Into the heart of the hero's homeland

Three years ago today, Transkei's favourite son was inaugurated as South Africa's president.
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The Transkei - complete with its imperialist definite article - has an evocative ring about it, but the origins of the name are peculiarly pedestrian. It is, literally, the land across the River Kei - a cue for David Lean jokes, as we crossed the bridge at the border which used to separate this Xhosa homeland from the old South Africa.

The new South Africa is all out to promote the delights of its Wild Coast - hence the conversion of the concrete pillbox border control to a tourist bureau. Happily for seekers of solace, it is largely unattended.

One of the chief joys of the region - now part of the Eastern Cape Province - is the fact that its beauties remain almost totally unspoilt. Its artificial designation as a homeland may have been a cynical ploy of the Apartheid years, but this has also preserved the area's character. Driving north from the coastal city of East London, you quickly lose the poverty of modern townships behind, and regain a land of subsistence farming, incredibly friendly locals, and lots of immaculately dressed schoolchildren. It seems the birthplace of Madiba - a Xhosa endearment allotted to President Nelson Mandela and now adopted throughout the country - also retains much of his forgiving, open character.

We'd heard that the road to the old Transkei capital, Umtata, passed through Qunu (pronounced, like Xhosa, with a palatal click on the first syllable), the village where Madiba grew up. Accordingly, after a night in a cockroach-infested country hotel at Idutywa, we made a dawn run on Qunu. It rose romantically through river valley mists, set on the highveld which undulates gently towards the coast. Here, in the village of characteristic wattle-and-daub rondavels, the 20th century's last great hero grew up.

Unfortunately, our expedition to find his childhood home was not successful, partly because the locals are rather guarded about their President's origins; it is perhaps too personal a matter for foreigners to come gawping at the Mandela homestead, exhibiting as it does his humble beginnings. However, they pointed out Madiba's country retreat: a low bungalow-cum-compound in yellow brick to which the President escapes at any opportunity. Every morning just before dawn, Madiba sets off on an exhausting (for his companions) hike across the hills, talking all the time, surrounded by a wide diamond- shaped phalanx of bodyguards.

The President's love for the place is perfectly understandable. It is a beautiful landscape, all rolling hills bedecked with flame-coloured aloes. Umtata, at its centre, is a fantastically African town, with street-sellers purveying anything from bootleg trainers to bubble-bath in gin bottles. Here you book accommodation for the Wild Coast reserves in ancient offices lit by flickering emergency electric lights. There are frequent power cuts, and the telephone system is equally erratic. We made the mistake of arriving there on a Saturday, and found only a young man on bushfire watch, one ear glued to his radio as he told us he would have to return on Monday for our bookings.

Undeterred, we set off for the coast. As we descended, the climate became appreciably hotter. An hour later we pulled up by the side of the road and realised that the vegetation had turned totally tropical. Paw-paw, banana and avocado trees had sprung up to take the place of the cacti- like red spikes of aloes, and a million insects and birds were celebrating the fact. The only settlement of any size on the aptly-named Wild Coast is Port St Johns - a haunted old town named after the Sao Joao, wrecked there in 1552. There's a faded hotel, and an excellent guest house, and the whiff of dagga (dope) is never far away. With its deserted sandy beaches, craggy coastline and palms, Port St Johns has the air of a retreat from civilisation; few white South Africans go there.

They don't know what they're missing: the view from the subtropical terrace of The Lodge must be one of the best in the world. Yet such beauty can be treacherous: an inordinate amount of seagoing vessels have met sticky ends on these rocks, and beads and bits of crockery are still being washed ashore from 18th-century disasters.

Despite the fact that there are only about three Tarmac roads in the whole region, it is a pleasure to drive through, because of the affable nature of the people. Even when hurtling down a dirt track and blowing dust in their faces, the school kids and farmers we passed seemed to find the rare sight of obviously lost white people entirely hilarious and remarkable, and our arms ached from reciprocal waving. A few Xhosa words and phrases go down well: "Molweni" in greeting, "Siya bulela" in thanks; but getting the click right to ask for the river Xora with a dusty mouth is no easy matter.

The Wild Coast lacks any coast roads whatsoever - for each seaside destination, you must return to the Umtata north-south highway - and this may explain why one of the world's most beautiful regions is still largely unexploited, save for a handful of thankfully small resort hotels. It is best explored on foot; the whole coastline is one big hiking freeway. Permits are required to walk through the nature reserves - you must walk north to south and water is available at huts, sited every seven miles.

To walk the entire Wild Coast would take two weeks, so we took a softer option. For two nights, we stayed at one of the few "developed" resorts, a low-key collection of thatched cottages at the mouth of the Umngazi river. From here you can take a day's hike to one of the most southerly mangrove swamps in Africa. It was a fantastically primeval sight: white mangrove trees whose aerial roots stuck surreally up out of the grey mud, itself potted with a thousand drillholes, homes to scuttling sesamid crabs. The upper branches of the trees were festooned like nuclear Christmas trees with pedant mangrove snails, all curled up in their twirly cone shells, waiting for the tide to return.

They must have had a good snigger at us ignorant incomers, lounging blithely on a grassy knoll with no idea that the tide was coming in fast. We got up to go, and found ourselves marooned. Fortunately we were rescued by a motorised dinghy containing two Baywatch babes ...

For me, however, the highlight of the Wild Coast was at one of the huge nature reserves that encompass large tracts of the coastline. It took nearly a day to get to Dwesa, involving a pitch-black drive along unsignposted gullies. It was not a good idea to drive at night. Even the locals seemed less amenable under the cover of darkness; we stopped once for directions and found ourselves intruding on what was probably a muti (witchcraft) ceremony. At last Dwesa came in sight, and having handed our official papers to a suspicious and conspicuously armed guard at a barbed-wire gate, we were shown up steep stone steps to a cabin. Only at dawn the next morning did we realise it was built on 30ft-high stilts, raising us to the level of the forest canopy, and that we were the only occupants in the vast reserve.

It felt rather like being kings of your own country. After breakfast in our cute log cabin (shared with a pair of monkeys which brazenly raided our fruit bowl, and an unidentified possum-like creature which had made its home under the gas cooker), we walked along an empty beach festooned with jewel-like shells (and the odd desiccated baby shark). Then we climbed to Kobole Point and down over the Wild Coast. Its white beaches and verdant bays, its herds of eland and swarms of crab, its deep forests and shallow rockpools, seemed to belong to us alone.

Getting to the Transkei

The closest international airport is Durban, from Heathrow three times a week by British Airways (0345 222111) and South African Airways (0171- 312 5000); if you book before 14 May, SAA has a fare of pounds 433 including tax. A connection on South African Airlink to Umtata costs pounds 147 return.

Getting to Mpumalanga/Eastern Transvaal

The lowest fare to Johannesburg: through Trailfinders (0171-938 3366) is pounds 405 on Air France via Paris (valid from Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh and London) - return before 13 June. Flightbookers (0171- 757 3000) has a fare to Johannesburg of pounds 400, including tax, on South Africa Airways, valid throughout June. From Johannesburg, there are trains at least daily to the gateway town of Nelspruit.

The Royal Hotel in Pilgrim's Rest is on 00 27 1376 81100; a double room costs pounds 30 per person per night, including breakfast. The Mount Sheba Hotel (00 27 1376 81241) has a winter special of pounds 45 per person per night for dinner, bed and breakfast, until the end of September.

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