We said goodbye to the Garden Route in Knysna as we boarded the Baz Bus for Port Elizabeth in the late afternoon. Piloting this was the same driver who had started us off in the Cape Town-George leg. He was the efficient type and managed to keep the schedule with a friendly but insistent attitude. He only drove till the next stop at Plettenberg Bay (shorted to Plet by the locals) and got relief from another driver. He stayed on in the bus so he could do the PE to Cape Town leg the next morning.
Plet's offerings include canoeing, kloofing, abseiling, river ferries and ocean safaris. We passed on this and headed further east. Our intention was to get to the Transkei Wild Coast as our next stop. This required an overnight stay in Port Elizabeth and an early morning departure on the Baz Bus bound for Durban. While still on the bus we got a glimpse of the World's Highest Bungy Jump enroute. The driver slowed down as we crossed the bridge over Bloukrans River so everyone could get a look at the 216m drop to the water. A quartet of young men on the bus were planning to jump the next day. Their lodging was at Storms River, a good 20 minutes further down the road.
It got dark by the time we passed the Tsitsikamma Mountains and entered the Eastern Cape province. The bus arrived early at the penultimate stop at Jeffrey's Bay (which is favored by surfers) and so had to wait for the pickup to finish her dinner. We reached Port Elizabeth well in time to get a night's rest before getting on the bus again to get to the wild coast.
The driver of the Port Elizabeth-Durban Baz Bus was a South African of Indian descent and carried a box full of goodies (at his personal expense) for children in the villages along the route. They all seemed to know the bus schedule and would show up in small groups with their grandmothers for company and receive clothes and eats. He spoke their language (Xhosa) fluently and was not averse to advertising this to the occupants of the bus as he apologized for the brief charity stops. He ran out of stuff quickly, incurring outraged gestures of protest from the adolescents further on down the road, a lesson on the downside of giving gifts that become expectations.
On this leg, we crossed the interesting homeland area of Transkei, which was once an "independent" state that existed at the behest of the apartheid government in Pretoria. As we crossed the Kei river bridge, we could see a marked difference in the landscape and infrastructure. Rolling green hills dotted with picturesque rondavels could be seen as far as the eye could see. These rondavels (round houses) are the traditional homes of the Xhosa tribe. Nelson Mandela belongs to this tribe and was born here. His home is on the highway near Mthatha and the driver stopped briefly for us to take pictures. Apparently, the flag is flown full mast when he visits occasionally.
This part of the Eastern Cape province has an interesting history with 19th century clashes between the Xhosa and Boers and the British. In the 20th century, it was the wellspring of resistance heroes, Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Steve Biko, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, Chris Hani and Oliver Tambo. Xhosa culture dominates the former homelands of Ciskei and Transkei, which were used by the apartheid regime to dump undesirables.
The Wild Coast stretches 350km from East London to Port Edward. Dotted along its coast are tiny Xhosa settlements with the occasional holiday resort or backpacker hostel. The region has a rugged coast with cliffs plunging into the sea and remote coves sheltering sandy beaches. The coast has seen many shipwrecks and stranded sailors. The N2 highway from East London to Durban stays 50-100km inland. Access to the coast from the highway is through rugged unpaved roads that normally require a 4WD, even though brave souls do successfully attempt 2WD traversals. The multi-day hiking trails that lead from village to village along the coast are popular with the backpacking crowd.
A petrol service station with fast food counters outside the city of Mthatha (formerly Umtata, capital of The Transkei) serves as the transfer point for Baz Bus travelers headed for the three Wild Coast destinations of Port St. Johns, Coffee Bay and Mpande. We had called one of the lodges in Port St. Johns to arrange for pickup in the afternoon when the Baz Bus arrives at Mthatha. One of our fellow travelers had planned to hop off at Kokstad for visiting the Southern Drakensberg Mountains. However, the driver called up her lodge and informed her that no one was being sent to pick her up. Apparently she had booked a couple of weeks ago and that is too far back for anyone to remember. She had to hurriedly confer with other travelers headed for Coffee Bay and managed to book a lodge there and join them on their shuttle.
We requested the driver to call our lodge in Port St. Johns to verify our pickup and were shocked to learn that no shuttle was on its way. The Coffee Bay bound shuttle had already left with a full load. The only remaining option was to join another fellow traveler on the bus who was headed to the interesting Bulungula Lodge on the Wild Coast. Her shuttle was on its way and our driver called the lodge and found that they could accommodate us. We had researched Bulungula and were intrigued by its unique eco-friendly, community-shared profile but had dropped the idea due to reports about the 2.5 hour long bone jarring drive from Mthatha. Now that the more comfortable option had stood us up, we looked forward to what Bulungula had in store for us.
We had to wait a while for the "shuttle" to arrive. The modified pickup truck with a fully enclosed canopy had two benches on the sides with absolutely no knee room. It was packed with supplies for the lodge. Apart from the three of us from the Baz Bus, there were several local women who regularly make the trip on the shuttle as there are very few transport options for those in the area to get to the big city, Mthatha. The conditions were warm and the interior got very hot. The road was paved for part of the journey, but when we veered off onto the unpaved section, it got very bumpy. We had to occasionally stand to relieve the tension in our knees only to bump our heads on the roof in the uncomfortably hot cabin. We picked up an Englishwoman who was in the backseat of a tiny rental car that seemed to be struggling to manuever around some nasty 3D terrain. She had missed her shuttle and had hitched a ride with a French couple who had bravely ventured to get to Bulungula on their 2WD car. Their progress was understandably slow. The Indian Ocean coast played tricks on our tired nerves as we tried to guage how long we had to go. We asked one of the local women in the truck and she said "30 minutes from here". 30 minutes later, we reminded her and she said "Africa time" and everyone had a good laugh. It was another full hour from that point but we did not know it then.
We reached Bulungula near sunset after 2.5 hours on the shuttle. A pleasant young man welcomed us and showed us around the area. He could only give us the safari tent since all the standard rooms were full. This turned out to be a great option since the tent was perched on top of a small hill with views of the Indian Ocean waves washing the Wild Coast. Despite our being a "walk-in", the cook had made enough vegetarian food and could accommodate us as well.
The community of Nqileni village owns 40% of the lodge. It runs primarily on solar power but hot water for the shower is fueled by ingeniously designed contraption called the Rocket Shower. Using the shower entails first transferring a can of liquid paraffin into a small kettle and pouring it into a small receptacle that is located at the base directly over a pipe carrying rainwater to the shower head. Stuff a small wad of toilet paper over the paraffin, set it alight with the lighter provided and it roars like a rocket ready for take off. Within minutes the water in the pipe heats up and voilà, you have an eight minute hot shower. Taking a shower has never been so much fun!
The toilets are western style but of the compost type that used no plumbing, going with the eco-friendly sand bucket instead. Each toilet featured a different art decoration on the walls and visitors were invited to try out all of them during their stay!
Due to our late arrival, we did not have enough opportunity to view the beach that evening. The French couple who were driving the small rental car had made it to the lodge after some anxious moments in the darkness. We met another couple who made also made it to Bulungula the previous night on their own and it turned out that they lived pretty close to us in the San Francisco Bay Area. Dinner featured a traditional Xhosa meal made with millet, a vegetable stew and custard desert as well.
Bulungula is situated on a grassy hillock overlooking the Bulungwini estuary and a long arc of golden beach. At daybreak next morning, we were finally able to appreciate it's stunning setting. The lodge is a collection of 10 brightly painted rondavels looking out to the sea and a central lounge/dining room with kitchen, library and bar. Besides that there is nothing around but an unspoiled beach in the front and rolling hills in every other direction. We passed on the opportunity to hike along the coast or visit a local village and instead decided to spend the day just strolling on the deserted beach and relax.
Later that day we met one of the early volunteers who helped build Bulungula from ground up a few years ago and was now back on a short visit to refresh the colorful murals that cover almost every wall in the lodge. She spoke of the challenges that they had encountered in building the place due to its remote location and lack of roads. The lodge was built using only local materials and even bricks used for the rondavels were handmade in the nearby villages and carried up here. Working with the locals and getting them involved while being respectful of their customs and traditions posed other unique challenges that they had to work through. She explained that the goal was to eventually hand over the complete operation of the lodge to the local community.Our original plan was to spend a couple of days there but we learnt that their shuttle service is not synchronized with the Baz Bus and our best option was to leave the next day in order to meet our overall travel goals in South Africa. This is just the sort of visitor that Bulungula discourages - those who come there in a rush. Well, we did not feel too bad as we had landed up there through circumstances beyond our control in the first place.
Having visitors is a new experience for the people of the area and it can clearly be seen in the way the locals interact with foreigners. Their interactions are totally free of the usual sugar coating that is applied to customer interactions. They don't have a problem telling you "I am busy right now, you'll have to wait 10 minutes before I start preparing your bill". Most travelers who make it to Bulungula are not the ones to take offense. However, the locals can go for a few classes in smiling. Nothing wrong with stretching those facial muscles a little bit.
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Another nice adventure, even if the facial muscles didn't stretch a bit !
The rocket shower seems intriguing. Shower to the accompaniment of the whoosh and timing yourself to eight minutes - that's unique :)
Love the way booking 2 weeks early was considered laughable. If only the world was this uncomplicated ...... From , on Mar 29, 2013 at 02:30PM