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The hills where Nelson Mandela grew up at Qunu

Mandela - South Africa [2010 © greatguides.org]
The hills where Nelson Mandela grew up at Qunu

The Transkei, with its dramatic 'Wild Coast', lies between the Kei and Mtamvuma Rivers, south of the high mountains of Lesotho. It is the land of Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, and numerous veterans of the 'struggle' against apartheid. It is the land to the Xhosa clans who warred against settler forces for a hundred years.

Driving from the east, one leaves behind the 'developed' world that lies heavily along the 1000km coast from the Cape to the Kei. A last few indulgences can be found in the beach resorts beyond East London but, descending the long, deep pass into the Kei River, one journeys into a different world, somewhere older, mysterious, distinctly foreign.

Brightly painted round and square mud huts and houses, teem spaciously across the grassy hills. Each hut stands apart. The national highway, the N2, rolls up and over the endless hills. Within living memory there were dense thickets of trees across the grasslands. But now trees and bushes are rare, and there is little for the goats to browse.

Sheep, cows and goats wander and sometimes one sees a boy with a stick watching them, and one remembers that Nelson Mandela grew up herding in these hills. More often however, it is men who herd today, having no other employment than boy's work, now that boys walk the hills in uniform to distant schools.

Cattle are the pride of Nguni people like the Xhosa: their milk and meat, the wealth that underpins their status and provides 'lobola' for another wife. The Nguni cattle, with their long horns and varied hides, eat at the tough grass. Generations of hooves have worn the tracks into 'dongas', that perfect South African word for a deep eroded ditch. Dongas incise the landscape, and the channels carry away the top soil. The rich bio-diversity of forest and varied grasslands, that Mandela would have know as a boy, has gone.

Every so-often you pass through towns with colonial names: Butterworth, Willowvale, Clarkebury, markers of missionaries and the British conquest in 1879, that finally ended 100 years of war (see Alan Weyer). Decrepit buildings that were once the imposing places of magistrates and traders remind us that, for a spell of history, pale faces were here, a precarious minority from a different world, just like the Chinese shopkeepers of today who ply their plastic goods in these same old buildings, now daubed 'Hong Kong discount store'. Like their paler forebears one wonders how they came to be here and how they connect with their customers and neighbors who tell loud, animated stories in a language full of clicks.

The old buildings are meek. They are overshadowed by concrete, cash and carry supermarkets, swarms of minibus taxis. People crowd the narrow, broken sidewalks, walk in the roads. The towns press and jostle and one drives slowly, but soon the countryside opens out again.

Transkei and the Wild Coast - Transkei | Wild Coast, South Africa [2010 © greatguides.org] - Transkei And Wild Coast - Great Guides

The Mbashe River mouth at Dwesa

Off the highway, dirt roads climb and fall over the hills, running north and south between the great rivers. There are few bridges, which makes it hard to navigate along the coast, but this helps keep 'the Wild Coast' pristine. You have to bump and rattle to reach the old hotels and small nature reserves. But the journey is always worthwhile. Here you find stretches of the old forests: Mahogany and Ebony, Yellowood and Knobwood, the clutching arms of strangler trees, orchids and lilies, palms, vines and creepers all crowd together, bursting with life. The trumpeter hornbill calls out of the forest, sounding like a cat. The high pitch cry of the fish eagle carries over the rivers. Tracks of bushbuck and otter run along the beaches. Lagoons bring the mighty rivers to the sea, the untrodden sands stretch to cliffs and rocky points.

Stand on the rocks and look for the ribs of ships, there are many wrecks. Imagine the crews washed onto the shore and you know the origin of the name 'Wild Coast'. Tales of the marooned date back to the sixteenth century. Some tell of epic walks, a thousand kilometres to the outposts of 'civilization', or of those who never tried to escape and settled, giving white ancestors to coastal Bantu clans.

Under apartheid the Transkei was a 'Xhosa homeland', divided from South Africa by border posts and pass laws. Fifteen years on, the contrast crossing into the old 'white' province of Natal, is still as stark and shocking. The towering steel suspension bridge over the Mtamvuna River, like a wardrobe from Narnia, makes for a sudden transition. A golf estate is surrounded by bales of razor wire between electric fencing; guards watch the entrances to resorts. Little used holiday mansions stand over the beaches. Shopping malls and car dealerships crowd the busy roads. You are back in a familiar but anonymous, commercial world and the Transkei, still so near, is far away.

Author: Roddy Bray
Published Date: 02 Feb 2010
Location: Southern Africa | South Africa
Themes: travel | routes and cities