ON­DELA MLANDU planned a feel-good, do-good jour­ney along the Wild Coast from East Lon­don to see how Fair Trade es­tab­lish­ments in the ru­ral East­ern Cape are do­ing

Getaway (South Africa) - - NEWS -

On­dela Mlandu stays and plays at places that ben­e­fit lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties

As a child, I would al­ways shut my eyes tightly as we drove on the wind­ing N2 to my grand­mother’s homestead in Nqa­makwe, in the Amath­ole Dis­trict of the East­ern Cape. Ac­cord­ing to my mother, the first time I set eyes on the steep road ap­proach­ing But­ter­worth, I be­gan to cry in fear that we would never make it back home. That was 20 years ago. Now I found my­self be­hind the wheel on the same road, head­ing to the Wild Coast at sun­rise, to find out more about Fair Trade South Africa’s links with tourism busi­nesses in the area.

In awe that I had just driven through Qunu, the ru­ral vil­lage where Man­dela grew up, I passed the vil­lages of KwaJali, Man­cam and Ngcwan­guba, while us­ing the ocean as a guide to my des­ti­na­tion. The drive seemed nev­erend­ing (and the pot­holes slowed me down) but the weather was pleas­ant, there were few cars on the road and the scenery made up for it – turquoise ron­dav­els dot­ting green hills as far as I could see. In the past 12 months, many of these vil­lages were given ac­cess to fresh wa­ter and elec­tric­ity for the first time.

Most peo­ple who come to the Wild Coast pick a spot and stay there, not least be­cause ac­cess to places is tricky, and it’s easy to get lost once you’re off the N2 and some road con­di­tions are bad. But I had come to jour­ney through the Xhosa heart­land and re­con­nect with a sim­pler way of life, and I knew my visit would be wel­comed by the com­mu­ni­ties.

Grow­ing crops and herd­ing stock is the main liveli­hood here, but sev­eral tourism­based busi­nesses have had a pos­i­tive im­pact on the vil­lages and al­lowed lo­cals to pros­per. Many peo­ple here have only a ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion, but work­ing hand-in-hand with lodges and backpackers has in­stilled a sense of pride and in­de­pen­dence.

My first des­ti­na­tion, Bu­lun­gula Lodge, set up by Dave Martin in 2004 is now 100 per cent owned and man­aged by the Nqileni com­mu­nity. The lodge, com­pris­ing Xhosa huts dot­ted on a hill­side above the Xhora River mouth, melds seam­lessly with the ad­ja­cent vil­lage, and there are no fences or locked doors. It felt safe, and that I was part of the com­mu­nity. I spent much of my time drift­ing around the vil­lage, chat­ting to peo­ple, get­ting a sense of what life is like, and vis­ited ‘ma­mas’ of the com­mu­nity who run the Women Power Project – guests can help by work­ing in the maize field, mak­ing mud bricks and walk­ing

to the river to fetch wa­ter. I also met Mkhuseli Mdibanto who takes guests fish­ing along the coast just the way his fa­ther taught him.

Af­ter this ru­ral par­adise, I headed for the fa­mous trav­eller hub, Cof­fee Bay. In ad­di­tion to the twisty-turny roads over hills, cat­tle and goats roam freely in these parts – and they’re stub­born about mak­ing way for ve­hi­cles. In the Mqan­duli area, I came across a herd strut­ting about on the road like Vic­to­ria’s Se­cret mod­els, forc­ing me to slam on brakes. I hooted. They re­fused to budge. Even­tu­ally I was res­cued by a bakkie fly­ing past, hoot­ing and barely slow­ing down as the an­i­mals scat­tered.

Cof­fee Bay’s Cof­fee Shack was set up by David Mal­herbe, who spent years trav­el­ling the world and surf­ing. (Not sur­pris­ingly, surf­ing is a big deal here, and a good place to learn.) The com­mu­nity has a 30 per cent share in this back­pack­ing busi­ness and many lo­cals are em­ployed; man­ager No­mandla Gx­akatha has been there for 16 years. She told me that staff are en­cour­aged to travel and to ex­pe­ri­ence life out­side the vil­lage.

‘Three years ago I was given tick­ets to go to Zim­babwe, Malawi and Zam­bia for a month. I didn’t use a cent from my pocket. While I was trav­el­ling, Cof­fee Shack was look­ing af­ter my fam­ily at home.’

Cof­fee Bay is the clos­est you’ll get to a town in these parts. It also of­fers the eas­i­est ac­cess to the land­mark that brings many peo­ple to this part of the coast: the iconic rock for­ma­tion, Hole in the Wall.

I joined a group of trav­ellers from Canada, Eng­land and Tai­wan for the three-hour hike there. The first leg was daunt­ing with steep hills. Cat­tle and goats munched on the grass at the edge of cliffs over­look­ing the In­dian Ocean. All along the trail were the most in­cred­i­ble views. As I sat on a rock at one, try­ing to catch my breath, a mama from the vil­lage, who ob­vi­ously walked this route daily, over­took me. When I even­tu­ally ar­rived at Hole in the Wall, I was re­warded with a cheese-and-tomato toastie, made on an open fire by our guide.

Soon, it was time for me to head out again, to a pair of lodges on ei­ther side of the Mdumbi River in the north­east. Once again, this en­tailed head­ing in­land and then turn­ing back to the sea.

‘Af­ter the po­lice sta­tion, you take the first left on the Mdumbi gravel road,’ a lo­cal ad­vised. In this part of the world, GPS is not your friend – it’s best to get di­rec­tions from lo­cals. The hills were beau­ti­ful and rugged, with the odd road­side spaza shop. I knew I was close when I could smell the sea again.

From Mdumbi Backpackers it’s a short walk to the beach, which is a surfer’s haven. I met a group of avid Aussies who’d come to ride the waves in this re­mote cor­ner. Tshani vil­lage is close by. The com­mu­nity owns 50 per cent of the back­pack­ing busi­ness and ac­tiv­i­ties are run by lo­cals – in­clud­ing surf­ing lessons by Machi Ge­be­gana. I popped in at the Mdumbi Ed­u­ca­tion Cen­tre, where vis­i­tors are wel­come to read to or play with the chil­dren.

‘The hills were beau­ti­ful and rugged, with the odd road­side spaza shop’

Guests can also get their hands dirty work­ing in the vil­lage gar­dens. I re­ally en­joyed the meals at Mdumbi Restau­rant – guests share a long com­mu­nal ta­ble, which cre­ates a won­der­ful at­mos­phere for con­ver­sa­tions with peo­ple from all around the world.

Although Swell Eco Lodge is just across the river from Mdumbi Backpackers, it takes an hour or more to get there by road. As I’d learnt by now, pa­tience is key due to ubiq­ui­tous cows on the road and pot­holes. The lodge, up on a hill­side, was dif­fer­ent to the other places I’d stayed at – it’s more mod­ern and up­mar­ket, in a fenced yard with a se­cu­rity gate. My sea-fac­ing ron­davel was tra­di­tional on the out­side but had chan­de­liers, art­work and an en-suite shower. Own­ers Justin and Leigh-Ann Saun­ders have been here for eight years. When they orig­i­nally wanted land for their busi­ness, they had to ne­go­ti­ate with the chief and his head­man. Once ap­proved, the Saun­ders fam­ily was wel­comed into the com­mu­nity with a cel­e­bra­tion. The lo­cal com­mu­nity doesn’t have a share in Swell Eco Lodge but it does own the land, and the lodge own­ers fo­cus on com­mu­nity up­lift­ment. Ev­ery quar­ter, they meet up with the vil­lage com­mit­tee to see how they can as­sist them. This is, I re­alised, such an im­por­tant part of life on the Wild Coast – hos­pi­tal­ity, ubuntu and a sense of com­mu­nity is key. When you’re so far away from the rest of the world, it’s vi­tal to help and sup­port each other.

On my fi­nal morn­ing I slept in a lit­tle. I was in no hurry to re­turn to the city. Af­ter go­ing back to ba­sics for a few days, I knew what it meant to live sim­ply, and it felt good. Know­ing that pay­ing to have that priv­i­lege im­proves other peo­ple’s lives felt even bet­ter.

Beers in hand, we watched the sun go down from this Cof­fee Bay view­point over­look­ing the In­dian Ocean.

FAR LEFT The rock for­ma­tions around Hole in the Wall epit­o­mise the power of Mother Na­ture to form ge­o­log­i­cal mas­ter­pieces.

LEFT Re­gard­less of where you hike in Cof­fee Bay, the views will amaze you.

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