Port St. JohnsTHERE are two ways of looking down on Port St Johns, a little Wild Coast seaside town.
The first is by rambling up the lush green hills for sweeping panoramas over the sea. The second is by walking through the dilapidated town and feeling hugely relieved you don't have to live there.
The locals would string you up for such seditious thoughts, but Port St Johns is literally at the end of a road to nowhere. The directions from Mthatha airport are simple. At the stop street turn left and keep going till you get there.
As the sun beats down, we pull up for refreshments in Mthatha. The streets are manic. Dozens of people are idling outside a supermarket, others are trying to shove through the crowds without squashing the fruit for sale on the pavement. A woman taps my shoulder and points to my handbag. “Hold it tight to your chest, or they'll have it before you can stop them," she warns.
Browbeaten by Mthatha, we take refuge in the car, figuring Port St Johns will be less of a scrum. It takes an hour to cross the town. So many people. So many cars. Vehicles block each junction as the robots change, causing a gridlock New York would be proud of.
As we drive on I wait for the scenery to become pretty. It does, eventually, as we drive through rolling hills dotted with brightly painted kraals. The road reaches Port St Johns, and it looks like any other dorp with a couple of main streets flanked by one-storey shops.
Yet everything looks worn out. The shops, the taxis pumping out loud music, even the people. As the wind blows litter down the street, I expect a ball of tumbleweed to roll through this one-horse town.
I had been warned. When I announced a plan to meet up with two friends doing a coastal road trip, another friend looked aghast. He described the ramshackled atmosphere; the sense of laissez faire that meant nothing got fixed as the buildings descended into shabbiness and roads crumbled into potholes; the lack of entertainment for anyone whose life doesn't involve lying on a beach smoking dope. "But don't take my word for it," he added, "I was only there for three hours." Under his breath he muttered, "I couldn't have stood a fourth."
The sanctuary of Wettham Hill is a 15-minute stroll into a different world as you leave the town centre scrapyard behind. Wine is chilling, the owner Matthew is ebullient, and the terrace looks out over tropical forests and the Umzimvubu River idling into the sea.
My friends Julie and Johann regale me with tales of the previous evening at a bar where a white sangoma was holding court. The goatskin-wearing gay sangoma had left that morning, which meant the local entertainment quota was now sorely diminished.
For a late lunch we drive to a riverside restaurant, with Matthew promising its pizzas are the best in the world. They aren't, but there's nothing like anticipation to enhance the appetite.
What the Fish Eagle restaurant does have is a sunny hostess who walks around chatting to the guests, and Matthew invites her to join us. In a town this size everyone knows everyone.
Many of the local white residents descended from the sailors washed up in shipwrecks, Matthew tells us. Generations later some still cling to that disheveled Robinson Crusoe look.
Later as I walk down the street Julie giggles. "You look so out of place," she says. Is it the city clothes, the neat haircut, or am I walking with too much sense of purpose while everyone else is ambling? I'm not upset; I don't want to look like I belong here.
Some people love it, of course. At the lodges there are stalwarts among the visitors. A journalist who gave up the city and lives in a tent. Charity workers who may stay a few months, or a few years. They're mostly young and white, hoping to find themselves by immersion into a world that for a four-day tourist feels rather surreal.
There are two separate Port St Johns: the town with sheep being sold from trucks in a makeshift market, a queue 40-deep for the ATM and the odour of human debris. A tatty caravan declares it’s a doctor’s surgery, and I'm glad I don't feel queasy. Then there are the behind-the-walls lodges where you can hide away and only emerge for a trip to the beach or the mud baths.
That night we go to the Jungle Monkey, another backpacking haunt where R10 shooters delight the foreigners. The bar girl serves with one hand while her other cradles a dog. Someone settles behind a microphone and sings very badly. He's a chef from Wettham Hill, so we cheer enthusiastically. We don't want to upset a chef who's about to rustle up our Christmas lunch.
Christmas Eve is party time, and R140 buys seven courses of delicious food at Amapondo Backpackers. Soon we're dancing to Mandoza, dancing to the Wurzels. Other people laze on the couches, quietly drifting into a world of their own.
The problem with Port St Johns is that if you want entertainment beyond eating, drinking, reading and chatting, you won't find it. There are a couple of beaches, one which even loyal locals shun because of a noisy tavern an abandoned bottles littering the sand.
So you get in your 4x4 and drive to the hills to admire beautiful views on a bracing walk along the cliffs, high above red flags flapping ferociously on the beach.
Raggedy kids run behind the car, and everyone we pass has their hand out, silently pleading for money. There are no other visible ways to make a living in these settlements where all the rondavels are painted in one bright colour, as if Dulux donated some tins of paint it was making obsolete.