At the end of a long year there’s nothing one looks forward to more than the short time in which you are liberated from all the constraints of materialistic and financial pursuit we call our lives. At the end of 2008 we (the family) spent this time at the mouth of the Msikaba river in Pondoland, the last frontier of South Africa’s wild coast which is still unscathed by human ‘progress and development’. It is a place of amazing untouched beauty…the locals still live off the land and thus there is no pollution or dilapidated infrastructure from the apartheid era . The only European buildings are the small houses that belong to the descendants of traders who got land leases from the Xhosa chief many decades ago and still use it for holiday purposes. There are holiday camps at each major river mouth and the one at the mouth of the Msikaba river consists of tented chalets nestled in the looming shadows of yellowwood forests that crawl out on to the pristine white beaches where the Msikaba gorge makes it departure into the Indian Ocean. Apart from six days of sunny blue weather and elation in untouched nature, it was also the last December holiday we had the privilege of sharing with my mother before she passed away of cancer eleven months later. All these factors anchored the wild coast deep within me as a person and that brings me to the actual topic of this article.
The hills around the Msikaba mouth
Half way through 2010 my dad mentioned that we should hit the wild coast again and I was in ecstasy at the thought of getting back to the forests and beaches of Pondoland, but it was not to be. On 17 December we were cruising down from family in the Eastern Cape highlands towards the Dwesa Nature Reserve, one of the oldest reserves on the Wild Coast. I had done the online research and the results looked okay but certainly not promising. There is wildlife, which meant limited access and the landscape wasn’t very dramatic, just minor hills that descend to the beaches. After a classic 2 hour’s driving on a mere 48km of road (wild coast roads!!!) we arrived at the camp and my fears were confirmed. No major hills, just a slow flowing river surrounded by a beach, encircled by some rock shelves and forests. We set up camp and were welcomed by an army of insects, not exactly a heart-warming prospect. With the tents pitched and chairs unfolded, sunset was approaching and I had a cold one before taking the short stroll to the beach. I just needed to go check what I could make do with around the river mouth in case I got some weather that would make it worth my while to go shoot.
After about 500m from camp the small dirt foot-path to the beach branched from the main road beside a curve in the river, snaked through the grass, crossed a small wooden bridge and then cut through a small forest which seemed like it might be worth something in nice light. The path descended steeply down to the sand and I could still feel the late afternoon sun burning my already-burnt neck. I continued the 200-300m to the water line, stared out to the ocean, saw nothing and decided that my time would be better spent enjoying another cold brandy and coke back at the tent. I turned around and it took about a second for my eyes to adjust to the sun. As burnt out white slowly faded back into detail I saw a scene I had fantasized about so many times before (Unfortunately it wasn’t the one about a beach full of naked women). The forest stood about 5m up on a sand ridge, beautiful old milkwood trees rising from a green carpet of undergrowth with trunks of every shape and size. With the late afternoon sun right behind it and some spray in the air from the surf it looked like light pouring into an ancient cathedral of flora. The golden beams of sun light cut through the gaps in the canopy and seemed to snake around the branches in an explosion of warm light.
I estimated that I had about 30 minutes before the sun would dip behind the dune ridge and my opportunity would be over. With a new skip in my step I headed towards the trees, walked through the narrow forest tunnel for about 100m and decided on the best bunch of trees. Thirty minutes later as the sun crested the inclined forest floor, the last rays retreated from the cathedral and I strolled back onto the beach. Sunset was still about an hour away, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and I was confidently thirsty. After another few cold ones and a filling campfire dinner, I was in my tent falling asleep to the symphony of thriving nature and the satisfaction of having filled a hole in my photography portfolio.
I awoke the next morning to the demonic sound of my blackberry’s alarm clock, still fast asleep and tired from the previous day’s long drive. I sat up, opened the tent’s door and peering towards the sea through the branches of a wild fig I saw mushrooming cumulonimbus clouds with a pink pre-dawn glow. All of a sudden I was wide awake. In true wild coast style I required no more dressing than some shorts and a t-shirt and I was off to the river mouth. I didn’t exactly know what I was going to shoot, I just knew there was some rock shelves to the left of the mouth that I could work with. What I stumbled upon was absolutely awe-inspiring. Stretching out for some 500 meters lay what looked like an ancient Venetian piazza of black marble tiles carved by some godly mason. As if some tiles had been stolen, there were shallow depressions of every shape and size strewn about and every single corner on every rock is a perfect 90 degrees. Some were filled with water and looked like water ponds or baths set in the rock. Here or there were a ‘stolen tile’ lying on the floor and where the surf had broken away at the rock shelf it looked like a series of marble cascades in some modern water feature. It felt like I was walking on the streets of a civilization long lost to the waters of the Indian Ocean.
The unique rock formations
The mushrooming clouds I had seen were quite far off shore and as the sun rose they were still too small in an 18mm frame to make use of. They kept getting closer and in the hour after the sun had climbed above the horizon I got a few cool shots with the big stopper.
Some super ND magic
After some morning rain enjoyed below a gazebo with coffee and caramel rusks, the clouds made their way inland and the sun welcomed a perfect day that I spent on the beach with my cousins. Later that afternoon I set out about 2 hours before sunset to get a decent scope of the piazza. As with all such amazing places I was faced with that same problem… There’s so much to shoot that you just stand around looking in circles, completely undecided on what to put in your viewfinder. There was a decent cover of cirrus clouds with a caravan of billowing mushrooms just visible on the horizon. I managed a few good compositions and as the sun dipped the skies lit up in deep flaming oranges and reds.
Flaming Cirrus skies
The last pink on the clouds
Over the following few days I got to know the rocks better and somehow the light also seemed to improve every day. On the 3rd night the sky was alive with lightning that mellowed out towards the morning. Walking out onto the piazza at 3:45am on the morning of summer solstice I could see that the storm front didn’t reach far out to sea and there was a gap where the sun should rise = the ingredients for a flaming red dawn. The adrenaline started pumping as it got lighter and the first beam of intense pink light hit the bottom of the clouds, crawled higher and higher and then disappeared…and that was to be the best moment from what I thought would be a 10/10 sunrise. Nevertheless the skies were dark and moody and I got some good shots against a slight orange backlighting.
The sunrise that never reached it's full potential
The skies grew dark and moody as the sun climbed
The last night delivered a rare type of light that I had seen in other artist’s work, but never with my own eyes. Partial low cloud cover topped by partial high cloud cover which all converges towards the highlight of the sun. You can see the result below. It would have been perfect if I could have moved just slightly more to the left, but then I would have been swimming!
That magical combination of high and low clouds
As my memory cards filled up and my batteries drained I relaxed a bit with the shooting as I was after all on holiday. Looking back 4 weeks earlier when I was at Hole in the Wall which is just 80km to the north where I had 5 days of utterly horrible weather, my luck had somehow seemed to turn for the better. Despite similar rainy forecasts the skies at Dwesa were blue every single day and after 6 such days Dwesa had turned out to be just as enjoyable as the Msikaba river 2 years earlier. I was there exactly around summer solstice so the mornings were painfully early, but humid nights made it easier to get out of a tent. So if you can forget about the insects, humidity, Transkei roads and unpredictable weather then you’re in for a splendid time…whether you’re just going to sit around the fire and unwind with a cold one or if you’re going with batteries charged and memory cards formatted. As any outdoorsman knows, getting out there and roughing it makes one appreciate the luxuries that we are accustomed to. I think that in the same way, that absence of nature in our modern lives makes us appreciate the beauty out there more. The last bit left to appreciate which we haven’t desecrated through our ‘progress and development’.
Christmas eve rainbow at Jeffreys Bay