My time in wilderness. Sort of.

The Quko River flows into the sea on what today we call the Wild Coast. Close to the river mouth rests the wreck of the Santo Espiritu, which sank there in 1608. A major part of the Wild Coast's allure comes from its shipwrecks, deserted beaches, gravel roads blocked by cattle, tiny distant rural communities and its resulting perception as an area of wilderness. In two hours of walking along the cliffs from Morgan Bay to the Quko I didn't see a single person. I lapped up the solitude as gleefully as a cat does milk from a saucer. The sardine run was beginning offshore and I paused on the cliff path to watch gannets dive bomb a bait ball. I wanted to spend some time alone in "wilderness" and so refused to acknowledge that whilst on a path marked by posts bearing white footprints I clearly couldn't be.

A Wild Coast beach

A Wild Coast beach

I reached the Quko and waded across, the water just below my waist. On Bead Beach I searched unsuccessfully for Carnelian beads which are said to have been washed ashore from the Santo Espiritu's wreck. 

I'd been warned to return across the Quko before midday. Any later and the spring tide would be flowing strongly upstream. If that were the case crossing would only be possible by swimming and I had a large camera bag. When I returned, before midday, I found a rushing torrent, rapids and two powerful whirlpools where earlier I'd crossed. I stripped and attempted a practice crossing, without valuables, to see if I could make it and keep a bag dry. Two steps in and the energised current flushed me hastily into the lagoon. I tried five different potential crossing points, all with the same result. Wading across and keeping a bag dry was not viable but trying was the highlight of the day. Being stuck on the wrong side of the river taught me that feeling trapped could be positive, I was enjoying it hugely.

The obvious alternative route would be to walk to Haga Haga, a village 8 km along the coast in the wrong direction. This option meant catching a lift back to Morgan Bay via a long inland detour and I didn't want vehicles to feature in the day's journey. I decided to walk up the river and try to cross upstream instead. The upstream option meant leaving the trail. The further I got from the trail the happier I became. 

The mudflats had plenty of spoor, all from antelope, birds and Cape clawless otter. There was not a single human footprint or sign telling me where to go. I thought of my friend Theresa and her expressive joking phrase "A, B, C, Deeeeeevine!"  It was now a mini-adventure, no one knew where I was and I didn't really know where I was going. After about 2 km the lagoon tapered and the river looked shallow enough to cross. A few metres on to the mudflats and I was sinking somewhat faster than seemed prudent. With each step the mud reached higher up my legs. I was not even a tenth of the way across and I was sinking above my knees. This upstream river crossing idea did not seem so good after all. I squelched back to the bank and decided to put Plan Bear Grylls into action.

One of the Wild Coast's many river mouths

One of the Wild Coast's many river mouths

Bear tells his viewers on practically every single episode "first, find higher ground." So I did. My vista was of undulating hills with a mosaic of fields and indigenous woodland around a wide muddy river and nowhere to cross whilst keeping a camera bag dry. I resigned myself to the hike to Haga Haga and the dreaded taxi. I thought "Bear can't be responsible for a camera, if he was he'd advise us to carry waterproof bags, that's what I need, not a bloody compass". 

Back on the beach and after four hours of solitude I saw a large group walking towards both me and the Quko. "How will you cross the river?" I asked, "We're South African, it's OK we'll show you how" she responded. After six years in South Africa I'm well used to people assuming my English accent means I'm genetically incapable of making a decent fire for a braai. I made a mental note that my genes also made me unable to measure water depth. My desperation to get back to Morgan Bay without using a vehicle got the better of me. I joined them to return to the river and a South Africa lesson in crossing it. 

At the Quko the alpha males, who can no doubt make superb fires, stepped forward and competed with their increasingly delusional suggestions on how our group of 18 could cross. "Maybe we could…" they pointed, "perhaps slightly further upstream…." they said. "Er, no we can't." I thought to myself. One of the more realistic woman exclaimed "We could swim but our phones will get wet!"  Yes, quite. 

The most crushing way to destroy any conceivable remaining notion of wilderness followed when one of them said "It's OK, I'll Google the phone number for the Morgan Bay Hotel. They can send a boat. I even have three bars of reception!" My inner child shouted "We're on the WILD Coast lady! I came for wilderness. There's enough driftwood to build an arc! We could wait for low tide and cross in the dark but please not saviour by Google." She broke the news "they say the boat's engine isn't working". I laughed. A plastic bottle of sherry appeared, from where I do not know and it seemed a little bit like the loaves and the fishes. I was happy again.

Cows on the beach near the 4x4 meeting point

Cows on the beach near the 4x4 meeting point

Finally a dull plausible escape plan was hatched. We were to be rescued by the 4x4s of my friend Brendan Connellan and two others. A farmer had granted permission for them to cross his land and we just had to find the meeting point along the coast.  

One guy claimed he knew the route  and took us up a steep cattle trail from the beach which ended with a battle through shoulder height grass and sharp thorns. Back down on the beach, a couple of hundred metres along and 45 minutes later the man shouted at his wife whose legs had been ripped by thorns, "Why were you walking up on the hills? The sun will set in an hour, we've got miles to go and we could all freeze to death!" Globules of perspiration ran down his face on the blissfully warm afternoon with the sun high in the sky. I suspected his children, if he has them, spend a lot of time in the naughty corner. I was enjoying this far more than him. 

We found the meeting point and the 4x4 convoy took us over an hour of bumpy dirt roads home. The day had been great but it hadn't been in wilderness. I had a nice evening meal on the stoop of a boutique hotel back in Morgan Bay with Brendan and his boyfriend. 

The sailors of the Santo Espiritu managed to make it all the way to Mozambique from their wreck at Quko. I won't romanticise into an adventure what was probably a terrifying ordeal but the like of their experience is no longer possible. They would not recognise much of the Wild Coast today. Granted there are far fewer people and developments compared to most coastlines but even here you can't escape human impacts. Swathes of lush vegetation have been converted into grazing; the occasional cell phone mast prods the skyline so Google remains. The predators have all been shot and surprisingly good lattes can be had at the start and end of magnificent long coastal hikes. Even the Wild Coast is not wilderness.

People often wrongly assume I'm concerned by population and consumption growth in South Africa. I'm not; I'm worried about the impacts of population and consumption growth on South Africa. Perhaps the Wild Coast's primary future menace is mining; below the sand dunes are deposited rich mineral reserves. The threat is not domestic population growth but international and domestic demand for our natural resources. 

There's no road running parallel to the coast and that's enabled the Wild Coast to retain its relative-wilderness. There's a proposal to build a new toll motorway which would change the coast immeasurably and irreversibly. Many locals believe the real reason for the road was access to areas for mining. 

Preserving any sense of wilderness in places like the Wild Coast becomes infinitely harder and ultimately impossible when there are more people consuming more. To save places likes this requires people within and outside South Africa to grasp the impact of having more children and our consumption. It's easier to demonise "international miners" and "big oil" than to accept they only dig things up which we create a demand for. When cut off by the river my sense of remoteness led me to be the happiest I've been on this road trip. I was more motivated than ever to create awareness of the impacts of our increasing population and consumption and what we lose as they grow.