Wild Coast Environment:
Many impressive rivers that rise in the Drakensberg empty into the sea along the Wild Coast. In the southern-most parts of the region, where low hills, sprinkled with traditional huts, roll down into a forest-fringed shoreline, the rivers tend to be mature and are characterized by wide floodplains. But in the rugged north, where young rivers find their path to the sea blocked by massive cliffs, many, like Waterfall Bluff, simply leap over the rocky crags and plunge into the surf below.
About half the coastline comprises indigenous forest, large parts of which remain undescribed by botanists. In fact, many forest species that were previously unknown to science have been discovered in places such as Umtamvuna and Mkambati. About 900 forest and grassland species from the Wild Coast region have been identified as having commercial, traditional or homeopathic value.
Small sandy bays and long stretches of open beaches are often found near the mouths of large rivers, such as the Kei, Mthatha, Mbashe and Mzimvuba (Long Beach at the Mthatha river mouth was voted the best beach in South Africa by Getaway Magazine). There are also many smaller rivers which, owing to their protected sources in the coastal forests, have much less siltation than the larger rivers, which drain vast tracts of land where poor farming practices are in place. Estuaries, bays and headlands are plentiful, whilst rocky shores predominate, be they smooth wave-cut platforms with jagged and un-even surfaces or precipitous cliffs that plunge into the sea.
The waters off the Wild Coast are home to a diverse array of sea-life, as they are fed by the warm Agulhus Current in the summer and an occasional off-shoot of the cold Benguela Current in the winter months. It is this sliver of cold water that pushes its way up the coast in winter, that brings with it the famous Sardine Run. A great migration of Sardine/Pilchard up the coast, hotly pursued by gannets, sharks, gamefish and dolphins.
Large mangrove communities occur at six estuaries on the Wild Coast and the mangrove community at Kobonqaba, just north of the Kei River, is the southern-most mangrove community in Africa. Three species of mangrove are found on the Wild Coast: the white mangrove (Avicennia marina), red mangrove (Rhizophora mucronata) and black mangrove (Bruguiera gymnorrhiza).
There are many coastal nature reserves, run by Eastern Cape Parks, which dot the Wild Coast. The 3900ha Dwesa Nature Reserve comprises coastal forest, open grassland, winding rivers and a diverse coastline. On the northern banks of the Mbashe River is Dwesa's sister reserve, the 2200ha Cwebe conservation area. The Hluleka and Mkambati Nature Reserves take their names from the rivers on which they are situated, and are both part of popular Wild Coast hiking trails.
The inaccessibility of the 'Transkei' portion of Wild Coast has contributed to it remaining largely undeveloped. Tar roads serve only two towns in the region and most economic activities take place some distance from the coast. Approximately 1.5 million, predominantly isiXhosa speaking people, live in the 9 magisterial districts of the Transkei. Small holiday resorts have been established at places like Qolora, Mazeppa Bay, Wavecrest, Hole in the Wall and Coffee Bay. About 8000 people reside in the coastal town of Port St Johns.
The scenic beauty of the Wild Coast, coupled with its rich cultural heritage, make the region ideal for the development of a strong tourism industry. In fact, tourism has been identified as one of the cornerstones of the proposed Wild Coast Spatial Development Initiative. But, the virtual collapse of local administrations and environmental threats like the proposed Xolobeni dune mining project are some of the major issues that will have to be tackled by this initiative. The challenge will be to bring about much needed investment and development that will benefit local communities and the region as a whole, without compromising the rich natural resource base.
Adapted from the "Wild Coast" article in the 2003 issue of the Coastcare Fact Sheet Series, an initiative by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) towards implementation of the White Paper for Sustainable Coastal Development in South Africa.