A tourism tragedy is unfolding on the Wild Coast. It has been doing so for some years now, writes Margie Pretorius.
We meet at the Wild Coast Casino parking lot and leave our cars there. We shoulder our backpacks and after a brief welcome from our guides, Artist and Vuyani who run Pondoland Walking Safaris, we set off.
Soon we are walking on the near deserted beach - so unlike the crowded South Coast beaches we drove past on our way from Durban to Port Edward. The tide is low and we marvel at the numerous fossilised tree trunks that will soon be underwater as the tide comes in.
After an easy two-hour walk, and a wonderful sighting of crowned cranes in the grasslands as we turn inland, we approach Sigidi Village, where we will be spending the night. Tea, freshly baked umbhako and a warm welcome await us. Nonhle and her sisters show us to a spacious rondavel where comfy mattresses and fluffy blankets are laid out for the night.
From the door of our large hut we can see the sea in the distance and the family fields. Supper consists of mealies, madumbies, sweet potatoes, spinach, pumpkin, onions and tomatoes - all home grown.
As we sit and chat around the fire after supper, Nonhle Mbuthuma tells us that we are about the 200th group of tourists to stay over and enjoy Sigidi hospitality in the last 15 years, but that the future of this small and successful tourism venture is under serious and imminent threat.
Her homestead lies in the path of the proposed toll road that national roads agency Sanral is hell-bent on building despite many years of attempts by local residents to negotiate transport infrastructure improvements more suited to the needs of the local communities, especially the development of sustainable tourism. Sanral is immoveable.
"Our biggest concern is that the road will lead to mining," says Mbuthuma. "We believe that that is why the government wants to build a big toll road, close to the dunes where the titanium is. Some people say we are against development because we don't want the toll road. It is not that.
“We would like for government to upgrade existing roads and bridges that serve our villages and towns. That would improve our lives and give us easier access to schools, shops and clinics.
“Improving existing roads will also give tourists better access to the coast and tourism attractions, but in a way that will not be destructive. The toll road will not do that. The toll road will transport goods and people at high speed through the area. It will also bring ribbon settlement to this area, which will have a bad impact on our agricultural land. And the toll road will make the mining possible.”
"But what about about the mining," asks a member of our group. "Will that not bring much needed jobs and development to your area?"
“The mine will last for 22 years,” says Mbuthuma. "if we can grow tourism and agriculture in this area it can create as many jobs as the mine and those jobs will last forever. We know this - the studies have been done.
“The mine will destroy homes and livelihoods. What is the point o destroying livelihoods in order to create short term jobs? We need to conserve our agricultural areas in South Africa. With climate change coming so many places in our water scarce country will become marginal areas for agriculture.
“Eastern Pondoland is one of the areas that is likely to still get enough rain to grow crops. This area needs to be recognised as a very important area with regard to agriculture in the future.”
Artist stokes the fire, the sparks fly. “The other thing about the mining is that it will destroy the unspoilt beauty of this coast which is why tourists come here,” says Artist. “People won’t want to hike in this area if there is mining. Our new hiking business will die.”
I can’t bear to think of this fledgling, truly grassroots tourism enterprise dying an early death, before it can even fly.
“And we don’t need a big highway next to the coast,” he adds. “We don’t want this area to look like Ballito or Margate. We want to protect the unique wild character of this part of the Wild Coast.”
“And where is the water going to come from for the mining,” asks Mbuthuma. “The mining company says that they will restore the area when they have finished mining, but we know what titanium mining does. We have been to Richards Bay and seen what that area looks like after mining. We don't want Xolobeni to be like Richards Bay. What is the point of jobs if you can't live in the area anymore? What is the point of mining if there is no clean water in the area anymore?"
Fossil viewing at low tide at Mzamba: Photo: Margie Pretorius
Mining the Wild Coast
Our conversation continues and we learn that even though the Australian mining company says it has pulled out of the proposed Xolobeni mining project, and intends to sell its company to local black South Africans, there is deep suspicion that this is just a cover up. "For 10 years we have said no to mining, whatever colour it takes. Mining is not development for us”- no matter if it is black or white,” says Mbuthuma.
We learn from Mbuthuma that the government has recently issued a moratorium on the mining, but this is only for 18 months and is no guarantee that it will not eventually happen. “We need this area to be protected for generations to come and we are going to fight for that in court,” she insists. “But it is bedtime now - otherwise you will be too tired to get up when the chickens wake you in the morning!”
We are all silent as we find our way back to our rondavel and snuggle under the blankets. Of course we, as tourists and outsiders, wouldn’t want the mining to happen because we would hate this beautiful hiking route to be destroyed, but listening to our hostess and guide we realise that our new friends’ homes, livelihoods, heritage and futures are threatened - a much more serious destruction is pending than the spoiling of a tourist destination.
I lie awake pondering the wisdom of the amaMpondo that I have been exposed to for the first time. I fall asleep thinking of the well-known Native American saying: “Only when the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught and the last river poisoned, only then will we realise that we cannot eat money."
Wisdom of Sigidi
It seems to me that we need to listen to the wisdom of the people of Sigidi to ensure that this does not become a prophecy for South Africa. Even though our economy has been dependent on mining for so many years we are beginning to experience the devastating long-term environmental impact of mining and many people are realising that we have to rethink how we structure our economy into the future.
Increasingly it is becoming clear that when the full human health and environmental impact of mining is taken into account it is not as beneficial as we have been led to believe. The amaMpondo seem to know this even without reading stories about acid mine drainage and silicosis. Maybe they have learnt this both from living off their beautiful land, and a long history of working in the gold mines.
After enjoying a beautiful sunrise and a good breakfast, we fill our water bottles with some of the sweet clean water fetched from a nearby stream and set off on our day's hike. This becomes our rhythm for the next amazing seven days.
Sigidi is the gateway to a remarkable week-long walking adventure and each day we are gobsmacked by the beauty of the coast, the unspoilt beaches, the spectacular waterfalls, the crystal clear streams and pools, the gorge views, and the lush forests. Our village stays are in Mdatya, Mtentu, Msikaba, Rhole, Cutwini, Manteku and Noqhekwana and at each homestay we are greeted with warm hospitality by a family that is experiencing the benefits of their very own tourism enterprise.
For some of the people in our group it is a first and rich experience of rural African hospitality. There are no walls or fences around homesteads. For all of us it is a deeply therapeutic experience of living more simply, closer to the earth and with a clearer view of the sky and stars, away from the bright lights and traffic of the city. We are all humbled as we discover how ignorant we are of the culture and the history of the proud amaMpondo.
All South Africans should experience Pondoland
We all leave with the feeling that this Pondoland walking safari is an adventure that we would love every South African to have. Artist and Vuyani regularly lead young people from England on this hike as part of their Duke of Edinburgh Award activities. What of our own young people? What about making it known as a hike perfect for those completing their President’s Award? This hike on the wildest, most unspoilt part of the Wild Coast is the most remarkable and spectacular learning journey right on the doorstep of schools in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. The hike and homestay "package" is a perfect outdoor, cross cultural, life science, geography, history and life orientation classroom waiting to be used.
Sanral has recently called for tenders for the bridges over the Mtentu and Msikaba gorges, even though the legal objections to the environmental impact assessment have not been resolved. Those in authority seem arrogantly deaf to calls for accountability and due legal process.
The bridges will traverse some of the most ecologically diverse, sensitive and unspoilt spaces left in our land. They will cost billions of taxpayers’ money and will be spent by Sanral under the ruse that this will bring development to the “poor” people of Pondoland.
Imagine if that money could be spent instead on improving existing road, education and health infrastructure for the area or on growing tourism and agriculture. Judging by what we heard on our hike, that is what the people of the area really want.
Mbuthuma said: “We fish and we raise chickens. We grow lots of vegetables. We have cattle for weddings and traditional rituals. We are not among the quoted one out of four South Africans who go hungry to bed.”
Eastern Pondoland is an area of breath-taking beauty and peaceful rural life. It is a national treasure and if we allow the amaMpondo to continue protecting it from misguided mega “development” projects it will remain that for generations to come. Tourists and tourism ventures, and not titanium miners or toll road construction companies are what our government should be insisting on in Pondoland. What can we do to make them listen?
To find out more about hiking from Port Edward to Port St Johns and staying in village based accommodation check out Pondoland Walking Safaris or Absolute Wild Coast on Facebook.
For information about how to support the Amadiba community in their resistance to mining and the toll road go to: www.swc.org.za