It took most of the next day to get to my destination of Bulungula on the Wild Coast. Happily I wasn’t alone either – Jake was planning on spending a few night’s at the same community-ran, 100% solar powered traditional hostel as well.
Our Baz Bus driver that day proved to be an absolutel legend. As we entered the province of the “Transkei” (a formerly independent part of South Africa that white people mostly fled after apartheid ended, populated predominantly by the Xhosa people, and birthplace of Nelson Mandela), he gave us lots of historical background and information on the region. He said that here we would see the real South Africa. A land mainly untouched by commercial development, it’s community based farmland with people living under a tribal system. For instance, village elders make the community decisions for the (hopefully) benefit of all. People live in traditional round-houses, many with equipped with a government subsidized solar panels for power. The land is very green and there are beautiful rolling green hills that give way to a very rugged and stunning coastline.
On our long drive through the Transkei, Johnny, our driver, created a lovely social atmosphere and insisted that we stop at a local market and get some alcohol to have a little party as we drove. As I got out of the truck, I immediately noticed the absence of any other white face and felt like I was back in the ‘Africa’ that had preceded this country on my trip.
Feeling very merry, we happily took snaps when we arrived at Nelson Mandela’s birthplace and also the compound where he passed away – interestingly, it is an exact replica of the house he lived in after being released from Robben Island when he was imprisoned solely on house arrest.
Arriving at the Baz Bus stop of Mthata, my driver from Bulungula guest lodge was there ready to take Jake and I down the very bumpy, unpaved road for the two hours it would take to our destination. On arrival, I was glad I had Jake with me as the lodge was pretty empty save a lovely family from Finland who we dined with – having an incredible local Xhosa dish of minced beef with maize and vegetables. We were the only two in our dorm which consisted of a traditional rondela and basic furnishings. Though started by a Mizungu from Germany, this lodge has over the years been passed over to the local community to run for profit, and provides jobs to over 26 locals.
The location was pretty stunning and I told the staff of my plan to walk, by myself to Wild Lubanzi, and then on to Coffee Bay. Despite their protestations that it was “too far” or “very difficult” and “maybe you should take a guide” …I decided that it would be an adventure and I was up for it.
How hard could it be to hike up and down along a coastline till you found the next town?
Well, as it turned out…it was VERY hard! The path ended up not being very clearly marked and I kept having to guess whether I should walk along the beach or rocks (not also really knowing about tides) or whether I needed to go up and walk along the top of the hills before descending to the next valley. Overall, the trial and error approach took a lot of time and was utterly exhausting – even though I was carrying a very pared down version of my luggage (the hostel was kindly transporting the rest of my bags to Coffee Bay to meet me there in 2 days).
Setting off from Bulungula
I was coming to the end of the first day’s trail and the map indicated that Wild Lubanzi, my hostel, should be easily approached via the west side of a lake and easily up on a hill directly in front of it. This turned out to be a lot more complicated than I had anticipated as there was no clear path after the lake. There were some sand dunes that I attempted to climb in 3 separate locations, each time coming to the edge of a forest that was so thick as to be impenetrable via walking.
Growing frustrated and very tired/hungry – I tried to go around the lake to see if there might be any sign of a trail behind it. There was a vague looking one which I started then to climb. I heard the sound of wood being chopped and I was overjoyed at the prospect of seeing another human being who might be able to direct me. Sure enough, the man smiled and gesticulated that I keep going up and up and then turn right when I hit the road.
It was a right at the road, but then also a left, another hill, and then another right. When I finally arrived at the hostel, I didn’t even have the strength to go in the front entrance and made my way in through the kitchen and made my presence known. The staff were welcoming in a way, though they immediately launched into a diatribe about how impossible it is to get lost, and how on earth I could have had difficulty navigating my way from the lake. This really pissed me off, but once I’d had a “rocket shower” (shower powered with liquid paraffin) and had a large beer in my hand, I was much happier.
Even better, I was reunited with Ashley who had driven up from Coffee Bay for the night and she was joined by a nice young Dutch guy who’d hiked in from Coffee Bay that morning. His tales of how arduous the trail was did not exacty fill me with positive feelings for my next day’s sojourn, but I was adamant to give it a go.
Unfortunately, my cough had also worsened and I was hacking like a smoking witch. In the morning, I even considered ditching my plan and driving to Coffee Bay, or even heading up to my next destination in the Drakensburg a day early and take some time to recover. But not being one to give up – ever – I decided to push on.
Inquiring about the trail itself, I was warned that low tide wasn’t until 4pm and that it would make the river virtually impassable earlier in the day. I would be forced to walk a ways up river till I find a place shallow enough to cross, and that could add another few miles to my journey that day.
As it turned out – I had quite a funny time crossing that damn river. I got to the water’s edge right by the famous “hole in the wall” rock formation that was really stunning to view. The waves were rolling in and it looked very deep indeed. However, there were some locals working on the beach on the other side of the river crossing who waved to me and pointed at a spot that seemed to indicate was the best place for me to try and cross.
Already tired and really not wanting to add more mileage to my day, I decided that I’d give it a go anyways…it couldn’t hurt getting a little wet, right?
Well. I got a lot wet. As I approached the middle of the 50 meter or so wide river…waves starting hiting me almost at neck level and I felt with dismay, my backpack getting heavier as it took on water together with its contents! My boots strung around my neck were also victim to the deep sea water that at some points lifted me entirely off my feet forcing me to swim. After what seemed like an eternity, I could feel the sand get closer to my feet and I struggled out of the river on the other side. The men were all laughing at me as I sat on the rocks and assessed the damage to my bag’s contents.
Luckily, the camera was fine as I’d stashed it in a plastic ziploc (thank god, I’d already destroyed one camera on this trip with water damage) and about one t-shirt was still slightly dry…everything else had to be wrung out and my boots simply squelched with salt water for the rest of the 16km hike.
I was, however, very fortunate with the weather and the shining sun helped to keep me warm despite my sopping clothes and bag. TWELVE times I counted having to ascend 4-800 vertical feet to navigate around a headland where the beach/coastline was impassable. Each hill I came to, I thought, Coffee Bay has GOT to be around the next corner…and each time my heart sunk.
When I finally arrived, hacking away, I was truly bedraggled and exhausted – but elated. I felt such a sense of accomplishment, especially since all the black people I ran into expressed shock that I was walking so far, and all the white people I ran into expressed shock that I was walking so far, and by myself. “You really should be careful, you know?” – they would say…and I would think “well, short of deciding NOT to hike this trail alone – how else do you expect me to be careful?”
I really hadn’t felt in the least bit threatened by any of the locals I came across – most of them smiled and waved or looked at me, aghast at my crazy decision to walk so far, alone. The greatest danger I found myself in was most definitely in the form of the six or so dogs that decided I was an intruder on their owner’s land and proceeded to run after me gnarling fiercely to the point where my heart almost stopped. None of them bit, thank god, and I made it to Coffee Bay in one piece…mostly.
I immediately enquired as to whether I might be able to procure a massage for my aching body – and was told to go ask after Carl at the other backpackers in town – Bomvu. I walked across the road to Bomvu and what I found in no way resembled a hostel. It was more like a movie set of the next slasher movie “Hostel Part 3 – South African Bloodbath”. Half of the place had clearly been in a fire, the place was deserted and there was no sign of Carl or a massage therapy office (which I’d been told was separate to the hostel) It had major creepy factor. I felt sorry for any hapless tourist who’d been allowed to make a reservation here and turned up to this. Giving up, I came back to Coffee Shack for dinner and ran into Carl who was dining there. Happy to give me a massage at 10am the next day, I was thrilled until he told me I should meet him at Bomvu.
Yeah. Like hell I would!!
No, thanks. I’d like to live to see another day.