There are essentially three routes from the Durban area (South Africa’s third biggest metropolitan area) to Port St. Johns. The quickest route normally would be the weathered R61, which runs along the coast. Unfortunately roadwork has left this path nearly impassable. In South Africa much of the heavy road construction is still done by hand. Instead of tractors you’ll often find large lines of men with pick axes and shovels. This not only means projects take longer, but can result in some impassable stretches and long delays.
The next time I visit South Africa, the R61 will likely be completed. Its completion presents a new challenge. A new road to Port St. Johns is expected to bring massive economic and tourism growth. While this sounds all well and good, if not done with the already limited and diminishing coastal forest habitat in mind, the result will be even less habitat for the wildlife of the area including the Pondo Dwarf Chameleon (Bradypodion caffer). From a reserve-building standpoint this will also escalate the price of land dramatically and limit the amount of land available for purchase. For financial and feasibility reasons it is critical HCI has secured our Project Pondo site before any of this happens.
With R61 a mess, Rebecca and I opted for “Option-B”, an inland route. We were about 3 hours into the drive when, in the town of Richmond, we ran into an unfamiliar issue. Road workers ahead had become violent while striking and the police completely blockaded the route. Everyone that had chosen this route was forced to attempt to turn around on a road with only two lanes, and no one seemed to have the same idea. Countless cars began turning, honking, reversing, going off road, and even falling off road. It was chaotic and I was all but certain we were going to get a few bumps and bruises on the rental. Somehow we made it out of the chaos without a scratch but now our only option was to backtrack several hours, and take a route even further inland. This route ran the base of the Drakensberg Mountains. The trip to PSJ was certainly becoming a frustrating endeavor.
Despite the hectic detour, the mountain foothill route worked, but involved some major pothole dodging and serious rains. Looking back, I don’t know that you can actually call those, potholes.
At what depth and magnitude does a pothole in the road simply become a hole? If you enjoy Super Mario Kart, you’d probably enjoy driving in South Africa, because there are times it feels a bit like a videogame, and the speed limits feel a bit more like challenges than limits. 120km? Sure I bet I can do that. Here goes nothing!
The day had mostly gone by when we finally began to descend into the Transkei. Suddenly the plants changed, the scenery shifted from the savannah plains to something new I was entirely unfamiliar with. I thought I’d seen it all. After five long trips to areas all over South Africa, I was certain there was hardly a biome in this country I couldn’t describe with aptitude. I was so wrong.
As we weaved into PSJ I forgot about the chaos on the road behind us. The fact we had nearly disassembled our car twenty separate times in ditches in the road quickly left our thoughts. As we made our way closer to town, the environment around us became more and more dramatic and the sceneries shift was more drastic. The final descent into Port St. Johns, feels a bit like the final scene from the 90’s children’s film “The Land Before Time”. Indeed, I felt like we had arrived at “The Great Valley” itself. The Mzimvubu river has cut a deep ravine exposing shear rock cliffs covered in large leaf tropical plants. It was green, it was unique, it was breathtaking.
Ever since my first trip to South Africa, a favorite stop of mine has been visiting Anton Roberts at his Umkhumbi lodge. The sand forest biome his home is situated in is unique and tranquil, and his endless stories from his anti-poaching days are always entertaining paired with an ice-cold cider. This visit however, we were not talking old stories, but future plans. Anton is an important member of the HCI team and his contributions to helping move forward Project Pondo reserve land acquisition attempts, land management strategies, and low impact study site planning have proved invaluable. After days of talking and plotting (which will soon result in some announcements) it was time to leave the lodge and go to our next stop. We were headed to a place I’ve talked much about but had yet to see for myself—Port St. Johns (PSJ).
I’d read so much about this area and I knew it was unique, but how unique is impossible to quantify without seeing it. Within just a few kilometers we were transported to a place that reminded me more of Belize than anywhere in South Africa. Seeing coastal forest habitat in person reinforced the importance of working towards its preservation. Not just for our target species, but for the many other species that call it home. Unfortunately 47 percent of it has already been transformed. The endemism present and beauty of the place are magical. We know too well the anthropogenic threats that face the coastal forest. The Wild Coast, it’s special—and we need to protect it. Project Pondo is our effort to do that.
The following is a personal account of HCI’s Myke Clarkson and his first visit to Port St. Johns.
No HCI funds were used to fund this recce mission.
Written by: Myke Clarkson