Mkhambathi- Paradise in Peril.
September 2012
Transkei - 'Wild Coast'

Reports on:
Cape 2006
Cape 2013
Lesotho 2004
Mozambique 2010
There is confusion in the two spellings – ‘Mkambati’ vs. ‘Mkhambathi’. The spelling 'Mkambati' was used prior to 1994, in the period thereafter the spelling was changed to 'Mkhambathi' which is now the official name, however unofficially 'Mkambati' is still used.

The same applies the town of ‘Umtata’, officially now ‘Mthatha’.
To view larger size of a photograph - click on the photo.

We left home on Sunday 2nd September and decide to take the South Coast route and find a camp site near Port Edward. The trip was uneventful and we found a camp/caravan Park “Port-O-Call” at Trafalgar. There was one other family camping there who were packing up to return to Durban, - 30 minutes later we were alone in the camp.

Libby offers to make supper while I sat back for a well-earned drink while giving instructions as to what to do. As you can see by the photo she soon tells me to “Go Take a Hike”, but in much stronger terms.

I would recommend Port-O-Call, but if you do not want crowds don't go on a long weekend or during school holidays. It is well grassed with many large shady trees and only a short walk to the beach. As we had all day to get to Mkhambathi we are in no rush to set off. Once across the Umtanvuna River we are in an area known as the Transkei (meaning the area beyond the river Kei), The Transkei has an interesting history since the arrival of the white-man, and in recent history became the first Bantustan to be declared independent of South African- the Republic of Transkei.
Throughout its brief existence, it remained internationally unrecognised and diplomatically isolated, a politically unstable defacto one-party state, which at one point broke off relations with South Africa. In 1994, it was reintegrated into its larger neighbour and became part of the Eastern Cape Province. Its capital was Umtata then renamed Mthatha in 2004.
I worked at a sawmill near Umtata if 1979 and must admit the then “Republic of the Transkei” was working well as South Africa was determined to ensure the success of their separate development policy – The Transkei was a fun place to be in.

At the time ‘Lieutenant-Colonel Ron Reid-Daly’ was in charge of the Transkei army. He was the commander of the Selous Scouts regiment in the Rhodesian Army, whose unorthodox tactics during the bush war against nationalist insurgents were as effective as they were controversial.

From Port Edward our route was to Bizana, Flagstaff, Holy Cross (Mission) and then by gravel road onto Mkhambathi. We arrive at the town of Flagstaff just in time for the mid-morning rush.
It was chaotic with cars, pick-ups, tractors, trucks and busses most double parked) intermingled with shoppers and their carts, vendors selling everything from cigarettes to goats and chickens, hooters blare and people shouting. Bedlam must have been a quiet place! We cautiously and very carefully thread our way through this whirlpool of humanity and breath a sigh of relief. Libby’s was more like a deep gulp of air as she sat staring straight ahead, praying under her breath and stoically ignoring the vendor tapping on the window with a scrawny strangled chicken. I don’t think she breathed more than twice in the 20 minutes we were in Flagstaff.

At the ‘Holy Cross’ Mission we left the comfort of the asphalt road and were now on a rough, corrugated gravel road for the next 55 km travelling through rural Transkei. Driving through the countryside we were amazed at the population explosion compared to what we saw 33 years ago. As far as the eye can see there are houses and huts. One wonders how these people live, miles from anywhere with no sign of any organised agriculture and only scratch patch farming adjacent to their homes. What do they live on?

The road seemed to never end, but after dodging cattle on the road, suicidal chickens and a battered old bus that stuck to the middle of the road, we arrived at the entrance gate to Mkhambathi. A friendly gateman asked us to fill in the relevant forms then set off to the reception about 5kms away.

Reception friendly but they cannot find the key to our rondavel at GweGwe. “Not to worry” she says, “the cleaners there must have it”.
While walking back to the vehicle she came running from the office shouting, “I found the key.” Just as well, ‘cause if we got there over the roads we had to travel, I would not have driven back but broken open the rondavel door.

In the web site, the "East Cape Parks" have this what they had to say on their previous web-site:
The Mkhambathi Nature Reserve has lots to offer the nature tourist. Its long coastline makes for a wide choice of hikes. The large wilderness area can only be traversed on foot. You can self-drive during the day and at night to watch the ample game that occurs in the reserve. Fisherman can enjoy fishing at official estuaries. Small families and friends can enjoy the Main Lodge. For larger groups the GweGwe River Lodge (20 persons) offers fantastic settings that one cannot help but enjoy, while smaller groups can find accommodation in the GweGwe Rondavels (2 persons). The reserve is situated on the coast of north-eastern Pondoland, in the Eastern Cape. It lies between Port Edward (30 km to the north east) and Port St Johns (59 km to the south west). It is a 7720-ha coastal reserve with open grasslands, dotted with indigenous forest patches and swamp forests, flanked by the magnificent forested ravines of the Msikaba and Mtentu rivers.

Grasslands cover a large portion of the reserve and support a fascinating and diverse flora. Large numbers of grazing herbivores such as Eland and Red Hartebeest have been introduced into the grasslands. Among the birds which may be seen in this habitat are the Red shouldered Widow bird, Yellow throated Long claw, Common Waxbill, Croaking Cisticola, Orange Throated Long-Claw, Ground Hornbill with Gurneys Sugarbird and the Greater Double Collared Sunbird, seeking nectar from the flowering strelitzias.

Of the many rivers running through the reserve, the Mkhambathi is perhaps the most beautiful with its crystal clear pools and series of spectacular waterfalls. The Horseshoe Falls are incredibly impressive as they plunge over the terrace in a wide arc. Further down,hat the river tumbles over the Strandloper and Mkhambathi Falls before dropping several metres into the ocean.

Visitors to the Eastern Cape will find the scenic Mkhambathi Nature Reserve one of the highlights of their trips.
Here is the new link to book for Mkhambathi, there are no guarentees that when you try it will still be workind;(so what's new?)

However beautiful and appealing Mkhambathi is it is also an example of Maladministration and Bad Management.

Click to read more of the History of Mkhambathi.

Of the accommodation once available all that remains are the 'GweGwe River Lodge' & the 'GweGwe Rondavels'. There is, or was, a 'Main Lodge', still listed on their web site. Although they still advertise the Main Lodge they will not accept bookings for it.

The Main Lodge (S31.312793, E29.966112). According to ‘The East Cape Parks’ web page:
An upmarket, stone building with 5 double en-suite bedrooms, accommodating 10 persons. Guests can relax around their own pool and braai area, whilst enjoying the stunning views of the beach.

The Main lodge is no longer used as there is no water or electricity. The swimming bath is half full and awash with leaves, litter and dead frogs. Amazingly the lodge was unlocked and we entered to investigate. The lodge was still been maintained as it was swept and clean, all the furnishing were still there, the beds made and from our cursory inspection all seemed OK, except no power or water. There was a major leak in one of the passages and a 25 litre drum placed there to catch the drips was almost full.

There was a visitor's book on a coffee table and the last entry made was on 6/12/2010. An entry made on 1/12/2010 had a list of faults: no water, kettle did not work, poor maintenance, staff did not care about visitors and the roads within the reserve were very poor.

Prior to this the Lodge was well frequented and judging by the comments made it was exceptional.
What a sad state of affairs. The lodge is a magnificent building with high ceilings and spacious rooms. The furniture is of the period and some of the items must be quite valuable. From the front veranda is a panoramic view of the Msikaba river mouth and estuary.

To get to the main Lodge we had to drive past the old reception building (S.312850, E29.965973), (still shown on their web page), which is now derelict with most of the surrounding buildings having no roof, windows or doors, it looking like the aftermath of a furious battle.

................What it looks like now................

There must also have been accommodation available adjacent to the previous reception office and these building were gutted.

In our wanderings around we discovered another cottage close to the beach that was previously known as ‘Point Beach Cottage' (S31.317426, E29.972852). This must have been a wonderful place for a beach holiday. The cottage is at the mouth of the Msikaba River; across the river is Msikaba resort. The position of the cottage was well chosen, set slightly back from the beach it affords some protection from the wind.

The building is still in reasonable good condition and again the question - "Why was it abandoned?

On leaving and checking out at the reception office I asked the question why the Lodge and other buildings are abandoned? I got a vague answer that there was a developer who was going to get it all done, but he pulled out. There is no reason for this to have happened; – WONDER WHAT THE TRUE STORY IS?

The only two places for accommodation are ‘GweGwe River Lodge’ and at ‘GweGwe Rondavels', both are reasonably close to each other but out of sight from each other. Our booking was for GweGwe, about 9km from new Reception office. In August 2012 they got hit with mega rain, they said close to 200mm within an 18 hour period and normal rainfall since then. The ground was sodden. I’m sure the roads were never very good, but now the conditions were frightful. They say, “You need a vehicle with a good clearance”, what they should say is you need a good 4x4 with good clearance.

Now my ol’ Hilux was put to the test. The road was so bad that most of the time it is better to drive off-road in the veld. It took us 45 minutes to do the 9km. Maybe we could have done it in less time but then I’m a cautious kind of guy that feels for my old Hilux, in any case we had to stop for photographs, many photographs.

They are busy repairing the roads. Whether with own resources or outside contractors I do not know. Suffice is to say that, in my limited knowledge of road construction, they are making a huge mistake. Instead of moving the roads to the higher ridges that have better drainage, they are grading out the washed roads thereby creating a channel some 300mm deep down the slope. Where they are going to get material for the fill is questionable. Besides, being the start of the rainy season these man made channels will wash even more and soon be deep dongas.

GweGwe River Lodge. (S31.287254, E30.009641) They say it can accommodate up to 20 people.
We took a stroll to the lodge and were not impressed. It was nothing to look at and closed in by the coastal bush. There was no view. It is on the river (small stream), but you can’t even see the stream properly.

GweGwe Rondavels (S31.288871, E30.00641).
There are 7 rondavels, one of which serves as a communal room with table and chairs. The rondavels (for two) provide bedding, towels and pillows. Each has a two plate gas stove and a deep freeze. There is no crockery, cutlery, pots or pans.
If you visit Mkhambathi it would be wise to take your own drinking water.
Hot water provided by means of a gas geyser, but beware as there is no cold water tap in the shower, to prevent third degree burns you need to take half a bucket of cold water into the shower, then top it up with hot water to an acceptable temperature, then wash yourself with from the bucket. Wonder who the expert was that designed the plumbing with only hot water? On further inspection rondavels 3 & 4 had the same one tap system but could not find out about the other rondavels as they were locked.

They have a system of solar panels and batteries so a 12volt light is available in each rondavel, only one switch and one light, but it is more than adequate.

When we arrived there were two other couples but left the next day. Other than them we saw no one else, not even the service staff who should service the rondavels. Nearby were staff quarters and there must have been someone there as each day there was different washing on the line.

The towel rail in our rondavel was missing, but someone had fixed it with a piece of string. Bet you it will not be replaced! Problem is no management control, not surprising!

The fishing should be excellent as most of the area is a marine reserve and fishing is only permitted in a few designated areas. I did not fish as we had gale force winds for the three days we were there.

WARNING: Like most places in Africa today, monkeys are a problem at GweGwe!
Another minute but insidious pest are 'pepper ticks'(Rickettsia africae). We got badly bitten and for three weeks itched and scratched and cursed.   Luckily we did not end up with tick-bite fever. Taking precautionary measures to prevent been bitten is a must.
Searching for these tiny blighters can lead to a new dimension in the term 'foreplay'.

Over the years many have lost their lives on the shores and rocks of the coast. The sea is wild and unforgiving with rogue waves that sweep away anyone who complacently ignores the sea. Along the Wild Coast there are many plaques fixed to the rocks in memory of those who died and GweGwe was no exception; there were four such tributes within 200 metres of the rondavels.

We took a drive view the waterfalls which were close enough to walk to, about 4km, but we decided to drive rather than trudge through the mud and slush. The distance by road was considerably longer, but the road was in reasonably good shape. In their brochure they boast about; “Large numbers of grazing herbivores such as Eland and Red Hartebeest have been introduced into the grasslands” In the time we were there we saw a small herd of 17 Eland, that stayed in the camp area. On our drive to the waterfalls we saw one red Hartebeest in the far distance and a jackal. Now I know that game spotting is largely ‘the-luck-of-the-draw’, however as the park is rolling grasslands we would have expected to see more game.
Is poaching the problem?

Mkhambathi waterfall is unique in that it is one of the few waterfalls that plunge directly into the sea. Further back from Mkhambathi Falls is Strandloper Falls, and then still further upstream is Horseshoe Falls.
We were not able to see Strandloper Falls; the river was flowing strongly and clambering over wet slippery rocks was not an option that appealed to us.

Mkhambathi Fall

Admiring the view

In conclusion: I would like to know the reasons for the degradation of Mkhambathi’s infrastructure. The East Cape Parks should be made to account for what has happened, or will this just be another example of wasted resources of what should be a prime South African Heritage site. 'Quo Vadis' Mkhambathi!
Tough decisions have to be made to save this pristine reserve, if not it will soon be swallowed up by the local communities. The Wild Coast is known for its beauty. The remoteness and wildness of Mkhambathi is a reminder of what this area must have been like before man arrived on the scene, and well worth the experience.

Would I go again? Definitely Yes!

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The reserve is currently managed mostly by the Eastern Cape Parks Board, but ultimate property and management rights to Mkhambathi belong to the communities surrounding the reserve. These communities had been using the land for grazing, hunting, fishing and farming for centuries or more before being displaced in the 1920s to make way for a leper colony. Mkambati spent time as a state agriculture farm, tuberculosis clinic, and hunting reserve before being successfully reclaimed by the communities through South Africa's post-Apartheid land restitution system. A stipulation of the land claim agreement was that the communities would maintain Mkambati as a nature reserve, i.e. relinquish access rights to it, in return for tourism revenue and government assistance such as local works programs.

The government assistance and works programs are in place and doing quite well, from our perspective. But how exactly will tourism come to Mkambati? It hasn't come yet. The area is simply not large enough to support popular predators like cheetah or lions. Acquiring more land would not only be expensive but would require supplanting the agricultural communities situated immediately outside the boundaries of the reserve. Furthermore, Mkhambathi's unique ecosystem has proven to be a liability when it comes to introducing species. When the hunting reserve was created in the 1980s, many animals like giraffe and gemsbok were introduced from Namibia and most died off immediately.

For the time being, the sheer beauty of the area is a more reliable draw. Plans are underway to build a four-star hotel along the coast of the reserve. This has obvious potential to bring quite a bit of revenue to the communities around Mkhambathi. But there are questions about how the increased traffic, hustle and bustle of a hotel will affect the ecosystems and animals of Mkambati. There are questions of how the traffic will even get through, given that most of the roads are single-lane dirt roads with their fair share of potholes. But if this compromise is not met, another way must be found to bring money to the communities allowing the preservation in the first place.

I have not been able to find out much about the leper colony that existed, certainly on my next visit I'll research this aspect of Mkhambathi's history, however this what I have discovered:

In 1920 a leper colony was established in the area known as Mkambati and formally approved by the Minister of Native Affairs in 1922. The Mkambati land was registered under Crown Title in 1951 and the rights to Mkambati transferred to the government of Transkei in 1966 and then later transferred to the Transkei Government Department of Health.

After the closure of the leper colony in 1976, the rights to Mkambati were transferred to the Transkei Government Department of Agriculture and Forestry. In 1977 there was a proposal to plant sugarcane on the inland (western) two thirds of the Mkambati land and at the same time the seaward (eastern) third of the area was proclaimed as a Nature Reserve in terms of the Transkei Conservation Act of 1971. The area that had been set aside for sugarcane planting (11 000 ha) was allocated to the Transkei Agricultural Corporation (TRACOR), and between 1983 and 1986 a small sugarcane plantation was developed on the land.
In 1990 a cattle farming scheme was also introduced by TRACOR on the land adjacent to Mkambati Nature Reserve. However, the poor productivity of the soil resulted in the failure of the pilot agricultural projects and the land remains still largely unutilized.

Conflicts over land use between TRACOR officials and community members of seven villages adjoining Mkambati led ultimately to a claim for restitution of land rights under the Restitution of Land Rights Act in 1994. The land claim was finally processed in 2004, and land ownership of both the Mkambati Nature Reserve and the adjacent TRACOR lands reverted to the Mkambati Land Trust.

The Old Church
Near the reception is an old Church now a crumbling ruin. It was so sad to see. The church had the date 1935 above the entrance and would have served the leper colony, a source of spiritual strength and hope for those who were considered unclean and shunned by their families and society. The church would have been a regular meeting place where they could pray and have companionship, to care and comfort one another. There would have been births, deaths and possibly a few marriages. Leprosy would have not isolated them from the full spectrum of human emotions, probably made these emotions more intense.

A comment sent to me by someone who visited Mkhambathi some years ago:

My mother grew up in Pondoland, in Bazana, so it has always had some meaning in my life although i have not had much opportunity to spend time there. As with everything in life, one feels " we will get there" but as you have indicated, if something is not done, it will not be there much longer! I would like to help, although i am quite short of time but perhaps i could ask this, would you be agreeable for me to post this on my Facebook page, to request anyone i know who may add value & assist. We have so many great people in SA who have the will & the means to make a difference, so somehow we need to reach them - only by the fast networking of modern day technology do we stand a chance!

Art Work & Web Page design: copyright © E. (Libby) Churchill