Hole in the Wall

I am always surprised by just how difficult it is to photograph scenes with obvious and unquestionable beauty, and throughout my visit to Hole in the Wall, the view before me seemed hell-bent on proving this point.

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Hole in the Wall, located on the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape, is a bit of a national treasure, perhaps not in the same way as Table Mountain or the Drakensberg Amphitheatre, but it is certainly on a par with destinations like The Big Hole in Kimberly. It is a must-see if you are passing through the area but maybe not a reason on its own to visit the region. With that said, there can be no disputing that ‘The Hole’ is deserving of its status, for it is a unique and compelling sight to behold. Not only is it a marvel to witness an ocean and a river coalescing after having punctured a chunk of solid rock, but the entire stage on which this meeting is enacted is lavished with geographic props that add to the spectacle.

The hole itself has been poked through the underbelly of a freestanding monolith which has its footings continually pounded by the Indian Ocean swell. In contrast to the commotion at its base, the summit of the rocky outcropping is decorated with tranquil grasses, bushes and – oddly – aloe trees. Towards the eastern edge of its ridgeline, there is even a collection of pinnacles formed by neat, Zen-like piles of rocks balancing atop one another. It’s hard to believe that these precariously placed boulders can remain composed while the entire structure is relentlessly bludgeoned by the sea. The whole exhibition is somewhat bizarre, an unusual combination of violence and serenity.

Hole in the Wall seen at sunrise from a nearby hill.

In addition to the main feature, immediately to the east of The Wall, across a narrow estuary through which either the sea invades or the river escapes – I can’t be sure which – stands an equally spectacular cleft bluff that features a cliff which falls near vertically into the sea.  Viewed from the south, this divided headland shares an uncanny similarity with The Wall, tracing an almost identical outline across the horizon, while also being flogged by the Indian Ocean. It is fair to say that this somewhat anonymous twin plays a crucial supporting role. The entire experience of standing in front of the Hole in the Wall and bearing witness to the power of Mother Nature would be less if the second towering edifice were to suddenly disappear.

It goes without saying then, with all the exceptional geographic phenomena on display, that getting a portfolio-grade photograph should be a walk in the park – but it’s not. I maintain that the difficulty with photographing this location has to do with its volatility.

 A close-up of Hole in the Wall.

A close-up of Hole in the Wall.

Traditionally, my approach to shooting is to scout out an area during the day, searching for a spot that has a composition which does justice to the scene. I then return to the position that I found at either sunrise or sunset to take the photo. However, at Hole in the Wall, this method doesn’t work anywhere near as well as it should, due – for the most part – to the tidal changes.

The trouble with the tides is not that they rise and fall but rather that tidal heights vary wildly from day to day. During my visit, sunrise occurred at 06:09 each morning, while the time of the low tide – which I reckon to be the best tide for photography – got progressively later, moving by about forty-five minutes every 24 hours. Forty-five minutes may not sound like much, but it is hugely significant. Rocks and spits of sand that were visible on one morning were completely obscured the next, and waves that were crashing the one day simply flowed over the rocks the following. This unpredictability made planning a shot virtually impossible and consequently forced me to shoot using a more spontaneous approach.

For those with a taste for detail, I recommend that a tidal height of around one metre is about the best for photography. At this level, the river – which is the primary location – has enough water for it to still be considered ‘a river’ and yet has sand and rocks visible, giving one a fighting chance of finding a foreground element around which to build a composition. Without these details – as I discovered the hard way – composing a compelling image is tough indeed.
Furthermore, I suggest that if you are planning a trip around this tidal height, you also aim to have it occur when the sea is retreating. This way, as the light changes, the number of compositional options increases, which should in turn improve your chances of getting a ‘keeper’. Unfortunately, when I was planning my trip, I failed to make this connection, something that made my job more challenging and, dare I say, frustrating.

Another point that is worth mentioning is that Hole in the Wall is predominantly a wide-angle destination. I found that rocks and water continually impinged upon my freedom to move about, and there were two images that I didn’t capture simply because they didn’t fit within my frame. Even with my widest lens, I could not get the shots in, and there was no way for me to work around the problem by moving away from the subject.

A sunrise silhouette of Hole in the Wall.

Yet, as testing as Hole in the Wall is for photographers, it does offer those who visit one unchanging reprieve – its location. The principal accommodation in the area is the Hole in the Wall Hotel, a neat although unspectacular establishment located on the main beach. The best part of this hotel is the beach itself, which is several hundred metres long and disappears at the gentlest of angles into the sea. Also, this beach is but a stone’s throw away from the drama of The Hole. The proximity means that you can spend hours exploring in search of locations for your next sunrise shoot while at the same time being a short walk from an outstanding place to soak up the sun. I don’t know of another location where two such diametrically opposed versions of Mother Nature’s finest find themselves so close together.

One of the Nguni cows that frequent the beaches near Hole in the Wall.

If for no other reason than being able to explore breathtaking nature with relative ease, I certainly recommend that all photographers take the time to visit Hole in the Wall. It is a unique location that certainly has heaps of photographic potential, even if the old girl doesn’t just roll over and let you tickle her belly.