After 12 hours of driving, a flat tire, and a minor head injury, Ray and I pass through the gate of the Dwesa Nature Reserve. We would weep for joy if we weren’t so traumatized.
The gate is abandoned. But at least it’s open and we can drive in. The road changes immediately — from hard, uneven, and rocky to soft, flat, and sandy. The landscape changes too; we’re plunged into a dark, quiet forest.
Ray keeps driving and I fumble for the park map that I printed out yesterday. The map indicates six different gates, but I can’t tell which gate we entered through.
Eventually we come to a fork in the road, with a sign. Left to Gate 6, the sign says, and right to Gate 1. I look at the map and deduce that we entered via Gate 5, on the northeastern side of the park. Gate 1 — the main gate, where we should have entered the park if we’d taken the easier route that we don’t yet know about — is mysteriously not marked on the map. Via process of elimination I deduce that Gate 1 is where the chalets are. We follow the sign to Gate 1, on the park’s southwestern edge.
We drive on and on through the forest. Fortunately each fork is sign-posted and we continue toward Gate 1. Ray is exhausted and still shirtless, having sacrificed his shirt for my bleeding head. (Fortunately it’s warm year-round on the Wild Coast and my head is actually fine.) Eventually I take over the wheel.
We start to fear that we’ll never reach Gate 1.
We round a bend and suddenly, galloping in front of us, is a trio of zebras. I rub my eyes. I must be dreaming. But the zebras are real, their rear ends staying just within our line of sight as we round each curve. I feel certain these beautiful zebras are guiding us to our destination. Then they melt into the brush.
[Sorry I have no photos of the zebra butts or anything else from this part of the story.]
We’re about ready to just stop the car and sleep until morning. But based on map landmarks, we know we’re close to Gate 1.
Abruptly, the road ends. Or rather, the road is blocked by a thick metal boom. We can see another car parked just beyond it.
Ray throws on a jacket and runs up to the boom. He tries to lift it but it’s locked. He ducks under, has a quick look, then returns to our car, panting. “There’s a house up there — I see people in it!” I abandon the car and follow him.
We see lights at the top of a hill — obviously one of the park chalets. There is nothing else in sight, only pitch darkness and the sound of the ocean. We have no choice but to approach the chalet and hope the people inside are nice.
We scramble up a long set of stone stairs, lighting the way with our phones. A man comes to the door as we reach the top. It feels amazingly wonderful to see another human being.
Olivier and his wife Claire invite us in (despite our haggard crazy-eyes), listen patiently to our mad jumble of words, and drive us up the road to the actual Gate 1 entrance, which is miraculously staffed by a person even at 8:30 p.m. We never would have found the entrance on our own.
We get the keys to our chalet and Olivier drives us back to our car. (If anyone reading this knows a French expat couple named Olivier and Claire, please tell them thank you for saving our asses.)
We find our chalet and climb 44 stone stairs, in the dark, to reach it. (Did I mention there is no electricity at Dwesa?) Then we climb the stairs several more times with our heavy luggage and food. Then we light the oil lamps and eat leftover curry that Ray brought from Durban. Then we take showers (Dwesa has hot water, thank God), then we go to bed (Dwesa has comfortable beds, thank God). Then we sleep like dead people.
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The next morning, once we dragged ourselves out of bed, we had a look at where we were. We liked what we saw.
The outside of our chalet. The inside was just as lovely as the outside, but by morning it already had clothes, food, flashlights, and various clutter strewn everywhere. So I couldn’t take a decent photo.
View of two other chalets, seen from our stoop.
The dreaded 44 steps. Our chalet is at the top.
This post is long already and I haven’t even gotten to the story of our actual holiday.
My friends who recommended Dwesa were totally right: It’s one of the most beautiful, peaceful, remote places I’ve ever been. I loved it.
The beach, a three-minute walk from our chalet.
Ray soaks up the healing power of the sea.
Cows just outside the entrance to the park. We saw them when took a walk to a nearby hamlet to buy soft drinks and soap.
Back on the beach for sunset.
Obligatory tandem beach shadow shot.
Celebrating the fact that I’m alive. (Photo: Ray)
Ray takes an important call on a shell.
Dwesa was great. I’m really glad we went, despite our ordeal. But unfortunately we were only there for two nights (another big mistake), and we spent the majority of our single full day recovering from the day before. So we really didn’t get to explore the park at all, which made me sad. No hiking, no forest walks, no wildlife spotting. Except for the zebra butts, which made me happy.
Ray and I planned this trip to celebrate both Ray’s birthday and the one-year anniversary of when we met. It was our first time taking a real trip alone together — a trip that wasn’t a blogger freebie, planned solely by us.
We both sacrificed a lot to go to the Wild Coast together: Ray is in the middle of a taxing Ph.D. program and worked his ass off so he could get enough time off. I turned down an amazing international travel opportunity — an opportunity that I might not be offered again — in favor of this trip.
So, yeah, the Wild Coast was rather emotional. I wish things had gone a bit differently. But I’m grateful for the time alone that Ray and I spent in this beautiful place. And I hope we make it back to Dwesa someday, under less trying circumstances.
We left at sunrise the next morning to ensure we had time to drive to Mthatha to exchange our rental car, then make it to our next Wild Coast destination before dark. And in true Wild Coast fashion, we wound up needing every possible second of daylight. (Story in Part 3.)
Sunrise on the way out of Dwesa.
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A few tips for anyone going to Dwesa:
1) Do not attempt to drive from Durban to Dwesa in one day, especially in winter. Rather, drive to Mthatha and spend a night there, then drive from Mthatha to Dwesa.
2) Better still: Fly to East London, rent a car, and drive to Dwesa from there. My friend Kim made this recommendation and we foolishly didn’t take it, thinking it would be cheaper to rent a car in Joburg and drive the whole way, via Durban. Mistake.
3) Whether you’re coming from Mthatha or East London, follow this route to Dwesa: N2 Highway to iDutya, iDutya to Willowvale, Willowvale to the Dwesa main entrance. Do not waver from this route, no matter what Google Maps says.
4) However long Google Maps tells you it will take to get to Dwesa, no matter from where, double it.
5) Don’t drive to Dwesa in anything smaller than an SUV. Even if you follow all the tips above, there’s still a chance that you’ll wind up on a crap road that’s passable only in a high-clearance vehicle. And make sure you know how to change a tire.
6) Stay at Dwesa for at least three nights; bring charcoal, headlamps, and plenty to eat and drink; and have fun.
Obviously Ray and I were particularly unlucky and I’m sure many others have traveled to Dwesa with fewer difficulties. But I would still follow these tips just in case.
More Wild Coast adventures to come.