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We visit the South African village of Port St Johns

A Port St Johns Tale

By J.F. Kloppers

Port St Johns is a swashbuckling village of legend on the Pondo side of the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape. It is also one of the highlights on any international backpacker's world itinerary because of its natural setting, frontier atmosphere and appeal to more adventurous younger travellers.

The village lies on the Umzimvubu River, Xhosa for "hippo". The most famous hippo ever to have visited Port St Johns was back in 1931. Named Huberta, she settled upriver for more than four months during her trek from Zululand down to the Eastern Cape. In his book Huberta Goes South, Hedley Chilvers says the wandering hippo was found on the Market Square of Port St Johns one night, munching the grass.

When torches were shone in her face, Huberta "just sat down on her haunches like a monstrous dog to think things out". She finally made up her mind that Port St Johns was a little too hectic for hippos and moved back upriver again.

From one of the most interesting airstrips in Africa, one can see the famed Gates of St Johns (Mounts Thesiger and Sullivan) on either side of the river. Three good beaches, excellent fishing and a general atmosphere of live and let live have made the coastal village a hotspot for young tourists looking for adventure on the wild side of Africa.

The origin of the name of Port St Johns is something of a mystery. It was long assumed that the village was named after the wrecked Portuguese ship Sao Jao, but then it was discovered that the vessel actually ran aground north of the village, near Port Edward. Others say that on a good day you can see the profile of St John the Baptist etched in some cliffs near the river ... Sections of the Pondo coast were briefly colonised by the Germans in the 19th Century, but the outraged British intervened and the Union Jack was once again raised in the region.

During the Anglo Boer War, the 24th Warwickshire Regiment were lucky enough to be stationed here and were probably the first foreign tourists to enjoy the beaches of Port St Johns. These days, tourists do far more than lie on the area's golden beaches.

This is prime hiking country, full of forests and trails, where more than 250 species of birds have been recorded. Canoe trips, horse trails, dolphin and whale watching, golf and simply chilling out are all leisure options regularly exercised in Port St Johns. Cultural tourism and shopping for African items go hand in hand, and the choices range from reedware to walking sticks and quality fabrics.

You can also go on guided tours to neighbouring Pondo villages to meet locals and see how they live. The backpacker facilities in this African village are excellent. They cater for couples, solo travellers and small groups of young people. The backpacker lodges will help their guests set up activity itineraries every day, which include everything from jungle swings to unusual walking destinations.

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