Weird Happenings on the Wild Coast
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Ahhhh.....rural South Africa at its best
Perhaps it is best to rewind a bit to fill in the gaps, for both your sake and ours.
Entering SA was a landmark moment: the 46th and final border post of our road trip across the continent. Gone would be the tedious stream of paperwork. We could finally say goodbye to the dodgy insurance salesmen in their rusting shipping containers-cum-offices and the Windows 95 solitaire-addicted customs officers. There were to be no more half-arsed plastic bag searches, blatant bribery of government officials or shady currency touts with their too-good-to-be-true exchange rates. On the fun-factor scale, border crossing days had ranked somewhere between being forced to sit through a Celine Dion concert (in its entirety) and a visit to the gynaecologist. However once you have done it for the last time, there is a tinge of melancholy at the realisation your journey is rapidly approaching its conclusion. In hindsight, the nervous excitement of not knowing what to expect every time you reach a border, and the act of masking the nervousness behind your best "I-have-crossed-this-border-a-million-times-before" face, are a few of the things that make Africa.......well, Africa. Although it definitely doesn’t feel like it at the time, I challenge anyone who has visited Africa, not to have a hint of nostalgia for border crossings
We had now officially entered the Eastern Cape Province, one of the most spectacular, but poorest regions of South Africa. The bumpy road to Rhodes which hugs the Tele River, marking the Lesotho border, was long, arduous, but above all breathtakingly beautiful. As the track began to ascend and turned its back on the river we were engulfed by the radiant golden glow of the sun’s final rays of the day being channelled through the valleys; reverberating and reflecting off the jagged outcrops of Lundean’s Nek Pass. As majestic as the sunset was, the unfortunate reality was that the remainder of the drive would have to be completed in the dark, contravening Rule #1 of the road-tripping Africa handbook.
As we neared Rhodes we had three objectives*:
1. Don’t hit anything on 4 legs (or 2)
2. Find somewhere to camp
3. Locate a pub airing the Man Utd vs Chelsea game
*Disclaimer: I think you can probably guess who set the objectives and in which order they actually came in!
Gradually, subtle signs of life began
Having locked down a TV for my football-obsessed other half, it was time to find a campsite. The lovely accommodation at Walkerbouts looked to be well beyond our budget, but Penny took pity on the pair of cheapskates turning up after dark and offered us the gorgeous thatched rondavel in the back garden for less than the price of a standard room. I decided that it was only fair that if Bryan was going to have his night of football, I deserved a night enjoying the luxury of a comfy double bed. It was an easy sell. We’ll take it!
With accommodation and the football all sorted out, the thought of setting up the stove in the car park to cook dinner wasn’t too appealing; so instead, Bruce, the barman’s DIY pizza’s quickly filled the void in our stomachs
Given Bry’s persuasion for a certain team that plays in red, it is probably best not to mention the result of the Chelsea match, but let’s just say it didn’t rank among the highlights of our few days in Rhodes. Nevertheless, I think Bry would openly admit that even a Man U victory wouldn’t have contended with what Rhodes had on offer. Spectacular scenery, great trout fishing (which we missed out on), wonderful accommodation and hospitality so warm that you can enjoy a drink in the bar in your underwear without feeling the cold or looking out of place! Hats off to Dave and Susan, the owners, for creating one of those very special places where travellers and locals mix together seamlessly
Next on our travel plan was a return to the Transkei coastline; A.K.A. The Wild Coast. It was another day of colossal contrasts: a morning traverse over Naude’s Nek (the highest mountain pass in South Africa), followed by a brief lunchtime visit to Mandela’s non-descript hometown of Mthaha, rounded off by an afternoon of dodging kids (human, not goat), brutal potholes and dopey “honkeys” (Bry’s terminology for the furry half-horse, half-donkeys which are prominent throughout the Eastern Cape) on the road to Coffee Bay. The school kids would sit in the middle of the road (which has a speed limit of 80km-100km) and expect drivers to swerve around them. A polite “get off the bloody road” beep of the horn would be returned with a blasť shrug of the shoulders. Bry reckons Tufty, the road-safety awareness squirrel (Sorry to all the aussies reading this, I can’t remember the Aussie equivalent), never made his way out to the Wild Coast! Or if he did, he probably ended up squashed under the wheels of a maniac mini-bus driver, or on the menu for a traditional Xhosa braai.
Throughout our travels Coffee Bay had been recommended by practically every traveller we met, so much so that it was always going to struggle to live up to the hype
Unfortunately Coffee Bay’s beachside campsite was closed and Coffeeshack, the main backpackers in town only allowed camping in ground tents. That meant our last remaining option for roof-top camping was at the run-down Bomvu backpackers. The only other guests at the deserted hostel were another pair of 4x4 travellers in rooftop tents, stuck for a place to stay for the night. Never ones to judge a book by its cover, we found ourselves laying down judgement on Coffee Bay very quickly. A quick stroll down to the beautiful beach resulted in us being hassled on 5 separate occasions by one local dealer asking if we wanted any mushrooms
Sure enough, Coffeeshack turned out to be THE happening place to stay. Complimentary buckets of fresh local oysters, cheap beer and the absence of any demented cats were enough to lure a big crowd. We did our best to blend in as “Baz-Bus”ers and got into the spirit of things, knocking down a few pints with a couple of Belgian guys who were roadies for U2. A cynic might have pushed them further on their job credentials and possibly accused them of inventing the title to get into the knickers of backpackers. Isn’t it lucky that we aren’t that cynical?
The next morning we packed up and quickly got the hell out of Bomvu making our way through the hilly farmland dotted with well-endowed honkeys and villages of mint-green rondavels towards the Transkei’s famous Hole-in-the-wall (think Victoria’s 12 Apostles, but with holes). The impressive tunnel punched through the rock by the relentless pounding of the surf was remarkable, but the highlight of the day was the bizarre sight of a herd of cattle on the beach sun-bathing. The cow-bathers just about made up for the disappointment of Coffee Bay and made the journey worthwhile
On the return journey back towards Coffee Bay (the only 'decent’ road linking back to the main highway) we remembered that Dave, back at Walkerbouts in Rhodes, had recommended stopping by at Raptor’s View for a bite to eat. Raptor’s was a bar/restaurant/B&B run by Spud and Delene, a couple of eccentric ex-Rhodesians, from Rhodes not Rhodesia. Spud looked a little disappointed when we walked in the door, we thought it was because we had disturbed his cricket world cup viewing, but then we realised it was because Bry had removed his cap off upon entering the bar. Spud’s bar rule is if you wear the cap in, you won’t be wearing it out and it gets added to his growing collection of confiscated hats that adorned the ceiling of the bar. Bry was grateful for his mother’s constant nagging as a child to always remember to remove your hat when entering someone’s house (or any outback South African pub for that matter).
Spud joined us at the bar, demonstrating his mouth harp skills (which sounded distinctly didgeridoo-like), while Delene cooked us up some tasty vetkoek for lunch
One of our biggest regrets of the Wild Coast was missing out on its most heralded backpacker destination, Bulungula (a community-run, eco hostel), which was unfortunately fully booked – a sign that it was slightly more impressive than Bomvu! So instead we opted to plough on to Chinsta at the southern tip of the Wild Coast. Arriving at Buccaneers Backpackers was the polar opposite of our experience of Coffee Bay....this place was heaven! HUGE campsite, check. Steaming hot water in the spotlessly clean bathroom, check. Well equipped camp kitchen, check. No mental cats, check. We had just stumbled upon one of the best hostel campsites in South Africa.
We stayed at Buccaneers for a full 5 nights, enjoying the luxuries of a 5 minute walk to the beach, lounging by the swimming pool, paddling a kayak on the estuary and updating the blog. It was like a mini holiday within a holiday, and it was a great feeling to relax and take a break from life on the road. We shared the campsite with a lovely couple, Bonetta and Eddie who road-tripped a different part of Southern Africa each year. Bonetta was born to Dutch parents in Namibia but now permanently lived in Cape Town while Eddie spent 4 months of the year visiting her from his native Holland
Before we left Buccaneers, we met up with Sean, the manager who also runs of the hostel’s volunteer programs. After chatting to him, we felt that Chintsa was the ideal place to donate a few footballs and Sean was the perfect guy to distribute them. From after-school sports initiatives to teaching computer skills using their mobile computer van, Buccaneers does many things in their local community and further afield to help young people and families in this often forgotten about (by the SA government anyway) corner of South Africa. Sean showed us a video put together by Mother London, (you advertising kids will know who they are) a high profile ad agency, when they came out to Chinsta to encourage football among young boys in the area. If you would like any more information on the projects Buccaneers and Sean are involved with or want to get involved, check out their Facebook pages: Volunteer Africa 32 (VA32) and Buccaneers Backpacker’s.
Once we managed to tear ourselves away from Buccaneers, we headed back inland to the ‘sweetly’ named village of Hog’s Back, yet another town which claims to have provided J.R.R Tolkien with the inspiration for Lord of the Rings. There we found Terra-Khaya, a small out-of-the-way eco backpackers built and run by Shane, a dreadlocked hippy who had turned his back on big city life in Cape Town in 2010 in a quest to get back to nature by holistically living off the land....although he certainly wasn’t complaining about the perfect 3g internet reception available on his mobile
That afternoon, amid a spectacular electrical storm, we were joined by two other guests, Rocky and Pete, who ran a backpackers in Natures Valley on the Garden Route and were on a recon mission. The evening was spent getting acquainted over a delicious, communal veggie curry (all organic of course!) and recounting our disappointment at Coffee Bay while the last of the squall cleared the night sky giving way to a fabulous starscape.
One of the highlights of Terra Khaya was meeting Thembelani, a new recruit who was working as a horticulturalist on the organic farm, who discussed some of his brilliant business ideas with us over dinner. If we were ever looking for someone to go into business in SA, Thembelani would be the man. To counteract the highlights, one of the lowlights of our stay was waiting for us as we returned to our log cabin that night. My whole body seized up when I saw the hairy monster clinging to the salvaged Toyota Hilux window above our bed
I’ve always relied on my sister Merinda to remove spiders for me but since there was no way she was flying over from Oz, I had to be brave and help Bry do it....well watch him do it. Although he wasn’t too keen on it either, he managed to squeeze the end of a kerosene lamp shade over the spider and slip a postcard underneath. My hero. I was adamant that I didn’t want it surprising me in the middle of the night so we (Bryan) took the spider at least 20 meters away and let it go into the bush. It wasn’t until we were back inside our cabin that we realised we’d let it go right beside the other cabin, whoops sorry guys!
The next morning I managed to convince Bryan that it was time to check out of Hog’s Back and get on the road to Port Elizabeth or as the locals call it, PE. I had had enough of the lack of electricity and enormous arachnids...I know I know, why go to Africa if you can’t put up with both? Funnily enough, I generally find it easier to camp than stay in a room, because there are no nooks and crannies to conceal any devious spiders.
The drive to PE was on an easy but dull stretch of highway and after checking out the city briefly and stocking up on more footballs; we drove to the Seaview Lion sanctuary, where Bry had already played with the lion cubs back in June when he was here during the World Cup with our mates Eli and Amy
As we indicated to turn off the main road and enter Seaview, a bakkie on our tail began frantically flashing his lights at us. Bry’s advice was along the lines of “Keep driving Lani, this guy is clearly a nutter”. He then overtook us, pulled over and got out of the car to flag us down. We were in a bit of a conundrum about whether to stop for this maniac. Who was he and what the hell did he want? Since he was driving a Hilux we decided he must have been a decent type of guy but there was still a lingering sense of apprehension as we pulled over in front of him.
He slowly approached the driver’s window (in true Terminator 2 style) and asked me what we were doing and where were we staying? Ummm....A bit creepy. Christ, maybe we shouldn’t have stopped. Next thing the potential axe-murderer turns Good Samaritan. “Don’t camp up at that fucking lion park, bunch of fucking pricks! Listen, I have a place right on the water, you are more than welcome to stay. I am just off down to the beach to take my daughter for a walk, I’ll be back in a few hours. Here is the address, go visit the lions then let yourself into the house and work away at the beers in the fridge. I’ll sort out a big braai for us all tonight. Catch you later on guys. Enjoy the fucking lion park, bunch of pricks. See ya”.
Surely that had to be the Lariam at work again? Didn’t it?