A Sliver of Simplicity
Words & pics Mark Samuel
In more than 20 years, nothing had changed. Okay, perhaps this time around there were some locals with cellphones here and there hunting for that elusive one bar of signal (mobile phones, thankfully, didn’t exist in the ’90s). But, besides that, I’d stepped back into one of my barefoot childhood holidays on the Wild Coast.
More than two decades had passed and the place was still the same: remote, electricity-less (or Eskom-less, at least), gravel-roaded, thatch-hutted and graced with endless unspoilt golden beaches … All so simple, and yet breathtakingly beautiful. And, like my dad always did, I was sporting a ragged beard that was to become even shaggier during my stay. Not shaving was an unspoken pact my father shared with his mates during our annual Transkei winter holidays back in the day. Now it was my turn to continue the tradition.
This exquisite sliver of Eastern Cape coastline is a region of contrasts. Geographically, it is pure secluded splendour; socio-economically, it is strikingly poor. So, when I heard a small group of locals were involved in a community-run lodge in the heart of the Wild Coast, I had to check it out for myself.
Bulungula eco-lodge serves two roles. It’s a rustic, unpretentious spot where South Africans and foreigners alike can immerse themselves in the natural beauty and laidback lifestyle of the region; and it’s a small business that provides opportunities for members of the surrounding community to involve themselves in tourism, earning an income and providing for their families. I certainly didn’t need any more reasons to visit.
As if materialising from my memory bank right before my eyes, the roads down to the Wild Coast – at least once you turn off the tar road that heads to Coffee Bay – are, well, wild. They form a convoluted network of gravel routes that meander past vast tracts of open land, traditional Xhosa huts and kraals, groups of adults and children, goats, dogs, cattle and stout little roaming black pigs. The scenes outside the car window represent a way of life that’s changed little over the years.
Calling Bulungula a ‘lodge’ really stretches the definition of the word. Don’t go there expecting chocolates on your pillow at night – it’s nothing like that. It’s more of a backpackers, blended with a healthy dollop of local-style hospitality. Accommodation takes the form of permanent tents on timber platforms in the coastal forest (just about overlooking the ocean) or traditional dung-floored and thatch-roofed Xhosa huts (each with a single solar-powered electric light), or you can set up your own tent. Ablutions are rudimentary – indoor compost toilets (which, admittedly, take a degree of getting used to) basins for tooth brushing, hand washing and face splashing, and one of the highlights of my stay – rocket showers. Your eyebrows are raised, I’m sure. Let’s just say the components include paraffin, matches and toilet paper for ignition, and around seven minutes of hot-water bliss.
Whatever your choice of lodgings, be sure to keep your luggage light, as this place is so idyllically remote the road doesn’t quite reach it. Upon summiting the last of many, many hills on your journey to the coast, you descend into a valley, from where the smudge of a cluster of buildings in the distance is almost out of sight. A fenced-off parking area awaits, where a security guard keeps watch for the duration of your stay. Everything here is perfectly safe, I’m told. It’s then a roughly 700m walk along a grassy track to Bulungula, which is tucked away behind the coastal forest and just up the bank from and overlooking a small tidal estuary. The entire set-up looks northwards along a stretch of golden beach which culminates in towering, grassy hills in the distance, glazed with dark, jagged rocks, against which the fierce ocean swells crash day and night, and have done so for millennia. The scene is classic Wild Coast – and probably the most fundamental reason anyone should visit.
You can self-cater, provided your cooler box co-operates. The communal kitchen is open to all guests and you can stow a few perishables in the fridges. Alternatively, buy your meals from the lodge; you tick off which ones you’d like and, come breakfast, lunch or dinnertime, you’ll certainly not go hungry. Drinks can be purchased in the same manner – it’s effectively an honesty system, with you settling your tab just before you leave. Isn’t that refreshing?
At Bulungula, you can keep yourself busy in two ways. Either sign up for one of a multitude of guided activities or head off on your own mission. Our five days were a blend of relaxed (read: lazy) mornings spent watching the waves crash, with coffee and rusks in hand; long beach hikes (with daypacks filled with bananas, peanuts and a few refreshments of the hops variety); swimming in the estuary; and a brave bid to surf the enticing waves in the bay. Day hikes are mesmerising – the views of remote landscape and wild ocean really are like nowhere else in South Africa (in this case, a promise, not just a turn of phrase).
On the other hand, letting someone else plan your day for your can also be fun. While the people of Nqileni village have 40% ownership in the lodge itself, the small businesses that offer various activities to the guests are 100% community owned. You can go horse riding, canoeing or fishing, or even try your hand at wood-carving, baking, sewing and cooking traditional dishes. Or, if you’d like some pampering, two of the local women have been trained as masseuses – the knots in my shoulders really appreciated the treatment! (There’s a small cost involved for each activity you sign up for. I found it was important to ask, as all of the options and arrangement weren’t clear.)
Bulungula is a clichéd backpackers in many ways – murals on the walls, djembe drumming in the evenings and a cosmopolitan mix of accents from guests come dinnertime – but that’s an observation rather than a criticism, as it all fits in so seamlessly in this tucked-away spot and definitely doesn’t feel contrived. The ‘eco’ in the name is also authentic. Here, it means using less, impacting less, harnessing what’s naturally supplied to us and re-using – perhaps a notion we all need a little more of in our daily lives.
The Wild Coast is a region every South African should visit (well, more than just visit – explore, adventure in, fall in love with!) But arrive without your ego, without preconceived expectations and get ready to be nudged out of your comfort zone and into a different, simpler way of living.
GOOD TO KNOW
When to go
The Wild Coast is an all-year-round destination, however, it can receive a lot of rain during the middle of summer (December and January). Winter is chilly at night, but the days can be picture perfect. Autumn is probably the best time to visit.
Take the Coffee Bay turnoff from the N2, 15km south (on the East London side) of Mthatha. It’s then 50 km on tar, before taking a right turn. Another 16.5km on tar will lead you to a right turn, where about 35km of gravel road begins. From there, it’s best to follow the detailed directions on the Bulungula website. If you drive slowly, you can make the trip in an ordinary 2WD vehicle.
What to take
Pack relaxed clothing – a few T-shirts, shorts, a pair of old jeans, flip-flops, trainers and a swimming costume. No one will really care how you dress. And don’t forget some warm clothes for the evenings and early mornings. Add in a towel and a torch. Also take all medication you might need – there aren’t any shops close by. You can bring your own food and self-cater or enjoy three meals a day supplied by the lodge (prices are very reasonable).
At Bulungula you can stay in the permanent safari tents (which have double beds), the Xhosa huts (with a mix of single and/or double beds) or you can camp (in your own three-person or smaller tent, no camper vehicles permitted).
To enquire about bookings, or for detailed driving directions, get hold of Bulungula directly. Call 047 577 8900 or 083 391 5525, email [email protected] or check out their website at www.bulungula.com.
As if designed with this trip in mind, the new Peugeot 2008 is a blend of sizeable hatch-cum- SUV, with just the right amount of off-road ability. On loan from Peugeot, this spritely petrol derivative got us from Cape Town, down through the rough gravel routes of the Wild Coast, and back, with ease.
It didn’t complain once, and in fact seemed to come into its own when the tar ended. I flicked the dial on the centre console to ‘all-terrain’ and let the feisty little crossover do the rest. The 1.6L engine is economical (we averaged 7.3 L/100km over nearly 3 000km), often covering vast distances at 120 km/h on cruise control.
Our surfboards sat comfortably on the roof on a set of Thule roof racks that quickly and conveniently attached to the 2008’s steadfast roof rails. There are a selection of racks in the Thule range, so you’re sure to find the ones perfectly designed for your vehicle.
Source: AA Traveller