Four Weeks…Into the Unknown | Barry Armitage

Four Weeks…Into the Unknown | Barry Armitage

extract from Barry' journal - please go to there site for the full story........

Four Weeks…Into the Unknown (

December, 2011 | No Comments

Our stay at Bulungula Backpackers was a highlight of our time on the Wild Coast. It sits humbly in the landscape not out of place alongside the thatch rondavels of the nearby community. Things are simple but stylish with everything you need, and all dealt with responsibly. It is a community initiative started by Dave Martin, with composting toilets, solar electricity and water heating, supporting a large portion of the local community.

It had been very wet the day of our arrival and our gear had taken its time drying around the wood burning stove overnight. A violent squall, just before we enjoyed a slow breakfast while waiting for the low tide to cross the Xhora River, almost undid all that slow evaporation. We got going at around eleven o’clock for the short 17km ride to the Haven. The Xhora had cut three channels separated by sand banks in its estuary, splitting its water into manageable volumes easy to wade through on the horses, but not without our boots and legs getting wet.

A few headlands and wades later we were in the forest of the Cwebe Nature Reserve that surrounds the Haven. Like most of the large coastal forests we had been through, it is a quiet, still place; the sound of the sea and wind drowned out by the dense foliage. There was no sign of any wildlife however, no tracks on the forest path and very few birds. These lush, dense coastal forests don’t seem to be home to many animal species, unlike the patches of coastal bush veld that seemed to always host a few duiker.

Spiders webs, tendrils of thorny creepers and low branches are a constant issue travelling on horseback through forest paths like these. Combine the three and it’s like a ride at the fair with consequences: ducking under branches that could take your head off, missing thorny tendrils that seem to reach out to grab you and rip skin and clothes when you don’t, and then the constant difficult to see spiders webs that always arrive at head height and that you see at the last moment before the web wraps around you face followed by rapid flailing of hands, spitting and spluttering to get the damned thing off. Individually these are not big issues but occasionally you get all three together and it causes humorous mayhem that can result in a little blood, ripped clothing, bash to the head and vegetation attached to your backpack.

We emerged from the forest in the mid afternoon with the buildings of the Haven appearing serene and peaceful in their forest clearing, a reminder of a past era of Wild Coast holidays. It had been a short day, an opportunity to catch up on drying out equipment, to get a bit of admin done, and to ponder the crossing of Mbashe River which had loomed large for the whole journey.

The Mbashe River was the big obstacle on the Wild Coast. With all the rain we were telling ourselves that it must be swollen and all along our approach had reminded us of this: this and the Zambezi sharks resident at the mouth. To drive the point home, in the reception area at the Haven there were photographs of Zambezi’s swimming around in the lagoon with their fins sticking out (as sharks are so fond of doing, just to scare humans) in exactly the spot where we were planning to cross! We had feared this river on the Dick King ride and we had been feeling that same trepidation on this ride too. We had checked it out the night before a few hours before high tide. The rains had not swelled it too much, and we felt that if we crossed at the widest point, it might be shallow enough to wade across the whole way, avoiding the thrashing of limbs that swimming entails sending messages of “food” to the Zambezi’s lurking in the chocolate brown water.

After all the hype the Mbashe had been tame on the Dick King ride, and so it was on this journey. We slipped across its 120m breadth without the horse’s hooves leaving the bottom and without attracting the attention of the legendary Zambezi’s. We seem to be having luck with this river but I won’t ever take crossing it lightly, and never without a slight knot of fear in my belly.

There were six more rivers to cross in the course of the afternoon but once we were across the Mbashe everything else seemed like a breeze. Some were deeper but as the end of the day drew closer we got more and more bold, and less and less inclined to worry about getting ourselves and our gear wet; we just plunged in making sure our cameras and phones were waterproofed or clear. Cherokee is the best swimmer of the horses: a bit timid going in but once under way he goes like a battle cruiser! A long day, but one filled with wilderness areas and spectacular scenery, finally brought us t0 Kob Inn.

I was last at Kob Inn when I was just out of nappies, so was excited to revisit this place that had so many fractured childhood memories: my dad catching huge grunter, the trampoline, my brother standing on an electric eel crossing the river, the children’s dining room and the dinner gong. I must be one of many kids with these sorts of memories and others came flooding back as we rode through the gates to a warm welcome from the staff and guests.

My room has a view of the rocks where my dad caught many sizable fish and I think I can remember being strapped to my nannies back with a blanket and being rushed to see one of the biggest being landed. I was probably too small to actually remember this though and it’s likely to be one of those patched together “memories” from photos, family stories and experiences. I don’t care: I remember it fondly!

The resort has grown and upped its offering since I was here last about 40 years ago; I am sure that there will be many more fond memories being created in the years to come. Many thanks to Daan and his wonderful team for having The Ride, and for the opportunity to revisit childhood memories.

Day 24 started like most of the previous few: a leisurely start to the day involving admin, drying clothes and equipment, and stoking up the engine room with a large breakfast. We tend to skip lunch so breakfast is a very important meal. We got away smartly at 11:30 deciding to risk the river before the low tide to give ourselves every chance to make it to the ferry on the Kei River before six o’clock. We made it easily but not without the obligatory wet boots. We had had wet boots every day since we hitting the Wild Coast a week before.

The riding was simply sensational. The hills open up on this section of the Wild Coast into rolling grasslands which we would alternate with blasts along the hard sand at the water’s edge. Fantastic riding and the horses loved it. Jack had had a few days off and hit the day with a fire in his belly and winning on his mind. Everything is a race when Jack is in this mood. It seems to be brought on by Arabs: he can’t bear to let them be first and Julie-Anne’s horse Tara has a solid dose of Arab.

There were about eight other rivers of various sizes before the Kei, all of which we managed to wade across, but at some there was trepidation as the water lapped over the backs of the horses: is this the one that we are going to get wrong and end up in the drink?

We popped in to meet Justin Bonello’s mum, Jeanne, at Cebe. She, like her son, is very charming, and has conjured a beautiful, stylish home and garden right on the Cebe rocks. We had to leave far too soon to make the last major river crossing of the day, and I still wish we had changed our plans and taken her up on her offer to spend the night. It was a reminder of the concept of this ride, and the need for our schedule to remain as flexible as possible. We had planned too far ahead and missed out on the opportunity to stay at a very beautiful place with great company.

As we approached the ferry crossing on the Kei River, I could feel the mood between the three of us begin to quiet. The ferry crossing would mean the end of the Wild Coast and the end of our time with Julie-Anne. By the time we stepped off the ferry the mood was somber but tinged with happiness. We had experienced an incredible thing together, and for Julie-Anne it was a realization of a dream that she has had for many years.