The Wild Wild Coast

2011-09-16 08:09

The first thing I noticed was the large collection box on the lodge reception counter, and the accompanying poster for a fund-raiser. It was for a local guy recuperating from an accident.

“Oh...what a shame, what happened?” I enquired. “Shark attack” was the nonchalant response from the cheery receptionist before carrying on: “A bull shark took five swipes at him just off the beach last week. Now let me show you to your room.”

Welcome to the Eastern Cape, welcome to the Wild Coast, the unruly cousin of the Garden Route, the landscape version of the naughty kid at school that your mom warned you to stay clear of.

The problem, however, is the same as it always has been: you always had the most fun together, and there’s something so enticing about being a little illicit, isn’t there?

This part of South Africa has a chequered past. Set up as a Bantustan by the apartheid state and then left to rot, it garnered a reputation as an Umkhonto weSizwe stronghold and hijackers hotspot.

In response, tourists were advised to fill their cars in East London, wind up their windows, lock their doors, and drive the 542km to Durban non-stop.

A few decades and one democracy later, the refreshing result is a coastline free from sanitised hotel chains, sun loungers, walled retirement villages and strip malls. Try to imagine the complete opposite of Umhlanga Rocks, for hundreds of kilometres, and you’re nearly there.

First stop is Cintsa, a beach-side village that straddles a river outlet. A short drive from East London northbound on the N2, both Cintsa East and West are clearly signposted.

Split by a sprawling lagoon that drip feeds into the Indian Ocean, Cintsa East is where “town” is, whereas Cintsa West offers the best accommodation for independent travellers.

Buccaneers Backpackers has colonised the entire western lip of the river mouth, and sprawls along the gut-busting incline from the beach. Though a mainstay of the budget coastal route, its accommodation options are varied and comfortable: from tents to dorms to self-catering, en-suite, sea-view doubles. And this is really what makes this place special, the view.

Perched atop the escarpment, the outdoor breakfast area is a special place to enjoy orange juice and eggs. Below, the calm lagoon where river and ocean meet, is framed by the picturesque holiday village of Cintsa East on the far bank. The tempestuous Indian Ocean crashes onto the deserted beach a little further on.

During season, migrating whales can be seen breaching beyond the reef break and shark-braving surfers enjoy this area year round. The occasional buzz of a microlight can break the silence, dipping into the valley before carrying on up the coast.

Activities are numerous, varied and easily bookable at reception. Whether you have a penchant for horse riding, game park visiting, salt-water fishing, village walking, volleyball or sunbathing, all is offered here.

If long walks are your preference, an empty and windswept beach is on the doorstep, hedged from the interior by imposing sand dunes.

Cintsa East is more refined than wild. A sleepy holiday town, it is worth a visit and is just a hop, skip and jump across the river outlet away. For food, the relaxed Barefoot Café comes highly recommended.

This ubercool, laid-back, surfer-style eatery offers good pizzas, burgers and breakfasts at a reasonable price. The bar is well stocked for an evening cocktail or two and the chilled vibe is complemented by good music.

Further up the coast, slightly less accessible, but absolutely rewarded by the effort to get there, is Bulungula Lodge. As it says on the website, there is no point in just passing through Bulungula for a night; it requires a longer stay.

One reason is that it takes a little while to adjust and appreciate this special place, but also as reaching there is a journey in itself.

On the coast and 60km down a dubious gravel road, for me, this is what the Wild Coast is all about. Rolling green hills fold into each other, Xhosa hamlets dotted along the way. Dayglo-painted rondavels surround wooden kraals, interconnected by pathways beaten by barefoot children and herders.

Then, quite unexpectedly, this gentle and nourishing landscape crashes with the blue expanse of the sea. Marking the distinction between desolate, barren yet beautiful beach and the lush terrain is a barely perceptible line.

Easily explained by geologists, I’m sure, but for mere mortals the incomprehension of how this occurs adds to the allure.

Bulungula Lodge is a fair-trade, eco-friendly, carbon-neutral, voluntourism, community-based, sandal-wearing, crystal-collecting, ethical, phone-off, feet-up sort of place. The toilets are of the non-flushing compost-producing variety, and the showers either solar or paraffin heated. All
run-off, soapy water and all, is sucked up and filtered by the banana and papaya grove planted behind the ablution block.

As it is part owned and predominantly run by the nearby Nqileni village, there is an amazing and quite unique sense of comfort and belonging here. In many tourist destinations around the world, locals can vary from annoying hawkers to confused observers via predatory beggars and benign passers-by.

Here, they are completely integrated and very much at ease, where mamas mill about the communal areas, children play football in between rooms and men sit around the campfire nattering among themselves instead of selling bad carvings.

As well as providing a good source of communal income and a remarkably relaxed atmosphere, local ownership has brought a vested interest in keeping the area safe and free of crime. Rooms, remarkably for South Africa, are lock free and the bar runs on an “honesty basis” where you help yourself to what you want and mark it down on your bill.

The setting is predictably breathtaking, similar to Cintsa but more remote. Situated inconspicuously behind the beach dunes and next to a river outlet, the lodge is picturesque and unassuming.

There are the usual activities available, and a multitude of guides ready to chaperone. But Bulungula is best for simply switching off and winding down.

For the adventurous and hungry, a locally owned and run cafe is a 30-minute stroll away. The Ilanca Fire Restaurant has premium views from its perch atop Transkei hills of forest, valleys and, of course, the Indian Ocean.

Unfortunately, however, it only has a small window carved into it’s round walls; its unique selling point isn’t the vista but that it exists at all.

If you catch it during its odd opening times, a small selection of local ingredient savoury pancakes are on offer – just don’t expect to sit at a table.

Next time you’re considering a road trip, why not take advantage of the emptiness of the Wild Coast? Long gone are the days of driving straight through to the resorts on either side.

Instead, meander along undulating gravel paths, chat to locals, stay in unlocked chalets and eat at cafés with the best views but no windows.

Just make sure you steer clear of any marauding bull sharks.

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