East London - Paddle up mangrove-lined estuaries, swim in lagoons or the sea, climb hidden valleys to secluded waterfalls, walk along pristine beaches, clamber over rock formations with names like Top Hat, Lavatory Rock, Precipice and Shark’s Point, or up and over hills dotted with turquoise rondavels.

Just a few highlights of the Pondoland coastline, surely the most pristine in the country, if not in Africa.

“Don’t miss the spray display at Luphothana – meaning place where the waves twist and curl,” said Sinegugu Zukulu.

Sinegugu is a contributor to Medicinal and Charm Plants of Pondoland. We soon learnt that he’s also a champion against mining and a proposed toll road. He joined us to point out some of the medicinal plants along the way.

We were on the five-day Pondo-Hopper, a 68km stretch of the Wild Coast from Msikaba south of Port Edward to Port St Johns.

Getting from Durban’s airport to the start was an adventure. The sign demarcating the border between KwaZulu-Natal and Transkei was unnecessary as our driver negotiated potholes, avoiding dogs, children, sheep, cows and cyclists.

The towns of Bizana and Flagstaff bustled with friendly people waving and calling as they shopped for live chickens – or at Happiness Store run by Frosty Night Trading CC. Much later, sniffing sea-air and enveloped in mist, we descended a dirt track through a tunnel of trees to arrive at Msikaba.

Next morning climbing a narrow path through grassland we were grateful to have chosen the slack packing option. From the viewpoint the Mtamvuna River snaked below where earlier we’d paddled. We also saw the Mkambati Nature Reserve and the remains of a leper colony and hospital.

By the time we hit Port Grosvenor the sky had cleared. Sinegugu told the story of the British East Indiaman that struck rocks in Lambasi Bay on August 4, 1782. Over the years attempts have been made to salvage what was reputed to be treasure of diamonds, rubies, gold and silver bullion.

Efforts to recover this include creating a 400m long breakwater to drain the bay and building undersea tunnels, of which the remains can still be seen. Others include explosives, steam-driven cranes and a spiritualist led by a ghost. But the bay is determined to keep its treasure.

At Mkweni River, Sinegugu said it was here that Valli Moosa, then minister of environmental affairs, watched a 4x4 drive along the beach.

“I will stop this,” said Moosa.

This led to the idea of creating the Pondoland Park. It never materialised but brought foreign funding to clean up the beaches and led to the formation of the Pondoland Marine Protected Area. Proclaimed in June 2004, it is the country’s largest marine reserve and arguably its most spectacular.

That night at Luphuthana, and after grabbing a drink, we went in search of what sounded like an explosion. Against a pink-tinged sky, waves rolled along a vertical undersea wall to crash in a spray display – a mesmerising spectacle of nature and the power of water.

Days merged into each other and the pattern was set. Mornings began with paddles up estuaries lined with mangroves where fish eagles perched and kingfishers fluttered reflected in ink-black water transforming to turquoise with the rising sun.

My paddle partner and I took turns in the back, novices to the sport, cursing the tides and wavelets as we wrestled the oars.

After hearty breakfasts we walked up and over voluptuous hills from one scenic spot to another, through forest pockets, stopping to swim in lagoons and the sea.

Day two was the best. Having been warned that one of the highlights (Cathedral Rock) is tricky to find, we hired a guide. Lwande had already hiked a good distance that morning from his village and told us he’d recently lost his job. He was one of many contracted to clean the beaches until foreign funding ran out.

Setting off on a snaking path we easily recognised the rock formation Top Hat. Puffing and panting we rounded a corner to glimpse the 80m Waterfall Bluff flowing down a cliff into the sea.

Climbing above, to Mlambomkulu, we swam in a necklace of pools as water trickled over orange and yellow splotched rocks. It was difficult to leave and thinking the day couldn’t get better, Lwande made a detour before turning to smile. The pride on his face spoke volumes as we hopped from rock ledge to miniature garden at Cathedral Rock.

A whale breached below while we were perched on a cliff with the free-standing, pyramid-shaped rock below, pounded by waves. Every year about 10 000 humpback whales migrate from Antarctica to the warm waters of the Agulhas Current. They meet, mate, give birth while also entertaining hikers as they soar and crash back. But that wasn’t all. A school of dolphins, airborne at times, completed this idyllic scene. Later we saw a shark perfectly silhouetted in a wave at its namesake Shark’s Point. Wild Coast, wild places.

The afternoon was filled with more waterfalls, pools at Mfihilo River and a lagoon fed by a river streaked with quicksilver rocks. Time for more swimming.

But you can’t come to Wild Coast without seeing cows on the beaches. It was only on day three that we saw them and then we saw plenty. Cows in villages of turquoise rondavels, cows on hillsides and cows on Robinson Crusoe-like beaches with no litter or footprints or signs that anyone has been there before us.

Small beaches, long beaches, brown sand, yellow sand, beige and even black. Beaches with branches creating silhouettes of ballerinas, dinosaurs and otherworldly creatures. The highest point on the route is a communication mast. After a steep climb the reward is picture perfect of the distant coastline with inland lagoons lined with sub-tropical forest. At last we’d cast-off the stress and strain of city life as time stood still.

Spending hours bent over, we explored rock pools resembling miniature gardens, the habitat of crabs and fish. All too soon we reached Poenskop, the end of the beach and the beginning of the road and civilisation.

After hitching a ride along the final stretch called Agate Terrace, we caught a ferry across the mighty Umzimvubu to Port St Johns’ Second Beach. This hippy, seaside enclave is where some of us contemplated calling in sick, stranded, stuck – anything not to leave but just to keep on walking. - Karen Watkins, Cape Times

l Book with Sarah Drew of Active Escapes at 033 330 6131, 084 240 7277, or see www.active-escapes.co.za

l Watkins is the author of Off the Beaten Track and Adventure Hikes in the Cape Peninsula.