Every year during the Sardine Run, we move our base of operations from Umkomaas to Port St Johns, a colourful town in South Africa’s spectacular Transkei region. Known as the Jewel of the Wild Coast, Port St Johns is renowned as one of the best launch sites for the Run – but it’s also an amazing holiday destination in its own right. At Aliwal Shoal Scuba, we have a definite soft spot for the town – and here’s a few reasons why.
Port St Johns is a photographer’s fantasy – an amazing kaleidoscope of lush coastal forest, plunging waterfalls and rainbow-coloured spray; of dramatic cliffs and serene, still rivers. It is a place of such incredible natural beauty that it makes one’s soul feel light just to be there; that it makes days spent on shore feel like a privilege rather than a hardship. Expect wild beaches stretching out, untainted and untamed, as far as the eye can see. Expect the mighty Umzimvubu River painted with gold by the first light of dawn, and the unmistakeable silhouette of the twin mountains known as the Gates of Port St Johns. Expect wonder, everywhere you look.
With such a diverse array of landscapes and habitats, it’s no surprise that Port St Johns is full of wildlife. The local area is a veritable birdwatcher’s paradise, with more than 250 species waiting to be found amongst the river mangroves and inland forests. The Umgazana and Ntafufu rivers are home to nesting fish eagles, whilst Umzimvubu Retreat offers the opportunity to spot rare Cape parrots. Day trips to nearby game reserves Silaka and Hluleka promise excellent wild animal sightings – including eland, impala, zebra and wildebeest. Best of all, the region’s tall cliffs provide the perfect vantage point for spotting whales and dolphins from shore.
Adventure Opportunities in Port St Johns
True adrenaline junkies may well want to plan for a few extra days in Port St Johns before or after their Sardine Run expedition – if only to take advantage of all the other adventurous pursuits that the town inspires. From horse riding to golfing, and from deep sea fishing to quad biking, the possibilities are endless. Numerous hiking trails offer one of the best ways to experience the beauty of the surrounding countryside, while canoeing is our method of choice for exploring the rivers and mangroves. Fishermen will revel in the opportunity to catch shad and garrick from First Beach, or to troll for spotted grunter and kob in the estuary.
Rich Local Culture
Once an outpost of the British military, Port St Johns still has the feel of a colonial frontier town, with many buildings influenced by European architecture. Now though, the town’s most important culture is that of the local Pondo tribes, whose pastel-coloured homes dot the surrounding hillsides. Those that are interested can arrange a visit to the Pondo villages, where they will be given a fascinating insight into the lives and traditions of a culture largely unchanged by the passage of time. Craft markets in the villages and in the town itself offer the opportunity to take a piece of Pondoland home – from reedware to fabrics and carvings.
Great Social Scene
The spiritual home of backpackers and adventurers from all over the world, Port St Johns is famous for its relaxed vibe, friendly residents and liberal, accepting outlook. After a long day’s diving, there’s nothing better than sharing a few cold beers and a hearty meal with like-minded people – and in Port St Johns, you can expect that every night. During Sardine Run season, the town is packed with divers, all swapping stories of the day’s adventures and adding to the general sense of excitement. There’s a great feeling of camaraderie wherever you go – from the local restaurant down the road, to the backpacker hostel that becomes your temporary home.
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