My horse suddenly darted under the row of rafters extending from the rural Pondo dwelling - at about shoulder height to me as I sat in the saddle. I had little choice but to bend backwards and grab each rafter in turn, until I slipped over the horse's rump and safely down to the ground. Those who'd watched the episode were in stitches, and told me - (a)it had looked quite acrobatic; (b) it would have been even more spectacular had I gone hand-in-hand along the whole row of rafters, and emerged triumphantly upright in the saddle on the other side; (c) ESSA would definitely hear about it (as I have no doubt you all have by now).
This was just one of what were later christened my 'equine calamities', one a day. I also, after dismounting, wandered too close behind a horse's rear, and took a painful kick on my thigh, which had a clear hoof-print on it for some days. And my feisty horse, when I allowed it to canter near the surfline, opted to go charging up to the top of the beach and almost into the coastal undergrowth - apparently in rush to get to its home village, which was nearby.
Riding experience was not, fortunately, a prerequisite for what was a superb trip. Madiba Adventures in Port Edward (nothing really to do with Nelson Mandela's clan, who live in a more western part of the Transkei) co-ordinate the trips with a 62-year-old Pondo named Christopher and his sons, who act as guides. It can be called eco-tourism in the sense that some locals profit; also possibly rural entrepeneurism, as Christopher and his associates seem to do pretty well. Rural it certainly is - after the Wild Coast Sun Casino and the Umtamvuna river, the ribbon development of the South Coast suddenly ends and you are into Pondoland -grassy hills and meadows, dotted with traditional villages and scored by deep river gorges, running down to long beaches of sand, rocks and frequent river mouths.
We used the locals' horses, but unlike the similar venture in Lesotho, did not sleep in their homes - Madiba have created a tent camp on the KwaNyama River and a more developed one, with wooden huts, over the Mtentu River. This has an exquisite setting, overlooking the river near its mouth, with a sandy beach nearby and tree-clad rocky cliffs upriver. The 'Loo with a View' rivals those on the Otter Trail.
The trip is not just horse-riding, fortunately for inept horsemen and saddle-sore buttocks. There is a canoe trip up the Mtentu to an inlet where a tributary comes cascading down the rocky sides of the river path. We climbed up this to an enchanted pool with a waterfall, where everyone swam and watched out for Gollum and Frodo - it was their sort of place. There was also a hike, first along the beach to a 50-year-old shipwreck, testimony to the rough seas that give the Wild Coast its name, then inland to a cave once inhabited by Strandloper people, on a high ledge above a river pool. Some of us jumped down the thirteen metres or so down into the pool, while the rest gave more or less 'woos-ish' reason for not doing so.
The company was very cosmopolitan, with the Explorers combined with a group of young female backpackers - mostly German, and frighteningly competent at horse-riding, hiking, English and all other adventure skills. There was also a Hawaiian girl (white American, not Polynesian) and a Korean-Canadian. Most were busy with world and African travels. From ESSA, we at least had Chris and Blair from Oz and Ela with her Polish polish to vary the solid South Africanness of Tony, Graeme and myself. Plus, of course, the three Pondo guides. The party on the last night was multi-lingual, with the guides singing and dancing their tribal songs with hypnotic rhythm and harmony, the German girls trilling some sweet traditional Lieder, and we Anglophone colonials a little tongue-tied, as we didn't know any songs clean enough for the occasion. The Aussies tried to give us Waltzing Matilda (which I knew better than Chris and Blair, shame on them ahead of the Rugby World Cup). All the South Africans present did manage one unified ballad, 'Shosholoza'. All in all, it was great fun for four days - an excellent R1500 worth. For that cost, and within that time frame, it would be hard to package in as much as fun, adventure and natural beauty anywhere in the world - an assessment most of the global backpackers on the trip agreed on.
Riding off into the sunset