When thinking of the ‘Wild Coast’ you are likely to imagine a remote, rugged shoreline that suffers the constant abuse of the Indian Ocean. A treacherous place, that is home to the ghosts of seafarers and a source of fisherman’s tales. A place where mother nature still reigns supreme, a place to be feared not only respected.
Yet, for all that you may have heard and imagined, today, much of this coastline has been rendered toothless. The unyielding march of development has – for the most part – taken the wild out of the Wild Coast, the region’s fierce spirit doused by the ever-growing network of roads. Fortunately, for those who seek a taste of what this territory may have been like in days gone by, there is a place that has resisted advancement and preserved everything that a wild coast should be – a secluded outpost that has all the splendour and defiance you would expect; its name – Luputhana!
Located 35 km south-east of Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape, Luputhana lies at the mouth of the Luputhana River and, consistent with Wild Coast tradition, reaching the camp is a less-than-trivial affair. The road leaving Lusikisiki is initially rather good with only a few corrugations and the odd rut to be concerned with. Things change, however, once you depart the district road and begin your descent to the sea. The terrain becomes more challenging with a steep pass taking visitors down from the escarpment onto a deceptively serene grassland plateau.
The plateau is just as you would imagine a virgin coastal plain to be – lush greenery swirling in the sea breeze with only the road itself and the odd Nguni serving as an oblique reminder of human habitation. Yet, beneath the postcard views of rolling fields and the ever-expanding ocean vista, the mean streak for which the Wild Coast is famed lies in wait. With Luputhana in sight and little more than a kilometre to travel, the once benign track makes a last-ditch effort to reclaim the region’s unsympathetic reputation. A series of rocky terraces leads down towards the shoreline in a sequence of steps that demand, at the very least, a vehicle with substantial ground clearance.
If the track itself is not enough to bring about a sense of Wild Coast authenticity, then Luputhana’s final party piece should certainly do the trick. Apart from a few privately owned fishing shacks, the only accommodation in the area is at the Drifters Camp, which, curiously, lies on the far side of the river. Thus, anyone visiting Luputhana without the ancestral right to take refuge in one of the fisherman’s hovels must forge their way across the river in search of shelter.
Admittedly, there may be a little embellishment to my story with the river crossing being less ‘forging’ and more ‘rock-hopping’, but, nevertheless, the practice of leaving your vehicle behind and traversing a watercourse while having your luggage carried by locals has a certain ‘forging’ quality to it. Adding to the experience is the fact that, having made your way across the river, you and your belongings are deposited in the extraordinarily tidy surrounds of the tented camp and greeted by the almost overexuberant manager named Lucky. The whole episode is about as colonial as you can get without being party to actual slavery.
Luputhana’s primary attraction is, unquestionably, the fishing. Several sources suggest that the Indian Ocean waters that crash into the shoreline just a short walk from the camp abound with all sorts of highly sought-after fish. During my visit, however, I didn’t see anything that even closely resembled a meal-sized fish, leaving me to conclude that all those who frequent the spot use ‘fishing’ merely as an excuse to visit, and, why not?
Of all the seaside locations that I have toured in recent years, from Zanzibar to the Skeleton Coast, none of them matches Luputhana’s display of oceanic beauty. Luputhana reportedly means “place of thunder” and, while I couldn’t verify that this translation is correct, the name certainly appears rational. It is not a supermodel beach with white sands, turquoise waters and a palm tree but rather a marine explosion with no beach to speak of at all.
Instead of a sandy shoreline, Luputhana boasts a rock shelf that runs for a few kilometres either side of the river mouth and extends some 30 m or so out to sea. Standing and watching the ocean swell collide with this ledge is a visceral experience. Jets of water spray in every direction, forced into the air by the enormous swells moving landward at surprisingly high speeds. Naturally, the impact results in the name ‘place of thunder’ but more impressive than that are the consequent tremors. The shock literally produces localised seismic activity the likes of which I have never experienced before.
However, the rocky beach with its thundering waters is not Luputhana’s only attraction. Approximately 3 km south-west of the river mouth one finds the area’s second drawcard, Waterfall Bluff, a rising hillside with a cavernous centre section cored out by the tides. In the depths of this grotto, surrounded by cliffs, a ribbon waterfall plunges directly into the sea. It is one of only a handful of waterfalls in the entire world that terminates in this way and is generally thought of as Luputhana’s crown jewel.
Now, while I am perhaps not qualified to question the photographic potential offered up by an exceptional natural phenomenon – not without at least consulting National Geographic – to my mind, Waterfall Bluff is spectacular to view, but not particularly photogenic. To hold, as some do, that the bluff is the epitome of regional photography is to grossly understate the potential of Luputhana as a whole.
If your objective is to create photos that evoke emotion, then I suggest dedicating your efforts to the impact zone. Aeons of bludgeoning saltwater has left behind a near infinite selection of sculpted rocks that, when combined with the wave action, offer up a genuinely awe inspiring selection of scenes. In fact, I am willing to wager that anyone visiting Luputhana for the reason of photography – and possibly fishing too – is likely to leave disappointed with the amount of unrealised potential that remains.
If you haven’t noticed it by this point, I really cannot speak highly enough of Luputhana. I cannot think of another location that I have visited that better embodies the ideals of an entire region. As far as I’m concerned, if you are in search of the quintessential Wild Coast experience, then you need look no further than Luputhana. Likewise, if you are in the hunt for unique and compelling landscape images, Luputhana comes highly recommended too.