This is the Wild Coast. Roundevals and thatch-roofed homes dot the hillsides along endless kilometers of unpaved roads. There is dirt in my lungs and little pieces of Africa digesting in my stomach. I sweat. I am slowly absorbing its atmosphere through my pores. Children wave and laugh as we pass by, pointing to their bellies, asking for sweets. Cows, goats and dogs regularly block the way. Women going to market with stacks of wood balanced on their heads, their babies clasped tightly to their back by a swaddling cloth. Our convoy gradually makes twisting, sporadic progress toward the distant ocean. It can be smelled long before it can be seen. Sixty-nine kilometers of dirt before we reach the Dwessa-Cwebe nature reserve. Three tumbling landrovers on a winding road. Two hours to the nearest hospital. One Wild Coast.
Yesterday, we were stranded in the Cape Morgan coastal reserve for the day due to faulty wiring on one of the vehicles. I spent the day reading and hiking and staring at a curious vervet monkey from about 3 meters away. He blinked first and jumped off into the brush. Today, a few swift punches to the steering column cleared up our car troubles enough to press on. This morning we left for Dwessa-Cwebe and tonight we are here.
Driving through the small towns and communities in rural South Africa is a much different experience than the cities. Here, on the farmland that borders wilderness, there is no contrast to the poverty--there are no large mansions or European luxury automobiles flaked by shanty towns. There are no individuals in tailored suits stepping over the scraggly dressed homeless. Instead, there are just entire communities of people living at a particular standard of living. This is not a land of have-and-have-nots; it is simply a land of people living lives on the periphery of the national consciousness.
This area of the country is called the Transkei. It’s history extends to the Apartheid era when the white National Party forcibly relocate millions of black South Africans into separate ‘homelands’ according to their propaganda driven policy of ‘separate development’. Today, despite the end of Apartheid, these boundaries still persist, now a result of a socioeconomic caste system instead of overt political racism. This is the new racism of our age and a pressing issue for South Africa and the world. Still, these people farm their land, awaiting the once promised change from the revolutionary ANC led government. This change is slow coming.
The rural areas are spread across the countryside; this is because the communities came first, the roads followed long after. The sprawling villages occasionally coalesce in small towns. These places are hubs of communication and people. These are places where words and gestures are haphazardly thrust across busy intersections, from fruit stand to fruit stand and store front to store front. Phrases in tongues. People pulling carts. Balancing bags of produce on their head. People selling things, everything, anything for 50, no 30, no 25 rands. Street lights are suggestions, roads are ambiguous. Sidewalks are stone and dirt. The air is thick with cigarettes and the smell of citrus and the boiling of ground sorghum.
I share a smoke with a man who barely speaks English. He asks my name. I say, “I am Mario”. I ask him for his name. He echoes, “My name is Mario”. We can’t talk much, but he knows the name of the famous South African soccer player ‘Shebelala’. We smoke mostly in silence. That is the universal language: tobacco. We pass several towns like this, connected by long stretches of country road, herds of cattle, over-crowded taxis and the occasional dead animal. We reach the Dwessa-Cwebe reserve in the early afternoon. I am not sure where the farmland ends and the forests begin, but now we are in the wilderness.
My room is a concrete and thatch hut. We have plumbing and electrical, but it is certainly not a Hilton, although it really doesn’t matter, this is far better anyway. You can hear the ocean constantly. From my doorway, you can seen the brown waves crashing on the beach; crashing, because this is a notoriously moody part of the coast line and brown, because the river delta empties into the ocean about a half of a kilometers walk down the beach. The sediment that spills from the river mouth makes ideal conditions for crocodiles, sharks and lots of other big, bad animals. Fording rivers is tricky--you’ve go to be quick and keep your eyes open. Swimming in the ocean is not advised, but temptation never reared such a seductive head. This is one apple, however, that I will leave on its low hanging branch. There are so many other things to explore and I value my limbs.
The reserve houses a corral of horses, some 10 or 15 in all. There is one Zebra as well, the last of a herd of three that meander among the horses and drink from the pool. It’s skittish, but calm enough for a brief petting. As I write this, there is a juvenile vervet monkey picking figs out of the tree in front of me--about 2 meters away. The leathery skin of his little black face protruding with mouthfuls of delicious figs. He seems friendly, I will name him Roger.
The reserve is split into two parts by the Mbashe river; Cwebe to the north, and Dwessa to the south. Cwebe is where we are staying, full hundreds of bird species, some smaller antelope breeds (dikka, springbok, bushbuck and others) bush pigs, vervets, the light house and a several-story waterfall. Dwessa, where we will be doing some of our field work, research and camping, is home to a small herd of white rhino, the larger antelope species (kudu, eland, blesbuck and others), some larger predators (jaguar and some other big cats--however, not lions), snakes and everything else.
The truth is, few researchers actually know the extent of what wildlife is actually contained within the reserve. There have only been two or three rudimentary surveys conducted in the park. We are hoping to change that, to get a better idea of what is going on here. The Parks Board conserves this area of pristine coastal forest because it represents a small remaining island of what once was an even Wilder Coast of sprawling trees and coastline. There are so many things alive here. We will probably be doing flora surveys, ecosystem rebuilding, and possibly shark catching and tagging. I will sleep well tonight under the blanket of stars shining through my window, if only these horses would stop making so much noise on the porch.
good night, good morning, good life from the Wild Coast,