THE WILD COAST
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
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.