In photos: the red heart of Xolobeni

Posted by Teagan Cunniffe on 21 September 2016

Xolobeni, Transkei. If you haven’t been there yourself, it’s easy to dismiss this name when you see it in connection with mining disputes in the news. But if you have, you’ll remember it by folded valleys, hidden waterfalls, empty coastlines and simple living. It was to this that writer Niq Mhlongo and I travelled to, to try portray just what this area has to offer.

 

Red earth, filled with titanium, has thrown this area into conflict.

Red earth, filled with titanium, has thrown this area into conflict.

 
So it was a challenging moment for me when I considered that, perhaps, my strong feelings against mining in this beautiful landscape might be wrong. Communities here are isolated; roads are in rough condition and basic human needs, like access to clean water, are only available to a few. As essentially a tourist, who was I to dictate other people’s quality of life when I look on from afar, sporadically visiting the area every year or so? Perhaps mining would set in place infrastructure that would improve living conditions.

I tackled this moral dilemma, environmental impact versus progression, over the countless hours Niq and I spent travelling these bumpy dirt tracks. In the end, it was the people we met and homes we were welcomed into that moved my opinions. People here are divided. There is political and social pressure, but for the majority this is a life chosen and kept simple by design: an active boycott of unnecessary development.

Here, we passed healthy livestock grazing, children playing freely between neat houses set hills apart, women walking to the shores to catch fish and later, offer that fish to us for a lunch eaten next to the foundations of a soon-to-be-built home. There is freedom here, a livelihood that communities recognise would be fundamentally changed by mining operations.  Harnessed correctly, I believe this area could provide equally, proudly and more sustainably if it focussed on tourism development and environmental conservation.

And poignantly, the voices loudest in the anti-mining movement are those of the people who live there themselves.

 

As I say goodbye to Xolobeni, I think I now understand why as a young boy growing up in Soweto I used to like Mama Miriam Makeba’s song called AmaMpondo. Being in this part of the Wild Coast is like an escape to a larger, freer society than any I had yet seen. -Niq Mhlongo

 
In the October 2016 issue of Getaway magazine, Niq Mhlongo uncovers the story of this complex landscape. Be sure to pick up a copy now, and to follow the progress of mining developments on the news.

 

Teacher, Richard Hlongwe, looking out over Isikhombe river while Niq climbs the hard-packed, towering orange sand further north.

Teacher, Richard Hlongwe, looking out over Isikhombe river while Niq climbs the hard-packed, towering orange sand further north.

The red sands in question extend north from the Isikhombe River to Mnyameni River

The red sands in question extend north from the Isikhombe River to Mnyameni River.

The plummeting Mnyameni waterfall drops down into a wide, deep pool where kids splash and swim.

The plummeting Mnyameni waterfall drops down into a wide, deep pool where kids splash and swim.

The self-titled 'Hlongwe' van, which Richard (left) uses to transport family and water supplies.

The self-titled ‘Hlongwe’ van, which Richard (left) uses to transport family and water supplies.

Richard dreams of developing this cave system into accommodation one day.

Richard dreams of developing this cave system into accommodation one day.

Mtentu River Lodge resonates with me, and it was a privilege to share this exquisite spot with Niq, who was visiting Transkei for the first time.

Mtentu River Lodge resonates with me, and it was a privilege to share this exquisite spot with Niq, who was visiting Transkei for the first time.

The Mtentu River flows through canyon walls to reach the sea, where the isolated coastline awaits. I took the slow exposure on the right using a LEE 10-stop ND filter

The Mtentu River flows through canyon walls to reach the sea, where the isolated coastline awaits. I took the slow exposure on the right using a LEE 10-stop ND filter.

You can't just photograph animals in this area, as I soon found out- you need to ask permission from their owners first. With the area in conflict and media distrust rife, people are scared of being portrayed on either side of the argument, whether through photos of themselves or their property.

You can’t just photograph animals in this area, as I soon found out: you need to ask permission from their owners first. With the area in conflict and media distrust rife, people are scared of being portrayed on either side of the argument, whether through photos of themselves or their property.

Sunrise over the Isikhombe river. I took this image using half-graduated LEE filters.

Sunrise over the Isikhombe river. I took this image using half-graduated LEE filters.

 

Read more from this story in the October 2016 issue of Getaway magazine.

Get this issue →

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