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TThere aren’t too many coastal zones or estuaries in the world that can be called near-pristine, but the Pondoland Marine Protected Area (MPA) is surely one of them. It conserves a remarkable seascape along the Wild Coast in Eastern Cape province. This is an environment of subtropical reefs housing a teeming array of species, unpolluted estuaries serving as nurseries to young fish, and waterfalls dropping directly into the sea.
Pondoland is named for the people who live in this region – the Pondo. The Pondoland MPA extends for 90km north of Port St Johns, almost to the provincial border with KwaZulu-Natal, and includes the delightful Mkhambathi Nature Reserve.
The MPA is bounded by the Umzimvubu River in the south and the Mzamba River in the north, extending more than 10km out to sea. The beautiful Mkhambathi Nature Reserve with all its waterfalls lies in the northern half of the MPA.
Inland, this area is also referred to with some reverence by botanists as the Pondoland Centre of Endemism, a biodiversity hotspot of unique plants – some so rare that literally only one or two specimens have been found.
The marine ecosystem here is a transition zone between sub-tropical and warm temperate zones, and the protection offered by the MPA makes a world of difference to overexploited linefish like the red steenbras and the black musselcracker. The MPA has differing zones – some are ‘no take’, where fishing and seafood collection is banned completely, while others allow limited harvests of certain species with a permit.
Of course, none of this conveys how extraordinary, how breathtakingly beautiful this part of the Wild Coast is.
Offshore, whales and dolphins course through the blue seas. When the annual Sardine Run happens, the huge shoals are joined by dozens of different bird species and other ocean predators. The coast, with its high cliffs, soft, sandy shores and subtidal reefs, is home to dozens of species that are found nowhere else.
There are two notable ways to explore this incredibly diverse seascape. You could book into Mkhambathi Nature Reserve and relax into the rhythm of the waves, exploring the beach and rock pools. Or you can do something a little more strenuous, like the Wild Coast Pondo Walk, a 5-day walking trail exploring this remarkable area.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Wild Coast Holidays
Tel: +27 (0)43 743 6181
How to get here
You can self-drive from Durban, the nearest city with an airport – take the N2 south to Port Shepstone, then follow the R61 to Port Edward. Here, the road loops inland through Bizana to Flagstaff, where you’ll find the turn-off to the coast and Mkhambathi Nature Reserve. It will take about 5 hours to drive the 350km from Durban – 90 minutes at least spent on the final 70km from Flagstaff, where the road isn’t designed for high speeds. From East London, it’s about 445km to Mkhambathi Nature Reserve on the N2 and R61 through Port St Johns and Flagstaff – a 7 to 8-hour drive.
Best time to visit
This area is wonderful any time of year, but if you’re here during June or July, you may witness the incredible Sardine Run, a mass migration of these small fish that attracts pelagic birds and predators like dolphins, Bryde whales, gamefish and sharks.
If you’re staying at Mkhambathi Nature Reserve, you can walk or take yourself for game drives.
Length of stay
No matter how much time you assign to this part of South Africa, you’ll probably want more. Set aside at least 3 days, perhaps included in a longer road trip – but bear in mind that Wild Coast roads are not sympathetic to those in a hurry...
What to pack
Beach gear: thongs, a beach wrap, maybe a fishing rod. Sunscreen and a hat, any time of year.
Where to stay
Mbotyi has lovely wooden cabins where you’ll be based if you decide to do the Pondo Walk for 5 days. Otherwise, there are simple self-catering accommodation options within Mkhambathi Nature Reserve.