16 when he started selling clams and oysters on Second Beach. Photo: Yoliswa Sobuwa
We then drove to the village of Noqhekwana, about 20 km away. After driving the hills with beautiful sea views all around us, we reached Ncumisa’s homestay, which is owned by Ncumisa Somakepu, a former tour guide. Here you get the feeling of country life. Somakepu hosts visitors in rondavels. She said:
I was a tour guide in 2004, but in 2008 the job became too demanding and just overwhelmed me. I started an accommodation business to give people that rural feeling. I prepare a rondavel for my guests and they sleep on ukhukho, the traditional Xhosa grass mats.
In the morning she serves them porridge, homemade bread or Vetkoek.
The food served at Ncumisa’s homestay in Noqhekwana village. Photo: Yoilswa Sobuwa
“Then I give them hot water in a basin to bathe, but some complained they had a hard time, so I built two showers with hoses outside the rondavels to accommodate those who can’t use the sink,” she said.
Ncumisa Somakepu gives visitors who sleep with her a rural feeling as she places them in a rondavel and they sleep on traditional grass mats. Photo: Yoliswa Sobuwa
At lunchtime she serves fish, mussels, oysters and crabs with a green salad.
READ: The tourism sector is recovering, but the recovery could be hampered by a rise in inflation
“The beauty of my business is that it creates employment opportunities for the villagers. There is an entertainment group performing traditional dances and I have a fisherman and some villagers selling their wares to visitors. However, the only challenge I face is not having enough linens for all my guests,” she said.
The final stop of the day was the Port St. John Airstrip, located on the edge of a cliff with beautiful views of the city and the Umzimvubu River.
I was told that the 2006 movie Blood Diamond starring Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed here. During my visit, I learned that there’s more to Port St. Johns than just people who come to Second Beach to party and get drunk. Visit it, you won’t regret it.
We live in a world where fact and fiction blur
In uncertain times, you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days you have access to a world of in-depth analysis, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. After that you will be charged R75 per month. You can cancel at any time and if you cancel within 14 days you will not be charged.