On day two of her Wild Coast hike, Shona Aylward criss-crosses the Red Sands, learns a little about plant magic and the area’s turbulent past – not all of it distant.
Lightning is often used as a symbol for witchcraft (ukupehla), says guide Sinegugu Zukulu, to the group of eager hikers at the start of day two of our Wild Coast hike.
We wave goodbye to our host Nolwandile Ndovela, a widow who runs a homestay for hikers and a shop in nearby Mtolani village. She is a fantastic cook and presented us with delicious, wholesome traditional food the night before.
We are a few kilometres into our walk when Sinegugu stops us, and points with his stick at a shrub called “iIbhulu” or by its common Afrikaans name, “ruikbossie”. He explains that at the onset of a thunderstorm a handful of dried ibhulu leaves are burnt on a bed of coals in the belief that the smoke will drive away the lightning.
While ibhulu is burning, a small piece of Umayibophe wehlathi (Moth-fruit) found in the forest, is chewed and spat out in a custom called “ukuchila” – to protect oneself from lightning during a storm.
Sinegugu’s recently-published book, Medical and Charm Plants of Pondoland, compiled with Tony Dold, Tony Abbott and Domitilla Raimondo, it explains that the isixhono plant (Natal Gasteria) is used as ‘Intelezi’ – for protection against lightning strikes and misfortune caused by witchcraft.
Pondoland is rich in endemic species, plants not found anywhere else in the world.
It is estimated it has as many as 200 endemic species, some of which are medicinal plants used by the amaMpondo.
Our day’s journey, some 14 kilometres entails criss-crossing the Red Sands to look at Stone Age tools, clay pots, a firepit and shells exposed by the wind. We then hike down to the beach where we walk for several hours along the shoreline, admiring the fossil beds at the Kwanyana River mouth and coming across the weathered wreck of a ship partially buried in the sand.
After crossing the Sikombe River, we finally venture up to Mtentu, where we spend the night at an old fisherman’s cottage.
Our hosts bring us hot water to wash followed by dinner. After we’ve eaten we gather around the fire and our young leader, Siyabonga Ndovela, shares riveting stories from the Pondoland Revolt, a bitter and bloody struggle in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Then, like a flash of lightning, the story of the cold-blooded murder of chairman of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, Sikhosiphi ‘Bazooka’ Rhadebe in 2016. It reminds us of the threat of mining at Xolobeni, at the red sands we crossed, earlier in the day.
* Shona Aylward is taking part in the Wild Coast hike sponsored by the environmental journalism training agency, Roving Reporters (www.rovingreporters.co.za) and the 8 Mile Club, an adventurous group of charity swimmers who raise funds for various deserving charities.