Masha Ramsamooch meets a remarkable woman and finds on the Wild Coast, a moveable feast.
NCUMISA Somakepu gently washes freshly cut spinach and soil-covered madumbis. She bustles in her rondavel kitchen, preparing for a party of hikers.
She dices beetroot, shreds lettuce for salads, chops meat and peels a pumpkin.
Pots rattle on the gas stoves, the smell makes my mouth water.
There’s sautered pumpkin, boiled madumbis, umngqusho (samp and beans) and fluffy white pap.
Was she preparing a grand supper, I asked.
No, says Somakepu, surprising me. It’s only lunch.
“After such a long walk, you deserve to eat, not just bread and tea,” she says.
I leave the kitchen, stepping into the yard to appreciate the scenery.
Somakepu’s house sits on a gentle slope overlooking the Indian Ocean.
We are in the Wild Coast village of Noqhekwana. Rondavels are dotted all around us. It’s quiet save for bird calls and clucking chickens.
Dogs, basking in the winter sun, greet me with wagging tails.
I sit down on a well-kept patch of green grass and examine my blistered, cut feet.
“Don’t worry, it will be okay,” Somakepu says.
* * *
SEVEN days earlier I had joined our group of 11 hikers, heading south from the Wild Coast Sun to Port St Johns.
It began as a gentle beach walk, but transitioned into something much more strenuous. We scaled hillsides that felt like mountains, scrambled over boulders and struggled for our footing on cliffs above the ocean.
Body aching, I did my best to keep up. But on the last hill, less than 2 kilometres from the village of Khuthwini, where we were to spend the night, my heart began to race. I felt my airways tighten; my lungs rebelled, threatening to betray me.
But the group rallied, handing me my inhaler.
When we finally reached our homestay in Khuthwini, Sinegugu Zukhulu, our guide, advised me to sit out the next two days. I could catch a lift in the backup van to Dakane and then Noqhekwana, skipping two days of the hike and many tough hills.
It was just what I needed – which wasn’t to suggest the hike had been anything but wonderful until then.
My fellow hikers included an architect, a party planner and communications designer from Johannesburg, and students from the United Kingdom, the United States and Lebanon. They were delightful, adventurous people who I would never have crossed paths with in my everyday life as a marine biology student, cloistered behind a microscope.
Together we crossed beaches, climbed hills in a single file and bonded over our love for animals at the homestays where we spent chilly nights.
There are about 14 homestays on the 89km of coast between Port Edward in the north and Port St John in the south. And whenever we arrived at one, smiling faces and warm hugs greeted us.
Our hosts, invariably women, worked endlessly to keep us comfortable and fed. They went the extra mile.
At Khuthwini, after I limped in, puffing on my inhaler, Noxolile Dwetye and her children even volunteered to help my colleague Jamila Janna and me wash our clothes. They sang as they wrestled with our laundry in soapy buckets, hanging it out in the breeze near our rondavel.
The set-up at many of the homestays is rustic.
Zukulu said some were in need of help to put their businesses on a better footing or to improve facilities. Funding would allow for dedicated rondavels for self-catering guests; better toilets and waste disposal; rainwater tanks; and more linen.
But if anything the rough-and-ready amenities add to their charm.
Tanya Schoeman, the Joburg party planner and a bubbly personality, remarked that sleeping on a mattress on the floor had worked wonders for her back.
* * *
WHILE I had been studying my blistered feet and taking in the view, Somakepu improvised impressively, readying her home for my group. They had left Dakane at 7am and would reach us around 3.30pm, covering about 16km.
Drawn back into the kitchen by the smell from the cooking, I sat down to watch Somakepu.
She set the washed vegetables aside to dry and rattled through a drawer for a sharp peeling knife.
Would you like something to drink?
I was reluctant to accept the offer. I didn’t want to take her from her work, but she had already sent her son, Msawenkosi Somakepu (20), to pick some oranges.
Freshly squeezed, the juice was marvellously zesty. It would be a godsend for the hikers.
Immediately below the homestay is a plot, tightly fenced to keep out chickens and other livestock. It’s Sonakepu’s happy place – a verdant fruit and veggie garden.
Lettuce grew in neat rows; pumpkins defied attempts at order, their creepy stems choosing their own course. Banana and orange trees, bright red patches of tomatoes, spinach in leafy green abundance, a huge cabbage patch… as I stood mesmerised, taking in all the plenty, Somakepu approached, two friendly women in tow.
They had come to buy spinach for their families.
For R10 a bunch they were free to pick straight from the soil. Great value and how different, I thought, from the limp stuff we see in stores.
Somakepu cooks in a systematic way.
First she chopped all her vegetables, rinsed her chicken and beef, sieved her maize meal and gathered her spices, laying them all out. She has two gas stoves which she used to braise the chicken and beef, which was for supper.
Finally, she added a host of spices and stock cubes to the chicken and beef to bring out their flavours.
She did not appear to be following any recipe or specific quantities, relying rather on practice and intuition.
With supper under control, Somakepu turned to lunchtime’s vegetable dishes. Pumpkin crackled as she dropped it into a pan of hot oil; spinach sizzled from a similar treatment.
Somakepu sister, Julia Jikumlambo, busied herself preparing the uJeqe, steamed bread done the traditional way. She took flour, yeast and a pinch of salt and kneaded it together, before covering it in a tea towel and leaving it to rise. When the dough was ready she put it into a plastic carrier bag and boiled it in a big pot of water, outside on an open fire. The taste was delicious, unlike store bought bread, the uJeqe was warm, soft and moist.
The simplest yet most time-consuming part of the preparations was the pap. Standing by the stove, Somakepu stirred continuously to get that perfect white fluffiness.
A few hours later, shortly before the guests took their seats at the kitchen table, she laid out matching cutlery, white plates and pink-and-red rose patterned bowls.
I joined the sore and famished hikers around the table. It was covered with a frilly green tablecloth and groaned under the weight of the food.
“I hate buying anything. Almost everything you’re eating is from my garden,” she told the group, three of whom were vegans and clearly delighted.
Everyone was intrigued about the veggies and grateful for the homegrown meal. We cherished the samp and beans – vital protein for the march ahead.
* * *
SOMAKEPU has lived in Noqhekwana all her life, more than 38 years.
She has two sons, Philani (22) and Msawenkosi Somakepu. Her sister lives nearby and often helps out when there are hikers.
Somakepu is not married and her opinions on men, marriage and patriarchy surprised me. I assumed that as someone from a deeply rural part of the country she would have traditional views.
“Are you married?” she asked me, before advising me not to give it even a thought. “It’s a trap,” she warned, explaining that men, especially in remote villages like hers, “tie you down” in life.
Here, I came to realise, was no shrinking violet, but an avid businesswoman.
Once she had kept 14 horses and ran a business taking tourists for beach rides. Then disaster struck; a disease killed her horses – but not her ambition. She started out again, catering for hikers.
Somakepu feeds, shelters and cares for many in her successful homestay; she sells vegetables to her community; and even supplies Spar in Port St Johns with produce from her garden.
Her face lit up when she told of her plans for the future. She was looking for funding to build more rondavels to grow her homestay business.
It must be tough making ends meet in what is a poor part of the country, but clearly this was one independent woman up to the task.
* * *
AT SOMAKEPU’S homestay preparations are in full swing.
Knowing guests were coming for the night, some local boys had gone fishing and returned with a large dusky kob.
Julia sets to work in the yard, sending the scales flying. Soon the fish disappears into the kitchen where it is filleted.
That night, our last together as a group, the kob served as a main dish, the pièce de résistance on another groaning table.
The fish had been done to perfection: fried crispy and golden brown, but so tender it melted in the mouth.
I have many great memories of the hike: dipping tired toes in the icy waters at Mamba Pools, near Khuthwini; seeing waterfalls like Mfihlelo and Waterfall Bluff, which flow directly into the sea; finding what looked like Stone Age tools at Xolobeni’s famed red sands; and making new friends – but above all this, meeting the tenacious Somakepu and sampling her cooking.
After everyone around the table had taken portions of the delicious kob I went back for more. Second helpings? Yes please, of the Wild Coast and what must surely be its best little kitchen. – Roving Reporters
Hike highlights and homestays
I WATCHED in wonder as a humpback whale calf fluked, playing below us as we scaled a seaside hill.
I had never seen a whale so close. Everyone in our hiking party stopped and watched in awe.
As a recent marine biology graduate, I like to think I am fairly booksmart. But on the Wild Coast it was a joy to see some of that theory in living practice.
Roving Reporters, an environmental journalism training agency, had invited young marine biologists from the Ocean Stewards initiative run by conservation and research non-profit WildOceans to apply to join the hike.
It would be a chance to visit a beautiful part of the Eastern Cape coast and we would be expected to take notes on the experience and use these to develop environmental stories under the guidance of Roving Reporters.
I submitted a simple application and was chosen for the hike and training to become an environmental “watchdog”.
Also picked for the hike was my Ocean Stewards colleague Jamila Janna and South Coast Herald journalist, Shona Aylward.
Aylward and I soon became friends. She was my mentor and my hiking mom, forever reminding me to keep hydrated and feeding me candy when my energy flagged.
I admired Aylward’s drive and commitment. Each night while we had all gone to bed, she wrote up beautiful stories of the day’s adventures.
There was much to take down.
We traversed sandy beaches, picked our way over boulders and climbed headlands and hills. We even crossed the Mzamba and Mtentu rivers in canoes, something the old me would have shied away from. But the hike made me more adventurous, able to set aside my fears.
While we hiked, Janna and I kept our eyes peeled for stories to pitch. We had been briefed to be on the lookout for something unique.
On the banks of the Mtentu River we spotted plastic pellets, the consequences of the 2017 “nurdles” spill in the distant Durban harbour. There was also plastic rubbish washed downstream by the April 2019 floods and dumped on the beach.
It was heartening to see work being done by Yes4Youth. The initiative, sponsored by Nedbank, does regular beach cleanups, producing eco-bricks with the waste they collected. They also help protect biodiversity in Mtolani (Mnyameni), a rural community about 14km from Mtentu.
There were many possible subjects, but somehow I was drawn to Ncumisa Somakepu’s story.
I had never met a rural woman with such ambition and stature in her community. Hers was a story I felt that needed telling. It might motivate others and give Somakepu’s business a lift.
Our guide, Sinegugu Zukulu, told us homestays like the one Somakepu runs at Noqhekwana, about 8km from Port St Johns, were an important part of a fledgling eco-tourism industry. They could prove a viable alternative to more aggressive forms of development on the Wild Coast, including mining.
But, many of the homestays needed support to improve their facilities and make them more appealing to tourists.
How best should this be done and who might help make it happen?
It’s a vast subject in its own right, but doing the hike and writing Somakepu’s story helped me learn a little about it.
It also gave me a taste of adventure . . . You might say I’ve had a whale of a time. – Masha Ramsamooch/Roving Reporters
- This story arises from Roving Reporters training programme, Developing Environmental Watchdogs – an initiative supported by the Human Elephant Foundation, Grindrod Bank and the 8 Mile Club – a group of charity swimmers