When I fell into the sea at 2am

After the Plettenberg Bay hiking debacle, we moved on to Addo Elephant Park – the second largest national park in South Africa, and as the name suggests, home to hundreds of elephants.

We spent a night and a day game driving, and were treated to two male bulls fighting, and a heard of 15 elephants visiting a watering hole to drink and play.

Onwards from Addo, our next (slightly foolish) destination was a small seaside town – Coffee Bay. We had read rave reviews of this otherwise non-destination on the internet, so we thought it would be as good as any a place for a one night stop-over.

However, it took a lot longer to drive from Addo to Coffee Bay than we anticipated. The drive through the Eastern Cape was beautiful though, and so interesting. Unlike any other area of South Africa – the green rolling hills, littered with small settlements, mostly made of thatched grass in a traditional African round-house style. We even passed through Qunu, the village Nelson Mandela is from, and drove past his house. Incredible to think such a great man hailed from such rural beginnings.

Following a hair-raising drive in the dark along a potholed mountain road, we eventually arrived in Coffee Bay at around 7.

The small non-descript settlement only had mud roads, and we couldn’t find the hostel we had booked to stay at – until a friendly young guy shouted the directions to us. I proceeded in the direction he indicated, prompting him, and all the other people in the vicinity to jump after me shouting. Slamming on my brakes, he ran up and explained I was about to drive off a crack in the ground, into a six foot deep ditch. Thanking him, we made our way around the ditch safely, but were met with an almighty crash. In the commotion, the car behind me hadn’t been noticed, and had driven straight off the edge into the ditch – a scary sight… only made amusing by the fact that the car was branded to the department of roads.

We checked into our hostel, and were told the security guard would take us to our room.  However, the security guard objected – “the river has flooded, we can’t get to the room”.

Right, we were puzzled, how then would we get to our room? We’d have to drive there, he explained.  Not asking further questions, we set off following the guard’s car, taking a long route around the village to a bridge, and working our way back to our room on the other side of the river.

In the dark we could make out the room was approximately 100m from the reception and restaurant – across the river.

“If you don’t mind, you can turn up your trousers and take off your shoes, then you can walk across the river for your dinner,” the guard explained.

This sounded ridiculous, but what else was there to do? We set off to wade across the river.

In the dark this was a little difficult, and we wobbled around shin-deep in water, edging slowly across the river; until a local guy ran over to us pointing out some “stepping stones” a little further up the river. It was slightly easier like this, if slippery.

We made it across the restaurant area, and tucked into our plates of dinner feeling silly for having worried about the little matter of the river between us and our room.

Things spiralled. After dinner (and washing up our own plates – it was a community hostel!), we sat with a beer in the courtyard. Some guys approached, and asked if they could sit at our table. Sure, why not.

Before long, we were on our third beers with them – one turning out to be a semi-professional competition winning deep-sea tuna fisherman; the other a engineer; and the third an armed security professional.

We chatted and laughed late into the night, but at 2am we needed to call it a day, and we realised we’d be wading back across the river. This time we were less daunted – we knew where the stepping stones were this time.

Off we set, but halfway across the river, disaster struck – I slipped on the wet stones, and took a dramatic fall into the river, really smacking my leg on the rocks on the way down.

The security guard was running, Tom was trying to fish me out of the water – I was neck-deep in the freezing cold water, and my leg was throbbing. Managing to crawl up onto the rocks, I checked my leg fearing the worst. But I was lucky, apart from a couple of nasty scrapes, it seemed intact.

We made it back to the room and I wrapped into the blankets trying to warm up.

In the morning, my black and blue leg was in even more pain, as I emerged from our room into the morning light.

Getting my first view of the river in the light, I caught my breath. It wasn’t a river at all. It was the opening of an estuary into the open sea – a few feet further out, and I would have been in the – reasonably deep – waves. I called Tom, and his mouth dropped open too. I had been even luckier than I thought.

It was time to get out of Coffee Bay, this strange little place was eery, and we had no idea where it had got its rave reviews from. In any case, we were out of there, onwards to the Drakensbergs.


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