The Eastern Cape’s rugged Wild Coast is popular among adventurers and free spirits in search of getaways far from civilization. Sadly this one-sided view of the province makes us forget one of its most captivating aspects – the rural communities that bred a wisdom to the likes of prominent leaders such as Steve Biko, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela. Navigating the Eastern Cape’s rural landscape, however, is no easy task and is best experienced by means of guided tours for first-hand experiences of Xhosa village life.

TravelGround has compiled a nifty guide for those who want to veer off the proverbial beaten track to explore the Eastern Cape’s rich cultural heritage.

Off to Hogsback and the Amathole Mountains

Start your Eastern Cape journey with a visit to the Amathole Mountains which boasts some of the most spectacular scenery in South Africa. “Amathole” means “calves of the Drakensberg” in Xhosa and is a place of rural serenity where local shepherds take their Nguni cattle to graze on the fertile slopes. The villages of Elundini and Cata afford rich opportunity to meet the local communities.

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At Elundini Backpackers local guide Vuyani takes visitors on village tours and various hikes. Travellers can familiarise themselves with the 3 different clicks of the Xhosa language, and practice their skills while exploring the village. On top of that, you get to collect your own wood, make a fire and bake your own bread!

Head eastwards via Hogsback to Cata Village for a week-long homestay with a local family. You will share meals with them, be exposed to traditional arts and crafts, and hopefully pick up some Xhosa along the way!

Visitors can learn about Cata’s history of land dispossession and successful restitution by visiting the Village Museum or walking the Heritage Trail. Along this trail are the ruins of homesteads that were demolished during forced removals in the 1960s, as well as a toposcope – a viewpoint containing historical information engraved in stone.

Nestled in the Amathole Mountains, Hogsback is a magical destination and well worth a visit. Click here for some accommodation options in Hogsback to use as base while exploring this breathtaking landscape.

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The Nelson Mandela Museum in Mthatha and Qunu

If you are interested in the history of iconic leader Nelson Mandela, make your way to the region where he grew up. The Nelson Mandela Museum is situated in the city of Mthatha with a second component of the museum in his home village Qunu. The museum offers guided tours around the village as well as a heritage trail that includes Mandela’s original home and the pastures where he herded cattle as a boy.

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Traverse the Wild Coast from north to south

There are several backpackers and lodges along this scenic coastline that offer homestays or cultural experiences in rural Xhosa villages. These accommodation options are especially suited for the adventurer who likes to combine outdoor activities with cultural enrichment.

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Amapondo Backpackers north of Port St Johns is situated close to Mthumbane, a Xhosa village which can be reached via a hike through mountainous terrain boasting scenic ocean views. After braving the trail’s ropes and ladders you can sit down to a well-deserved traditional Xhosa meal in the village before heading back to the backpackers.

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Mdumbi, 11 km south of Coffee Bay, has been voted one of SA’s most beautiful beaches. It is so secluded that it’s not impossible to spend a day there without meeting anyone else. Activities include diving, river cruises along the Mdumbi River, fishing, surfing and many more. To add to its remote allure there are quite a few lodges in the area that bring visitors close to authentic village life.  

Freedom O’ Clock Backpackers Retreat puts the “wild” in your Wild Coast experience as it is completely off the grid, harvesting rainwater and making use of solar power, gas and paraffin. You can set up tent or even book a family unit, so haul the children away from computer screens so they can join the local children herding cattle!

If you who want to experience the wonders of Mdumbi without roughing it, book a rondavel at Swell Eco Lodge.

Click here to explore some other amazing accommodation options along the Wild Coast!

Mbolompo Homestay

The village of Lubanzi is located close to Hole in the Wall, a famous Wild Coast landmark which is only a scenic 1.5 hour walk away. Here you have the opportunity to be hosted by a Xhosa family for a hands-on experience of village life. The homestead belongs to the Syephu family and overlooks the Mncwasa River Mouth. Visitors stay in a traditional rondavel made of mud and thatch with cow dung floor. There is no electricity or flush toilets, and you need to bring your own sleeping bag!

Bulungula Homestay

A bit farther south of Coffee Bay lies the village of Nqileni, offering another homestay experience with a Xhosa family. Once again, there is no electricity or running water, and you will have to fetch your own water from the springs. Activities include a herbalist tour and visiting the local shebeen to try out Umqombothi, a traditional Xhosa beer.

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Drive there yourself via a gravel road or do it the Eastern Cape way by making use of public transportation. A taxi ride from Mthatha takes about an hour and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.

In the coastal town of Cintsa, about 50 km north of East London, cultural tours in local communities are offered to groups of 5 persons or more, and include a visit to a traditional Xhosa healer.

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Other tour operators

Some tour operators in the Eastern Cape offer tour packages that include homestays and trips to villages, museums and heritage sites.

Indwe Tours operates from the Eastern Cape’s capital city Bisho and offers cultural tours to a Xhosa village as well as The Madiba Explorer, a guided tour to the museum and heritage trail in Mthatha and Qunu.

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Imonti Tours presents an extraordinary opportunity to combine several Eastern Cape cultural experiences in one. Departing from East London, their 5 day tour treats travellers to homestays in the villages of Elundini, Cata and Nqileni respectively, and includes a visit to the Icamagu Institute to learn about Xhosa culture and African religion. The last stop is Hole in the Wall before heading back to the airport at Mthatha or East London.

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There is an abundance of accommodation options in East London to conclude your trip to the Eastern Cape. Just click here to book your stay!

Wave your comforts goodbye for a few days and hit the road less travelled to the real heart of the Eastern Cape.

Feature image: Elundini Backpackers (TravelGround)