The Eastern Cape coastline is well-known for its Wild Coast; a wild, undeveloped and rugged stretch from just north of East London right up to Port Edward and the border with KwaZulu-Natal. The Wild Coast includes such popular holiday destinations as Coffee Bay and Hole in the Wall, and is the ideal destination if you want to escape the pace and distractions of modern life. Its rolling grassy hills, patches of indigenous forest and picturesque estuaries and beaches offer just the right blend of peace and adventure. Choosing to escape these more popular destinations, Bevan and I set out for Morgan Bay, a small holiday town near the mouth of the mighty Kei River, the southern boundary and gateway to the Wild Coast.
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Gateway to the Wild Coast
Morgan Bay, Haga Haga to the south and Kei Mouth but a few kilometres north are all easily accessible from East London. These southern Wild Coast gateway towns have all of the positives of the Wild Coast itself, and more! The access road to Morgan Bay is tarred, well-maintained and well signposted with barely a pothole in sight. Even in peak holiday periods it is relatively quiet and you do not feel overrun by tourists, and because of this irritating spinoffs such as petty crime, hawking and a lack of privacy or inability to escape the busyness is largely avoided.
What you have instead is an unspoiled coastline with excellent fishing and surfing opportunities, towering cliffs perfect for a romantic evening picnic or sundowner, grassy hills with uncrowded hiking trails waiting to be explored and world-class rock climbing and abseiling. The nearby Kei River offers boating and bird watching activities and for those wishing to venture into the Wild Coast proper, a pont that operates daily offers easy access for pedestrians, cars and livestock alike (this is the Wild Coast after all).
Shipwrecks and sunken treasure in Morgan Bay
This stretch of coastline also has a rich maritime history. For ages it was notoriously dangerous because of its uncharted waters, submerged reefs and tempestuous seas. Many a vessel ran aground and there are plenty of stories of disaster, epic survival tales of shipwrecked sailors and of course rumours of sunken treasure.
Bevan and I did some treasure hunting of our own during our stay in Morgan Bay. We were told of a beach where Ming pottery and Carnelian beads wash up and can be found on the beach at low tide. The exact origin of these artefacts is unknown although popularly ascribed to the 1608 wreck of the Portuguese Santo Esperito. Although it’s exact final position was not recorded in the literature, the wreck is thought to lie just offshore of this stretch of coastline. The Ming pottery on Bead Beach has been dated to the end of the 16th century making it likely that if not from the wreck of the Santo Esperito itself, it would have been cargo on a vessel from its era.
We set out on a hike to Bead Beach from the campsite in the Double Mouth Nature Reserve just to the south of Morgan Bay. As well as the main attraction of searching for sunken treasure, the hiking trail in itself passes some incredible coastal scenery with plenty of places to stop off for a swim or picnic.
At Bead Beach, Bevan and I joined two local Xhosa ladies in our search for treasure, keeping a sharp eye on the waves and darting in and out of the surf zone as the water receded. Although it takes a while to get your eye in, once you have found your first bead or piece of pottery you are hooked! It took a lot of discipline to remember to take a break to reapply sunblock, never mind to finally tear ourselves away and continue with our hike!
The real treasure
It is quite a humbling thought to stop and consider the last time these artefacts saw the light of day, or whose hands might have been the last to touch them. Being so directly connected with events that happened so long in the past was for me a very special thing and the handful of beads and delicately painted pottery pieces that we managed to find are undoubtedly one of my most treasured souvenirs from our Ultimate South African Road Trip.
I guess that is a theme for much of our trip - being surprised by the richness and diversity of South Africa and finding treasure in the most unexpected or surprising places. Morgan Bay is one of these places and one that we can easily recommend!
We would like to thank Faye and the team at the Mitford Hotel in Morgan Bay. Offering beachfront self-catering or catered stays, the apartments were comfortable and perfect for a relaxing beach holiday or a base for adventures in the area, and with the restaurant on site are ideal as an overnight stop for people wishing to hike the coastline. Waking up to the early morning light over the sea and falling asleep to the sound of waves breaking was an amazing experience! The staff are also full of local knowledge and are happy to share tips about the best activities to do in the area, so make sure you have some free time in your schedule when you visit.