Nature, health, sun and beautiful beaches. Port St Johns is a place where you can find your soul – plus a whole lot of magic.
In the movie Man On Ground, Timothy says to Ade, ‘Port St Johns. I went there once with my mother. It was the only time I ever saw her smile’. A similar thought crosses my mind as I make the journey into this place of magic. Magic: l call it that because I can’t quite define what it is that’s in the air here. A friend of mine, Khumo, says it’s something in the water. Whatever it is, this place is special, and I must bring my mom and dad to Port St Johns one day soon.
I’m making my way towards the Isinuka Mud Caves and sulphur pools, found in a thick forest about a 10-minute-drive from town. When I moved to Cape Town early last year, I took a road trip from Durban to Mthatha and stopped in at Port St Johns (or PSJ, as it’s referred to by locals). I only stayed two days but my heart was stroked. I swore I’d return.
The drive into this sacred place is like déjà vu, with its gravel and rocky road and the vibrant leaves leaning into the road, almost brushing the car on either side. As soon as I exit the car, Phozisa Mpinda greets me sincerely and offers to accompany me up to the caves and pools. She lives in the area with her family and grew up watching hundreds upon hundreds of people visit the traditional healing site of the Pondo people. ‘Bring a bottle, two if you can,’ she instructs me. Phozisa’s extended family sits at the foot of the path. They welcome me and we exchange some words and laughs before I make my way up to the caves.
Isinuka means Place of the Smell ‒ there’s a sulphuric whiff in the air that’s emitted by the springs. The cave is cool and smells of damp sand, reminding me of playing outside after the rain when I was a child. ‘The clay is good for the face and heals scars and acne, the sulphur and springs are good for rejuvenation and healing,’ Phozisa says, filling a bottle with the ochre mud. The other bottle is filled with salty water.
I stay at Amapondo Backpackers Lodge for a few nights. This is where my first taste of PSJ began in 2014. PSJ is a village, and like most villages, the people here are friendly, laid-back and warm. I’ve arrived expecting nothing, although I’m hoping to meet the legendary Ben Dekker and the healers of Pondoland. I enquire about Dekker – one-time actor, writer, politician, artist and activist who has lived here for almost 40 years – and everyone has interesting things to say about him. ‘Just buy a bottle of wine and go find him in the caves,’ one chimes. ‘I always give him R30 or R50, he’s old and doesn’t work, you know,’ someone else says.
My stay at Amapondo begins with a fantastic homemade burger ‒ and a bright red wig, bestowed on me by the lodge’s manager, Mazz, as more guests arrive. Soon I’m playing pool and exchanging tales with South Africans and internationals alike. And that’s the thing about the vibe at backpackers ‒ it’s not dingy or weird; the people here simply live a little more freely, are keen on finding out about one another and share the same sleeping space (dorms), but there’s always a private option.
I meet Stuart Kriel, once a multimillionaire married to a model, who now calls PSJ home and manages a three-star hotel. ‘All the misfits of society end up here,’ he says with a laugh. Well, I reckon the term misfit was invented by a guy uncomfortably stuck in a box, conforming to the mainstream. I’d soon discover what he means. Stuart and I walk to the beach, to Ben Dekker’s pool – he created it by hand on the shore by strategically placing individual rocks.
The next morning Sibusiso Langa, Amapondo’s graceful barman, takes me and visitor Ian Gafney on a little exploration of the town. We start at the top of Mount Ethesinger where there’s an old, but still functioning, airstrip. From here we can see the gorge known as the Gates of St Johns and sandstone peaks Mount Thesiger and Mount Sullivan on either side of the river. Next we turn on to a rocky dirt road to Poenskop, First Beach. The village lies on rolling hills and at its edge the mountain face drops to a beautifully blue shoreline, white waves flouncing at the surface. The views are unimaginable and there’s complete silence, even though it is windy.
A group of five young boys begin to follow me, curious, and bored I guess. They end up singing me a Xhosa song with the inflections in the right places, expressions shy and blank. I wish I knew isiXhosa like the Pondos do – deep and poetic.
Our last stop is the Cape Hermes Lighthouse, an easy walk with endless views of the sea to the right and colourful huts on bushy hills to the left. From my bed in Turtle Cove Cottage at Amapondo, I can hear the sea. In the morning, the birds are up at dawn (250 species have been recorded in the area) and the sun warms my right foot as it creeps through the windows of the double-storey.
I’m still no closer to figuring it out – this thing here. There’s an ever-present silence in the air. The cars and people seem quieter, gentler, and the river, mountains and forests create a humbling and grounding tenor. The people are just as real as the surrounding nature, and vice versa. The beaches are gold and the waters true blue. I rise and wander towards the beach. I’m determined to find Ben. He’s either at the abandoned lodge across the way or in his cave, they told me. I don’t find him at the former, but come across his rondavel. A sign above the door says ‘Ben’s Shack’. I saunter towards Second Beach and along the clifftop, high above the sand. The rising sun pierces through the mist.
The path splits and I notice some sculptures on a makeshift gate. Promise. Right at the end of the path, through the gate, is a tall old man with white hair and a beard, wearing a colourful beanie. His posture is strong, he’s in quirky casual dress, and busy in the garden. It’s Ben. I greet him, we share the longest hug, and he lets me in. He offers me a boiled egg for breakfast and then takes me on a tour of his property, telling me about plants and driftwood art found at sea. He’s a walking encyclopaedia. He shows me the room Nelson Mandela – whom he knew from his political days – stayed in with Graça Machel.
‘You have to stay here for a little while to really get it, but it’s the people. It’s beautiful. It’s peaceful. It’s wild,’ Stuart had said. I begin to see it. Later that morning, I meet a healer referred to me by a friend of a friend. Dontsa’s air commands respect and his energy is intense. We head to Magwa Falls and he tells me of the times he camped with his friends in the cracks of the rock face deep at its bottom. He has known this land since he was a boy. The water crashes behind us in the distance. Dontsa knows plants. He grew up traversing the mountains and it’s from nature that he gets his guidance, and from which he creates his medicines. Call them homeopaths or traditional healers, in Pondoland they are referred to as sangomas.
Dontsa accompanies me to The Kraal in Mpande, where we stay the night. The next morning, we rise at five to catch the sunrise. To sangomas, water is divinity and it’s evidenced in this moment. We clamber over the rocks, scanning the pools and he stops, prodding his walking stick in the sea. He extracts a sea urchin, explaining its healing powers. Then, he picks up shells – I’d never seen so many, so beautiful – and tells me of their function. He gives me some to take home, including one for impilo, vitality.
There’s a man fishing and a woman passes us with a bucket of oysters she has picked herself. Ports St Johns is a place where people are still largely free, where no one owns the beaches, and there are no mansions on the hills above them. It’s a place where people of all types take ownership of their space and feel they fully belong to it. Even in my bright red wig, I felt totally comfortable. This town is definitely a mixed bag, but it’s a place where you’re able to be yourself; a place where energy comes from the robust nature surrounding Port St Johns.
Plan your trip to Port St Johns
I flew from Cape Town to Durban, which cost R1 556 return and then drove along the coast to Port St Johns which took about five hours. It’s an easy, eye-gasmic route. For
a shorter drive, fly to Mthatha and take a scenic 90-kilometre drive to Port St Johns. Airline tickets aren’t cheap though and start at about R5 000 return from Joburg.
Need to know
While most lodges and backpackers offer tours of the town, it might be more enjoyable to explore on your own (especially if you are with kids), but you’ll need a car, and the higher the clearance, the better. While not all roads are tarred, they aren’t too bad, but expect some stretches of rocky and uneven terrain. I drove a sedan but the clearance was high so bear that in mind. Exploring on foot is very doable, just ask locals for tips, and bring comfortable walking shoes.
Isinuka Mud Caves and Sulphur Pools is found along a forest- lined gravel road. Bring an old costume (it gets muddy), lie in the sun and then jump into the springs to cool off ‒ and get some healing at the same time. Entrance is free. Tel 0475641187.
Second Beach is the most popular, and it’s pretty. Pack a picnic and see how the locals interact with the space. It’s used in various ways: you’ll see kids, sangomas, surfers and anglers. There have been recorded
shark attacks, so be cautious.
Magwa Falls is near Mbotyi and in the district of Lusikisiki. With a drop of 144 metres, it’s a sight worth seeing ‒ it’s beauty changes from every angle, so spend a bit of time there.
Poonskop Beach is very secluded and quiet ‒ an angler’s haven. What’s more delightful is that fishing is free everywhere on the beach (as are most of the activities above), and you can meet local anglers and share stories while waiting for the big catch. visiteasterncape.co.za
Amapondo Backpacker Lodge is part lodge, part backpackers and has a quirky, island-style vibe. You’re likely to meet local and international travellers. There are often parties and they have colourful wigs for guests to wear… it’s serious stuff, so don’t stay here if this isn’t your thing. The cottages are far away enough to make things comfortable for those seeking privacy. From R160 per person for dorms, R650 for a double room (sleeps two). There’s also camping for R100 per person. Tel 0833153103.
Umngazi River Bungalows and Spa has fun decor and is family- oriented (read: kids). It’s luxe but in a laid-back way and they have a schedule of activities for children that changes daily. The honeymoon suites are at the river’s edge, a little pricier but worth it for the tranquillity. From R1145 per person sharing DBB. Tel 0475641115.
The Kraal at Mpande Beach, 20 kilometres from Port St Johns, has minimal electricity and no Wi-Fi. It’s completely off the grid. You fall asleep to the crashing sea and wake up the same way, and the beach is just minutes
away. The double huts are R250 per person, dorms R160 per person and camping is R110 per person. Tel 0828714964.
Steve’s Pub & Restaurant serves a good cheap breakfast, bunny chow and other South African foods. It’s a hang-out spot for locals and the facebrick bar with wooden trimmings and wooden tables and chairs give it an old-school feel. It’s also part gallery ‒ but a small part. Tel 0475641057.
This story first appeared in our December 2015 Getaway issue.
We’ve got 19 travel ideas for an awesome summer in SA, gorilla tracking in Rwanda, best mountain-bike trails in KZN and Obie Oberholzer in Cuba.