We get going early from Port Alfred and begin our trek to Bulungula Lodge, the first of our three backpacker stops. We have plenty of kilometres to cover and we are optimistic the roads will be on our side. As we cross the Fish River and glance at the old border post building which is run down, we enter what used to be known as the Ciskei. Thanks to the abundant rain over the last few weeks the rivers are fat and the cliff side rocks glisten with trickles of water. The landscape changes from thick Eastern Cape like bush to rolling smooth hills with constant villages stretching along the grassy ridges. Based on the map supplied by Bulungula, we are anticipating a slow drive along the dirt roads so we whizz through all the towns until we stop for last-chance petrol top up at a busy little town called Mqunduli. Our spirits are high and we turn off the tar to begin the first of many slow bumpy rides in Pondoland.
This route rumbles over a multitude of deep donga lined gravel roads and we crawl through pothole after ditch totally absorbed in our surroundings but keep an eye on the dipping sun. Despite the sweet screeching kids alongside the roads and a few attempts at broken Xhosa, we only get slightly lost. Taking the wrong turn we head down a hell raising steep slope muttering that we hope we don’t have to go back up it. We unfortunately reach a river bed dead end and find ourselves facing the very same hill which our two wheel drive Corsa bakkie clings desperately on to while sliding on the loose gravel. 35 kilometres takes us three hours and we eventually reach the parking lot at Bulungula relieved to say the least. We clamber along in the dark over a cattle trodden ridge in the dark to find the lodge and we are met with warmth, traditional music and the wonderfully theatrical Xandiswa. Bags are lugged into our pondok and we drive back to the parking lot, along suspiciously soft tracks, to leave our car to itself while we barefoot the next couple of days around the area. Exhaustion settles in shortly after stuffing our faces on butternut and lamb bredie washed down with a quart of Hansa Pilsner and the kiss of the saaz hop send us snoring into slumber.
The beauty of the Wild Coast is in the peace and quiet, the endless cliff lined coast, the Xhosa villages scattered on hills and in valleys but mostly it is in the soul nourishing sunrises. This becomes obvious as we stroll along the beach early the next morning. The sun turns the sky red and the wind decorates the sea with white Mohawks. Tall dunes give us a perfect spot to drink our coffee, crunch on some ‘soet’ cookies and watch the dolphins cruising in the backline. All week the hoards of sardines running the length of this coast have the gannets working hard diving and feasting all day long. The weather is perfect for our time at Bulungula and this self sustainable lodge epitomises the nature of the Wild Coast. Dave Martin, a backpacker who is the brains behind this Fair Trade Tourism accredited lodge, stumbled across this run down building and turned it into backpackers extraordinaire. Solar electricity, odour free long drops and paraffin powered rocket showers cement the theme of the place. Minimal environment impacting pondoks have million rand views and dune top campsites are what make the lodge popular. Hikes along the beach, horse rides and community involvement keep this place an authentic Wild Coast destination. Our last day is seen off with a dip in the ocean and ‘zamalek’ sundowners out of tin cups. Chickens provide entertainment and as the night rolls in the sky is transformed once again into a glittering carpet.
Without a plan we trek along a road, or something that vaguely resembles one, as it winds along the coast skirting the river valleys and kissing the tall cliffs. We look down at the sea below and marvel at the long uninterrupted swell running parallel to the patient rocks. Hole in the Wall and Coffee Bay are disappointing as we are not impressed by the choice of accommodation nor the state of the surrounds. The hype of Coffee Bay lured us here but has let us down as locals on every corner shout the going rates for dagga and ‘magic mushrooms’ in your car window as you roll past. It gives us an unsettled feeling and as we lock our doors we decide to travel back up the coast to Wild Lubanzi backpackers, a far more appealing sounding establishment. The new tar road that leads down towards the Zithulele Mission and hospital is remarkable and we are as impressed as Jeremy Clarkson would be while cruising through its twists and turns.
A warm welcome greets us at Wild Lubanzi in the form of two bounding adolescent Rhodesian ridgebacks, Cashew and Carob. The sun has already disappeared below the hills and a howling easterly wind forces us to forgo any ideas of setting up our tent on the edge of the cliff as we had hoped so we opt for an inexpensive sunrise facing room. A glowing fire and good conversation with the resident Aussie ends our dusty day of driving. We wake up early to a phenomenal view and the sunrise promises to be inspiring so we grab our make-shift breakfast of ‘soet’ cookies, apples and coffee and find two perfectly placed armchairs with a never-ending view over the sea and coastline. Humpback whales by the dozen dazzle us as they breach continuously, the sunlight dancing off their pectoral pirouettes. Wishing we could stay longer we promise ourselves we will return after a long enjoyable chat with our hosts Aiden and Rahel. They are passionate about their precious spot and it is easy to see why. With a thriving vegetable garden, wind powered electricity and rocket showers, Wild Lubanzi balances right on the edge of a picturesque grassy cliff top with an awe-inspiring view all the way to Coffee Bay. A small beach and an impressive break make it even more attractive to the backpacking, surfing clientele they hope to attract.
We are silently grateful it didn’t rain as we struggle to get out their steep grassy entrance. After six failed attempts we eventually get out by reversing up the slippery slope, to put some weight on the front wheels, and nearly end up careering into the bank on the opposite side. Nevertheless we act nonchalant and take a few obligatory wild coast cattle shots. Our next stop is Chintsa East and the famous Buccaneers Backpackers. We stop to watch the ferry at Kei River Mouth but the queue of cars waiting their turn is long enough to warrant a scenic trip along the beach and a relaxed journey to Chintsa. An early turn, more donga riddled roads and we find we have really taken the long way around but we get there eventually smiling and enjoying the pace of the Transkei.
Don’t get me wrong the whole rocket shower experience was riveting, but the unpredictability of the amount and temperature of the hot water for a few days had us rejoicing and high fiving when we arrived at our room in Buccaneers to find a normal shower in our en-suite bathroom. It is so great when small luxuries are taken away for a few days and all of a sudden a tiny little shower feels like you’ve won the lottery. First point of call is a well earned beer in the bar and once again we find ourselves blessed with yet another breathtaking view out over the ocean and river mouth. We learn that this particular river and lagoon is fairly shallow which puts paid to our hopes of canoeing upstream to do some bird watching. The first of our many delicious meals here goes down like a homesick mole and soon we head for bed and crash in what feels like relative luxury. The distant roar of the waves pounding lulls us into a deep slumber and we wake the next morning ready for our last exploring days on the Wild Coast. After the last couple of days missioning along bumpy dusty roads, not found on any of our maps, we are happy to leave the van where it is and hoof is for awhile.
Buccaneers backpackers is a constant hive of activity with genuine friendly staff, mouth watering meals and an ongoing supply of entertainment. Volleyball games, surfing lessons and wind swept sundowners are all run of the mill here as their daily free activity. Deciding to self cater turns out to be a difficult decision, not due to the lack of facilities, but because of the dinner menu that goes up every morning. Indian feasts, pub burger nights and Mexican fiestas have us drooling on the list as we ignore our little box of supplies in our room and choose well priced gluttony instead. The pub is always lively and the drinks are cheap, but we don’t stay too long as our early nights are a result of our wild coast sunrise addiction. Over cast skies are blown in by a threatening south westerly so we leave the beach for the day and head off on mountain bikes for a township tour. Here we meet the infamous Mama Tofu and her group of gals. Stories of tradition and misunderstood culture are fascinating but it is her delightful charisma and effortless eloquence which I find enthralling. I get a lesson in grinding mealie meal and have to sit on the floor while the guys sit on the chairs as part of a cultural demonstration. Needless to say this has them grinning for some time afterwards and the jokes keep coming for the remainder of the day. As it is our last day we make the most of the 25 kilometre cycle home and enjoy the views of the Transkei landscape. Later that evening, after stuffing our faces once again, we roll down the hill and sit out on our chalet’s deck reminiscing on our brief but beautiful trip. Six days has flown by as we realise how much there is still to see, so we make a pledge to return soon. Our last sunrise is accompanied by a determined westerly wind and we pull our beanies low over our ears. As we wander along we watch the multitude of locals using the beach on their daily commute to work. The pushing tide forces those on bikes to get off and push while some quick feet dance over the rocks accompanied by the occasional shriek to avoid getting wet shoes before the day has even begun.
For the first time in many trips I find myself reluctant to head back to our packed bags. We have fallen in love with the simplicity and natural beauty of the Wild Coast. It is easy to see why any people head up this coastline with backpacks and are not seen again for months on end. The unexplored sections all along the Transkei draw you in and entice you to your own adventure. We have already begun plotting our next trip but will consider setting aside more time and also a 4 x 4. It is possible in a two wheel drive vehicle, albeit stressful and hard on the suspension, but it would be far more fun in a car with more power and bigger wheels.
Bulungula and Wild Lubanzi are must see destinations and Coffee Bay is no longer worth a stop. Hole in the Wall could be nice if you hike there from up the coast and enjoy it for an afternoon and then leave. Buccaneers is the perfect starting place to ease into the Wild Coast and deserves a visit. Although all these places are theoretically ‘backpackers’ they are ideal for any kind of traveller and it would be a loss to skip them for more up-market accommodation.
I would love to go back at full moon and although the stars would be less magnificent, a night walk at Bulungula would be a moving experience. Also a spring tide is a lot more conducive to collecting delicacies from the rocks. As they are now, they have been completely raped by the locals as a food source and young kids litter the rocks flicking tiny limpets into bowls further amplifying the problem and ridding themselves of any future supplies. There are certainly handfuls of colourful people to meet at these places and many of them have arrived and just never left, finding a way of making themselves useful or just keeping a low profile. It is easy to become addicted to this place and escape from the hold of civilization for a while. If you have not yet discovered the Wild Coast I would only ask one question; “what are you waiting for?”