This picture sums up what you do here in Coffee Bay during the day.
My stay in Port Elizabeth was pretty unremarkable – much like the city really. There isn’t a lot to see here but I did manage to see quite a bit of it via my taxi mission across the city trying to find a camera repair shop. At the second place I visit inside the gargantuan Greenacres Shopping Mall, I give the stroppy shop attendant a big smile as a new non-Sony battery brings my camera back to life. The attendant does not seem to enjoy my absolute joy and relief.
With nothing much happening at the hostel, I finalise the rest of my plans in South Africa, which is another achievement unlocked – I’ll be picking up a cheap hire car in Durban which I will now drive to St Lucia, the Midlands, the Drakensberg and Underberg, from where I’ll jump on a two day tour into Lesotho. Part of me really wanted to test my driving skills by driving up the Sani Pass and through Lesotho in a 4x4 – but another part of me didn’t want to end up broken down on a remote road in freezing temperatures with not a lot of clothing in the country known as
The Actual Hole In The Wall
Spectacular I guess, but you can find things like this in New Zealand.
“The Kingdom In The Sky”. Hiring a 4x4 also going to cost me about five times as much.
I am then returning the hire car back to Durban before taking my final BazBus trip up to Johannesburg to finish my trip with a safari through Kruger Park. Done.
The Mayweather-Pacquiao fight was well-timed at 6am – just in time for me to catch the “fight of the century” before catching my BazBus to Chintsa.
As I left Port Elizabeth on my once-again female-dominated BazBus – why this is I’m not sure, but it sure is a safe way of travelling across South Africa – I was now entering the next phase of my trip as I left behind the Garden Route and entered the area known as the Transkei.
It is an area that has been talked up by my friend Monica in London but one thing I didn’t know about it was the fact that it was treated as an autonomous region – almost like a separate country – within apartheid South Africa, as a token way of recognising the local African community that lived there. It didn’t work though, as the Transkei was and still is one
Bulungula Backpacker’s Lodge
The colourful rondavels that make up the accommodation at the lodge.
of the poorest regions in the country and life wasn’t great, even under self-rule.
We pull up at the Buccaneers Backpackers Lodge which is like a backpacker’s resort / outdoor retreat. The cabins are spread out over a hill that overlooks the beautiful Chintsa river mouth and beach, which itself seems to stretch out endlessly to the northeast.
The weather has suddenly picked up too and it was gloriously hot – hot enough for me to go and have a dip in the sea, which was a little cold and a little rough.
It was like being at school camp again here at “Bucs” – everyone would have dinner together at 7.30pm – except that you were allowed to drink and there were no curfews. It was well away from any sort of civilisation and there were many outdoor activities on offer, the best of which was the free canoeing along the deathly still Chintsa River. I was paddling with an English guy called Oli, as we talked about our grand travel plans and the joy of travelling. It was completely quiet, but for the occasional kingfisher swooping into the river to catch prey. I found myself caught in
Another Deserted Beach On The Wild Coast
I thought this was Coffee Bay and thus the end of my walk. Alas, it was not and I still had another hill to climb.
the moment for a second – it is for moments like this that I travel for.
The kayaking was highly enjoyable and a good workout too. It was almost perfect. The only thing that could’ve made it better was if I had a few of my close friends with me.
Another of the activities on offer was a guided visit to the Chintsa township.
In contrast to Bucs’s idyll, there are dogs, pigs, chickens, cows and goats running amok all over the township. Some parts of the township don’t even have electricity. Our guide tells us about how the government has set up many projects in an effort to help out the local communities but that bad management and endemic corruption continues to stifle any meaningful progress. Unbeknownst to me, the country’s president Jacob Zuma isn’t even high-school educated – this being just one example of people without the right background or expertise being put into important government posts here in South Africa.
Our visit then takes an entertaining turn as we are taken to see 95-year old tour guide Mama Tofu. She is quite the character. She starts off by telling us how the local Xhosa
95 years old and still going strong. Quite the character.
(with bricks made of mud and cow dung) before telling us how to “make love”.
Basically there are three levels of love; “common love” which is the love all human beings have for each other; “middle love” which is the love you have for someone special; and “life love” which is the love you have for your husband or wife. This was explained all in the context of local Xhosa customs and traditions and the process of courting and marriage, although this wasn’t quite clear at the time which meant Mama Tofu sounded like a crackpot in her own loud, inimitable style. Among the more interesting comparisons espoused by Mama Tofu was how having girls instead of boys would make a family wealthier since daughters would be married off in return for eighteen cows a pop, and that making love required lots of training – “like driving a car”!
Nights at Bucs revolved around playing a card game called “Oh Hell” with Oli and Canadian girls Karen, Marissa and Nicole, shooting pool, and staring contests with local girls called Stephanie.
With limited WiFi available, it was great to back-to-nature entrée to what I was about to experience on
The lodge is on the right. What a setting.
the Wild Coast.
My first stop on the Wild Coast was at an eco-lodge located in the rural Xhosa community of Bulungula.
The ride out there was definitely one of the more memorable I have been on.
Firstly, South Africans drive fast
Secondly, we were rally-driving around some of the bumpiest and potholiest dirt/gravel roads I have ever seen for ninety minutes while narrowly avoiding roaming dogs, goats, cows and kids along the way.
Added to this, was witnessing a van completely packed with people and objects like sardines with an entire double bed and wheelbarrow strapped to the roof; speed bumps on highways; and kids hitching rides home from school.
A reason that the kids are hitching rides is because there are no rural villages as such – the buildings of rural communities seem to be spread out all over the hilly farmlands as far as the eye can see. There are rarely any clusters of buildings or any “high streets” of sorts.
In terms of the Bulungula Backpacker’s Lodge itself, it is definitely the most eco-friendly place I have ever stayed at. The “rocket” showers that have to be fired up with paraffin in order to get
Kid In Bulungula
He liked my sunglasses.
hot water were a real novelty and put the excitement back into showering despite being lukewarm at best. The non-smelly compost loos were also very clever – separating #1s and #2s massively reduces the smell created and all loos are painted black so that flies don’t go into them, as flies cannot fly in the dark! We were staying in a traditional rondavel
as well, with all beds in the dorm arranged in a circular fashion around the circumference of the room.
This was about as basic as you can get without going camping – and with the lodge’s safari tents, you had that option too!
My first morning at Bulungula was one to forget.
First, I walked all over the steep hills that made up the “village” for two hours trying to find the elusive pancake restaurant – each local I asked seemed to give me different and difficult-to-understand directions. Second, I got caught up in a mini-sandstorm on the beach as I climbed a sand dune; and third, I cut my foot on a sticky-outy piece of wood in the sand.
The afternoon was a bit of an adventure too as I was joined by Indonesian Jeremy,
Bulungula’s pancake restaurant. This is the cook and her kitchen – that is it. She wears clay on her face to protect her from the sun.
French Damien, Canadian Garth, and American Ashley as we trekked north to find a dried up waterfall, a non-existent “rain mountain” and an admittedly scenic “secret beach”. On the way back however, the knee-deep river we had crossed earlier was now a raging torrent. Stripping down to my togs and holding my precious camera above my head, I was neck-deep and almost at the other side when I suddenly stepped into a hole and almost went under, taking my camera with me. Frantic one-arm doggy-paddling and Ashley’s presence to snatch my camera from me were the only things that saved it as it hovered just inches above the water.
The next day, our hiking crew minus Indonesian Jeremy and French Damien were joined by Australian Kevin and American Stephanie as we set out to find that goddamn pancake restaurant once and for all.
We did finally find it, and it is basic to say the least. Housed in a rondavel seemingly in the middle of nowhere – like everything else here – there was nothing more in it than a pantry, a bench, two gas stoves and a bench for customers to sit on. The rest was just space.
Down at ‘the pub’ in Bulungula. Women sit on one side of the room, men on the other.
With just one lady preparing all our food, we had plenty of time to just chat amongst ourselves. Inevitably, you become part of social groups that connect better than others while on the road and I felt I met some good people and made some good friends here.
As for the food, the curry pancake was basically a green curry inside a pancake, but the highlight was the coconut, nut and raisin “Bulungula special” for dessert.
The lodge is 40% locally owned and is making a real difference to the local community in terms of helping to create sustainable businesses and ventures based on the tourists coming through the lodge, by occupying the locals and hopefully lifting them out of poverty.
Overall, the Xhosa locals have bee very laid back, indifferent to foreigners, a little shy, but friendly enough when approached. Certainly there are improvements that can be made in terms of service – the more regular updating of information and timekeeping are two big ones – if they were just a little bit more on-the-ball. Everything at Bulungula seems well setup for foreigners from the signs, information boards and activities on offer – but sadly, it seems like
How To Carry Things In South Africa
A woman in Chintsa township shows us how they carry things around here. Very impressive.
the locals running the place are struggling to maintain the original standards and legacy somewhat.
The village itself, as mentioned earlier, is not a viilage per se but a collection of rondavels spread out across swathes of farmland. I got a tour of the ‘village’ by the lady who made us pancakes – once she had shut up the restaurant and walked the thirty minutes it takes to get to the lodge from the restaurant.
Firstly, we pass the sangoma’s
house where I am informed that cactus is planted whenever anyone has twins, before I made my own brick (no, not like that) on the brickyard on the side of the road using traditional methods. It was hard work – and that was just making one brick!
I am then taken to a shebeen
where I share a drink with the locals. Inside the rondavel, is a kitchen of sorts set against the back wall where the local brews are made – then the mainly elderly men are sat on one side of the room with the mainly elderly “mamas” sat on the other. The milk-coloured maize beer is then drunk out of large metal pails. It is a
The sand is so flat here and seemingly stretches out forever.
little sour and I have to say that I probably won’t be drinking it again!
Walking around the ‘village’ initially, you think that all of the rondavels are just houses that all look the same – but the tour certainly illuminated the fact that some do serve different functions.
Bulungula is understandably no party zone and smoking
around the campfire and Pictionary provided each night’s entertainment. Board games are so
underrated. On my last night, I taught four Germans how to play – Pictionary becomes a little complicated if English is your second language, but ze Germans did admirably. In fact, my team lost!
Also on that night, the locals hanging out at the lodge were completely hammered and/or high – including John, my guide who was to take me to Coffee Bay the next day!
Overall though, Bulungula is an excellent place to get away from it all – it’s so peaceful and remote and I will take away good memories. It was really nice to be ‘off the grid’ for a few days.
For a change I decided to walk to my next destination instead of taking another BazBus in the hope of being rewarded
Johnnie Walker On The Beach
My guide on the hike from Bulungula to Coffee Bay. Johnnie just keeps on walking.
with amazing scenery and photos – and as you can see from the accompanying pictures, I wasn’t disappointed. It was a bit repetitive though – kilometre after kilometre of long, flat sandy beaches, steep green hills, dusty dirt roads, and brightly-coloured rondavels.
I normally like to think that I am a fairly strong hiker but it is amazing how different things are with an overnight rucksack on your back. I may have packed too much, but it really puts your balance off and makes those ridiculously steep hills even tougher. Walking directly into a strong headwind didn’t help matters either.
My guide was hardcore and uber-experienced with the trail – he did the whole thing barefoot! He was surprisingly quiet on the trek though – although perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising given his state the previous night! What should come as no surprise is John’s nickname – Johnnie Walker. He was a good bloke though, happy and friendly (when he wasn’t waiting for you to take photographs).
We make it to our overnight stop at Wild Lubanzi Backpackers, which has an amazing setup. Perched on a cliff overlooking a small beach, the open-plan, door-less loft affords an ocean view
One of the cooler backpackers that I have stayed at – so well set up.
while you eat your breakfast and is made mainly of wood and stone offering some of the coolest hangout areas I’ve seen. It was incredibly windy however – a guest sleeping on a cliff-side tent had to move inside – but I guess this is why they call it the Wild Coast.
The second leg of the trek was much tougher as there were more hills than the first leg and they were all much steeper. Just when you thought you’d conquered a hill, you would see another one agonisingly pop up ahead of you. The temperature also decided to jump a few degrees as well – 30 degrees is great for swimming but not so great for hiking.
We also pass the Hole In The Wall, a scenic landmark carved out by erosion.
To be completely honest, as nice as the scenery was, I am yet to be truly blown away by anything I have seen in South Africa bar the Cape Peninsula. You could definitely find scenery similar or better than what I have seen on the Wild Coast in New Zealand – a point very well-made by the only Kiwi I have met so far in
The Hole In The Wall
The most significant sight on the walk from Bulungula to Coffee Bay.
South Africa, in Chintsa.
Anyway, when we finally reached Coffee Bay, I was well and truly exhausted.
The first people I meet when I get to the backpacker’s enclave and my home for the next four nights that is The Coffee Shack, are Chris and Emily.
They’re both veterans of the place and go out of their way to make me welcome and invite me to the beach. So far, so friendly.
Down on the beach, I then have my arm twisted to help them get through a bottle of rum (probably the most appropriate drink to swig on a beach) while they proceed to take some natural stimulants – one popular with Rastafarians and the other a weird one I’ve never seen or heard of before.
Crazy Chris resembles a creepy, alcoholic, washed-up, middle aged rocker who is always hanging around young girls – sweary and tattooed with slick-backed hair and a leather jacket – Emily was a beautiful, free-spirited drifter, perhaps slightly emotionally troubled. They were nice enough, but you did sense that they both had a screw loose somewhere.
Given the heat and my travails earlier in the day, a swim was welcome, even if once
Johnnie Walker On The Cliff Edge
My guide on the hike from Bulungula to Coffee Bay. Johnnie just keeps on walking.
again the water was a little cool and rough.
Chris and Emily were essentially, the type of people you’d expect to find here in the remote paradise that is Coffee Bay, and the all-inclusive experience that is the Coffee Shack.
You can have all your meals, drinks and even laundry taken care of here; it is the perfect place to eat, drink, sleep and party – the perfect place to waste away.
Set up like a Robinson Crusoe deserted island resort with many plants, an outdoor wooden bar and thatched-roof hangout areas, the ‘Shack’ gets lively in the evening when dinner is served and the young backpackers gather to eat and then drink afterwards. A local dance troupe even came by on the first evening to treat us to some local beats.
Though the busiest hostel I have been to so far apart from The Backpack in Cape Town, things have never really threatened to get too out of hand in the party stakes, despite the 50p Amarula shots – perhaps it is different in high season.
I was afraid that I’d get a bit bored here as there isn’t a terrible lot to do – I had already
Beach on the way from Bulungula to Coffee Bay.
seen the Hole In The Wall en route here which meant that the only other activity I had to try was surfing.
My cousin was a keen surfer and I visited him almost every Christmas when I was growing up so it is somewhat of a miracle that I had never ever tried it before. Well, this was about to change.
I wouldn’t say that I took to surfing like a duck to water but I wasn’t far off. After a few attempts, I was able to get up on my feet and ride waves all the way into the shore. Good fun! I think my snowboarding experience helps – it meant that I n=knew how it should feel to ride a board standing up and knowing that I had to keep my centre of gravity low.
On my final day, most of the hostel went out for beach day which involved more surfing, lying on the beach and a spot of beach volleyball. A pretty fitting ending to my time in Coffee Bay.
In terms of the surfing, the waves weren’t as good as the day before and it was difficult catching a good one.
Perfect for a kayak.
day’s end, I could see why people can end up staying a long time here…
A few more quirky observations from my time on the Wild Coast;
- South Africans are very inviting – several times I have met locals for the first time and after a five minute conversation, I had them inviting me out for a drink/party/braai or offering to help me out in certain places. Lewis (from The Garden Route entry) was even invited to a guy’s 21st where all speeches were made in English rather than Afrikaans just for his benefit – he had only met the guy the previous night. A Dutch guy I met in Port Elizabeth was off to a wedding of a guy he had only met a couple of weeks ago.
- Speaking of Dutch, they are the backpacker nationality I have met the most on my travels through South Africa – apart from the Germans. So many Germans. I hav met a few Belgians too. Maybe it’s their historical connection to South Africa people from those countries really like coming here. Or else the South African Tourism Board is doing a really good job in that part of the
Hole In The Wall Beach
There are some holiday homes and a hotel here too.
- Almost every hostel I have been to on the Wild Coast has a dog – and some of them aren’t too healthy either. I usually don’t like feeding dogs as I am not sure if the food I have is good for them, but these dogs were starving and needed to eat anything. The dog at The Coffee Shack was annoying though, barking its arse off at 5am every morning…
- My misfortune with bedbugs continues. Just like in Oslo, I was the victim of the nasty bites – I managed to catch and kill three of the f*ckers and place them in a clear ziplock bag for examination the next day. Unlike Oslo, the dorm at The Coffee Shack was thankfully cleared out and fumigated while we were all reassigned to other dorms.
And with that, my time off the grid in remote locations comes to an end – I’m back to the city next: the city of Durban.
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