The Wild Coast

Day 684 – 13 January, 2017

Sour unfiltered yeasty beer in a communal mug. No electricity. No plumbing. Face paint. Full belly. Chanting and dancing in a loud and rhythmic trance. This is the Wild Coast.

From Hogsback, I took another lengthy drive back to Cintsa to await my Baz Bus transfer to Mthatha. And from Mthatha, there would be another shuttle to take us to Coffee Bay. My day would begin just after breakfast and I wouldn’t arrive in Coffee Bay until dark, but I was well used to this kind of commute by now. The Coffee Shack shuttle van was packed full with earthy backpackers and surf boards and well-worn rucksacks. There were few novice travelers headed in this direction and everyone had a wanderlusting sense of adventure.

Coffee Shack Backpacker Hostel had quite a bit of notoriety throughout the Baz Bus route and was definitely considered THE place to stay in Coffee Bay. When our van finally finished bouncing along gravel roads with deep ruts filled with water, we were accosted (for lack of a better term) by the staff asking if we wanted to attend a village dinner and if so, we must be ready to leave immediately with head torches because we would need them for the walk back. We were directed to leave all of our belongings, valuables and all, in the common area and we could check in when we got back. So this is another one of those places where nothing ever gets stolen, I guess?

A group of about 30 backpackers walked the distance of a mile or so through the village, skipping over deep puddles and cow dung, followed by a few mangy dogs. When we arrived at our host’s rondavel, a gaggle of children ran to meet us at the road. A rondavel is a round type of house with a conical roof, abundant on the Wild Coast, and often made of mud, grass, and cow dung. It’s made in a circular formation because no internal struts are required and doesn’t require the precision of rectangular building blocks. Our adult hosts, all women, were gathered in the back and working over an open fire to prepare the dinner of pap (maize porridge) and stewed vegetables.

Seated on woven mats, the women gave us a short presentation about Xhosa culture and passed around a homemade frothy sour brew, which I will only say must be an acquired taste. The entire lot of us shared out of two communal mugs, followed by ritual face painting as it is a designation of social status. Once we were properly adorned and imbibed, our newly formed clan was led inside the rondavel for another seat on the floor. I’ve been to a few of these local dinners, but they always seem touristy and put on. Not this one. Because there are no large tourist groups that ever end up in Coffee Bay, this village dinner felt very authentic and a genuine exchange of ideas. We were given a rather small portion of food and I’m sure the women deemed us gluttonous when they offered more and almost everyone went back for seconds.

The men arrived at the end of the meal and that’s when the real party began. Plates cleared away, the Xhosa women played traditional instruments and danced and recited chants that enticed all of us to join in. I knew no one when I joined the group that evening, but by the time we donned our head torches and marched back toward the hostel in the inky black night, I had a whole new group of friends for the rest of my stay.

The next day I wanted to join a group trek to the Hole in the Wall, a natural rock formation with an arch-like opening eroded through one part of it. Just to name a few, I was joined by Judith and Doreen from Germany, and Nicola and Lucia from Australia for this stunning hike. It was relatively easy, walking over grassy hills on the coast with only a population of cows to watch our progress. The final stretch took us along a lonely expanse of beach. A few villagers were gathering mussels in the shallow water.  
Many of us were prepared for a swim at the Hole in the Wall, but it had just started to rain and the water was downright freezing. Instead, we ate cheese sandwiches while listening to the violent torrent of water passing through the archway. Completely deadpan, Doreen says, “It’s funny that we came trekking all this way just to see a hole in the wall.” No doubt this elicited a hysterical bout of laughter.

That evening we gathered to listen to traditional Xhosa performances by local children while plates of steaming hot mussels were on offer for anyone with an appetite. An ice-cold Carling Black Label had my name all over it.

It was a tough decision to leave Coffee Bay when I did. Many of my friends were sticking around for another day and I really wanted to go horseback riding on the beach, yet I was starting to run short of time and I also wanted to visit another coastal village that was even more remote than Coffee Bay. Bulungula hosts an eco-resort and it is deep off the beaten path. I felt the pull to investigate this little known place.

The shuttle van from Coffee Shack dropped me off at a convenience store about halfway back to Mthatha with the promise that someone from Bulungula would collect me shortly. I asked the driver of the van if he knew when they were coming only to learn that he hadn’t actually spoken to anyone there and had no idea. When he drove away, leaving me with my backpack in this desolate area, I had little confidence in my situation. I dragged my stuff inside the store so that I could wait in the shade and every face turned my direction to stare. What is this white girl doing here?? There were bars shielding the clerk and all of the wares from the patrons so I just stood in the corner and waited. And waited. And waited. A few people tried to make small talk, but English was not the first language in this region so we just smiled at each other and they finally began to ignore me.

By the time my ride finally arrived driving a beat up old sedan, I was more than ready to be on the move. He shuffled over and with barely a greeting he loaded my backpack into the trunk, motioned me to get inside, and then proceeded to go back inside the convenience store for another 20 minutes. He came out with a sack of rice, a canister of gasoline, a Fanta, and two female hitchhikers that were heading our way. We had approximately 40 km to drive, but it would take us almost two hours to navigate the poorly maintained dirt roads, never mind that four-wheel drive was considered optional.

Bulungula was almost as isolated as you can get, but in the most pristine sweep of coastline you could hope to find anywhere. A light rain fell when I was shown to my empty rondavel dorm and the rain brought a chill in the air that made me reach for my jacket. There were 10 beds in my room, yet all of them were unoccupied. A single lightbulb barely illuminated anything beyond where it hung. The bathrooms were complete with composting toilets and rocket showers that were heated by igniting a wad of toilet paper soaked in paraffin. The common area was stocked with reading material and games and hot water for coffee.  

It’s funny because when I left Coffee Bay, I thought this was exactly what I wanted. Maybe it would have been if the rain didn’t continue for an entire day. I walked down to the beach, but it was cold and windy. I walked down the road toward town, but my shoes sunk into the mud so deep I was afraid I might lose them. I sat in the common room and read my book. I took a nap. I asked about horseback riding, but it was cancelled. There’s no way around it – I was bored.  

I decided to request a massage and scheduled it for 5:00pm. At 5:00 on the dot, I was patiently waiting by the reception desk for my massage therapist to call for me. A large woman with a colorful dress, gaudy makeup, and leg warmers sat across from me. We chatted a little, but mostly sat in silence. By 5:30, I asked the receptionist if she knew when my massage was going to happen. She said something to the large woman, who then stood up and motioned for me to follow her. I had to laugh at the constant miscommunication that is always present in travel. Even though we started late and even though the setting was most unusual for a massage, it was a pleasant way to kill an hour.

Of course, the next day I woke up to see the sun and in turn, appreciated Bulungula under a whole new light. It was quite a lovely set of lodges. Over breakfast, I met a few new arrivals that had been here before. They returned because of the quiet and the friendly staff and how the pace of life here lets you catch your breath. I took one last walk next to the lagoon emptying into the ocean before I was whisked away back to civilization. The boredom was probably good for me.

My driver carted me back to Mthatha so I could rejoin the Baz Bus going all the way to Durban, South Africa’s third largest city. I didn’t know much about Durban and was only planning to spend one day, but I needed to accomplish a few admin-type things while I was there. After Durban, I would only have 12 hours in Johannesburg overnight during the next 4 weeks and otherwise would be completely off the grid. It was also the first time I had solid internet since Cape Town so I spent time booking onward travel and paying some bills.

As far as errands, I needed to restock some cosmetic items, the most difficult of which being saline solution. Not that anyone wants to read about the trials and tribulations of acquiring eye care, but nothing is ever easy in a foreign land. Starting my day with breakfast, I asked the restaurant manager if she knew where I could procure said saline product. I even produced my bottle to show her what I needed. She told me where I could find it, but insisted it was too dangerous for me to go to the neighborhood by myself so she offered to send an employee from the restaurant to get it for me. I gave him my bottle and some money and off he went. An hour later he returned, looking dejected. He went to three places and couldn’t find it.

I went back to my hostel and asked the receptionist. She had never heard of saline solution and studied my bottle for quite some time, asked a couple of other employees, and they all told me they had no idea. Finally, the owner returned and said I could get it at Clicks. I had never heard of Clicks. Could she tell me how to get there? Of course, it was too dangerous for me to go alone so she asked one of her employees to go with me. We had to take a shared minivan, the kind where a young man hangs out the open door hollering his destination and people wave to indicate they want him to stop. The minivan dropped us off in a heavily populated business district where we went into Clicks, not unlike a Walgreens or any old chemist. Yes, this is exactly what I needed. I told my chaperone that I would be fine; she could go. However, she insisted on staying with me until I finished my shopping and then she escorted me back to “safety.”  It seemed a bit much, but I was well stocked with saline, floss, shampoo, and cotton swabs which meant I was just asking for trouble.

In the afternoon, I went to the only place deemed “safe” enough for a single white female, the city aquarium. *sigh* Staring at those sea creatures enclosed in glass, I was beginning to feel like I could relate to their captivity.  And thus, I was anxious to get back to the rural way of life.

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