Historical Port St Johns
Did you know?
Huberta, a famous long-distance wandering hippo, passed through Port St Johns late in 1929.
Port St Johns, the little Wild Coast town in the Eastern Cape, has a reputation of being a hide-out for backpackers, slackers and those who relish the joys of an alternate lifestyle.
Almost every country in the world has its 'hippie haven', a gathering place of like minds who come from as far afield as California and the Gold Coast of Australia to enjoy each other's company for a few months and then drift off back home or to some Shangri-La in the Far East.
That place, in South Africa, is Port St Johns.
Slumbering next to the brown waters of the Umzimvubu River in Pondoland, Port St Johns possesses two of the most amazing headland hills flanking the river: Mounts Thesiger and Sullivan. They are huge sandstone cliffs, thickly wooded and populated by more than 200 bird species. The cliffs are also called the Gates of St Johns.
Port St Johns is named after the Portuguese ship, the Sao Joao, which was wrecked north of this spot. Some believe, however, that it bears the name because on a clear day sailors could make out the profile of St John the Baptist, naturally sculpted in a nearby cliff face.
The first people known to have lived in the area were those from the Mthwa cluster of clans.
The first European residents in South Africa were, in fact, ensconced in Port St Johns for six months. They were the Portuguese survivors of the Nossa Senhora de Belem, which went down here in June, 1635.
The first white people to live here permanently were the traders, descendants of the 1820 Settlers who set up shop along the banks of the Umzimvubu (Xhosa for 'place of the hippo') River. They co-existed peacefully with the Mthwa and the Mpondo people. (There was a brief moment in time when the district was destined to be a German colony, but in 1884 Britain stepped in and swiftly annexed it as part of the Cape Colony.)
For a century, Port St Johns gently flourished into an idyllic enclave and minor seaport along the Wild Coast. It became the 'holiday hideaway' of a few in the know, people who returned time and again to their favourite beaches and fishing spots.
Some very interesting folk came to settle here. They were adventurers, hoteliers, military types and solitary souls like South Africa’s own Robinson Crusoe, a colourful character called Ben Dekker, who lives in a cave near Second Beach. Ben writes, carves art out of objects found on the beach and eats what he catches from the sea.
It is the spirit of people like Dekker and another Port St Johns resident called John Costello, a photographer, guest-house owner, guide and local expert, that makes this little part of South Africa so unique.
At any time of the year, Port St Johns is Backpacker Central. Walk its colourful streets and you will find any number of young people from all over the world in deep and happy conversation with a local populace only too happy to welcome them in their midst.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Port St Johns tourist info:
Tel: +27 (0)47 564 1187
How to get here
Drive up (or down) the N2 to Mthatha and turn east on the R61 to Port St Johns, a distance of about 90km.
Best time to visit
Port St Johns, with its sub-tropical climate, is a good all-year destination.
Tours to do
There are many hikes and trails in the area. Tour guides can be booked through the local tourist info offices – see contact information.
It’s best to hire a vehicle from Durban, East London or Port Elizabeth.
What will it cost
Accommodation prices range from R250 pp per night (self-catering) to approx. R1 500 pp for the luxury all-in lodges.
Length of stay
Set aside three nights for your visit to the Port St Johns area.
What to pack
Pack lightly and informally – beachwear rules.
Where to stay
Check the listed websites for the many accommodation options available in Port St Johns.
What to eat
Port St Johns restaurants, lodges and guest houses serve everything from seafood to pizza.
Mid-February sees the running of the six-day Wild Coast Ultra trail race from Port St Johns to East London.
Don’t miss the great beadwork crafts at Pondo People.