South Africa’s Wild Coast stretches from Port Edward in the north to East London in the south. It’s an area of sparsely inhabited coastal cliffs and forest, where rivers end in waterfalls that crash directly into the ocean, and cows wonder down to the beach to cool off.
The area of beach between the Wild Coast Sun and the Mzamba river mouth is home to the Petrified Forest. It’s a wide stretch of pristine sand, with sparkling ocean on one side, and steep dunes and lush vegetation on the other. On the ocean side, sedimentary rocks form reefs in the shallows, stretching several meters into the water. On the land side, the same sedimentary rock has been weathered and hollowed out over the centuries, forming caves in the sides of the dunes. The rocks on both sides of the beach are rich with the fossilised remains of ancient turtle shells, shark teeth, giant clams, ammonites and trees.
A walk along the beach at low tide yields an abundance of fossilised treasures – but only if you know where to look. If you’re a little fuzzy about how to differentiate a rock from an ancient mammal bone, you’re well advised to hire local guide Bennie Mbotho to show you the ropes.
Bennie is about the most laid-back and easy-going person you’ll ever meet, but he knows his fossils. He grew up on the Wild Coast. As a kid, he and his friends would scramble through the bush and slide down the dunes to get to this wild stretch of beach. He was here when Sol Kerzner bought the land from the Bantustan government, to develop the Wild Coast Sun, and his family were among the many local people forcibly removed to make way for the gambling mecca by the sea. He’s philosophical about it though, and he’s made the most of the opportunities afforded him in the new South Africa – emerging as an entrepreneur and enthusiastic guardian of the local environment.
Bennie’s guided walk is 4.2 kms, along the beach and back again. He casually mentioned to our group that the walk takes between 1 and 2 hours, depending on how much time you want to spend looking at things. About 15 minutes into our walk, he noted that it can even take up to 3 hours, if people are very curious… Our little group of six had the beach entirely to ourselves, and we were very curious indeed.
There was a lot to see. Bennie showed us silicified tree trunks, washed on shore millions of years ago, with long fat worms fossilised inside them. Some of these trees are up to 5 metres long, and with roots dangling in the air. Over the centuries, they’ve turned to grey-black silica. Like the rocks around them, they’re covered in mussels and barnacles and scuttling crabs. But stop and look for a moment, and their tree-trunk shape and texture is unmistakable. Depending on the angle of the tree trunk when it washed ashore, it would have been more or less vulnerable to erosion by the waves. Those that landed with an east-north-east orientation are best preserved, while others have gradually hollowed out over time. We spent a while exploring one enormous trunk that is completely hollow inside – little round holes along the top allow one to peer inside to a quiet, dark, underwater world, neatly contained within the tree.
Bennie took us to ‘dentist’s rock’ – his name for a partially submerged rock-shelf with a particularly rich collection of fossilised shark’s teeth. He pointed out three teeth in a section of rock about two metres square. They look exactly like any shark’s tooth that you might find at the bottom of the ocean, except that they’re deeply wedged into the rock, they’re a dark silver-grey, they’re as smooth as polished gem stones (they’re still extremely sharp), and they’re millions of years old. They’re also more or less invisible if you don’t know where to look. Bennie also pointed out a shoulder blade which he reckons belonged to a dinosaur – it sounds fanciful, but judging by the giant clam fossils in the vicinity, there were once some pretty enormous creatures living in this area.
We walked a little way up the beach, away from the sea, to what looked like a fairly random spot in the sand. Bennie crouched down and started scooping the sand away with his hands. Soon, the hole he was digging starting to fill with water, and then, as he scooped away some more, there appeared a giant submerged ammonite fossil, about 50cm in diameter. It’s beautifully preserved. To stare down at it, nestled in the sand, affords a privileged glimpse of ancient times.
Walking along the dune-side of the beach, we were in the shade of a range of low cliffs, up to 20 metres high. These contain hard layers of rock alternating with fine-grained silt. Over time, the waves have pounded at the base of the cliffs, forming substantial caves.
Bennie pointed out the fossilised remains of giant clams, long extinct, and the outline of a massive sea turtle, its head still discernible in the impression left behind in the rock. He also explained that several of the bigger caves have been inhabited at various times over the centuries, some by parties of shipwrecked sailors trying to make their way up the coast to civilisation.
It doesn’t seem a terrible place to land up – there’s a clear mountain stream trickling down the front of the caves, a forest behind, and the bountiful sea ahead. Of course, we only had to walk for half an hour to get back to civilisation, and air conditioning.
If you’re ever on South Africa’s south coast, and need a break from the crowds, call Bennie, and take a walk on the wild side.