Mkhambathi, taking the 'wild' out of the Wild Coast
Things don’t always go according to plan. In fact, my experience suggests that they seldom do and my recent visit to Mkhambathi just about epitomised this home truth. My strategy was to visit the secretive little nature reserve on the Eastern Cape Wild Coast for a few days, and to spend the time there photographing its many waterfalls. Mother Nature, however, was less than obliging. The old girl approved just 18 hours of photography time, much of which was at night, and then saw to it that the balance of my visit was spent being unceremoniously bludgeoned by wind and rain. I had no choice but to hunker down and when scheduling pressures finally forced me to leave, I did so with very little to show for my patient persistence. Ordinarily, the handful of photos that I took away from Mkhambathi would not warrant the effort needed to write an article, but such was the charm of the little nature reserve that turning my back on her felt like an undue insult.
Mkhambathi is situated 65 km south of Flagstaff in the former Transkei and, by Transkei standards, reaching the coastal annexe is a relatively straightforward affair. The road from Flagstaff is tar for the first 33 km, with the remaining unsealed section being rough but passable in a typical suburban sedan. This is not to say that the journey is quick, though; motoring in the Eastern Cape seldom is. Instead, the drive to Mkhambathi takes longer than you’d expect, something that makes arriving at the park gate a huge relief.
If, while travelling, you had any doubts as to whether or not your efforts to reach the park would be rewarded, you’ll be happy to learn that one is immediately greeted with the sense that the reserve is going through somewhat of a revival. A new entrance complex, well-maintained fences and an army of weedeater-wielding staff trimming the lawns are all evidence that the Eastern Cape tourism authority has seen value in the coastal enclave.
Bordered to the south by the Msikaba River and in the north by the Mtentu, Mkhambathi incorporates a swath of coastal grassland that gently rolls off from the surrounding highlands towards the sea. The plains are, famously, home to a variety of antelope that spend their days in herbivore opulence grazing on lush grasses, without fear of predators and all the while enjoying uninterrupted views of the sea. It’s an outstanding location to unleash the long lens and to indulge in some unusual coastal wildlife photography. It’s a tranquil spectacle that completely belies the fact that Mkhambathi is part of the “supposedly” treacherous Wild Coast.
For those who prefer panoramas to portraits, Mkhambathi is equally bountiful. Provided that you get a small serving of sunlight, there is a raft of serene ocean views to choose from, all of which have what it takes to produce a masterpiece. However, as endearing as sea views might be, the park’s principal landscape drawcards are the waterfalls. Mkhambathi features numerous rivers and streams etched into the coastal plains, almost all of which come imbued with a waterfall of some description. The best examples of these falls are to be found on the river that lends its name to the park, the Mkhambathi.
In the space of just a kilometre or so, the Mkhambathi River makes three sizeable plunges en route to the ocean and in so doing creates the Horseshoe, Mkhambathi and Strandloper Falls respectively. The Horseshoe and Strandloper Falls are perhaps the most famous of the otherwise little-known bunch; the Horseshoe because it rather resembles, well, a horseshoe and the Strandloper because it cascades directly into the sea. I only had the opportunity to photograph the Strandloper before being involuntarily sent into hiding, but from my scouting exploits it is fair to say that all three waterfalls have latent photographic potential.
Mkhambathi Nature Reserve
(Gwe Gwe Rondavels)Price: R 340.00 pppn Tel: +27 (0)43 705 4400 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: visiteasterncape.co.za
The difficulty is that while the waterfalls themselves might stand in close proximity, reaching the trio requires a certain degree of commitment to the landscape photography cause. Primary access is via a poorly maintained track which cuts a testing path through the tall grass and, while the route is probably navigable by means of a two-wheel-drive vehicle with good ground clearance, my advice would be to take your 4x4 along, if you have one. The only other option available to those wanting to visit the waterfalls is to walk from the nearby Gwe Gwe rondavels, a route that permits a more direct approach to the Mkhambathi River but one that remains a substantial undertaking nonetheless.
Gwe Gwe, together with its close neighbour, Riverside Lodge, offers the only accommodation in the eastern region of the park and marks the point where I took shelter. The camp comprises a collection of six very basic rondavels perched on the end of a small peninsula some 15 km away from the nearest civilisation. The rondavels are constructed in an authentic Transkei style, lacking only the characteristic turquoise paint job highly favoured by the province’s residents. The whole camp is somewhat neglected, having not yet received the park management’s full attention, but its isolation makes up for any shortcomings. Furthermore, the seclusion has the added benefit of resulting in very low levels of light pollution, which makes Gwe Gwe a good location for astrophotography.
As a whole, my thwarted visit to Mkhambathi couldn’t even begin to uncover the reserve’s true potential. Reports suggest, for instance, that the Msikaba River Gorge on the western edge of the park is also a location worth exploring. Honestly, I feel a bit awkward writing about a venue that I haven’t thoroughly investigated but there is one fact that serves to justify my decision to do so. The Mkhambathi Nature Reserve has found its way onto my prized I-must-go-back list – that’s how charming it is.