In September 2015, my flatmate/friend Gen and I packed our less-than-20kg-Kulula-regulation bags and set off on a road trip adventure that started in Durban and ultimately lead us to Madwaleni rural hospital. My sister Danielle has been doing her com-serve year there as a qualified Speech Therapist and apart from the obvious reasons of wanting to visit your immediate family, Gen and I longed to see and experience the rural lifestyle she and other friends of ours have had for the past couple of years. The Wild Coast was also generally unchartered territory and since an overseas trip wasn’t on the cards for 2015, a fun local adventure was the obvious alternative.
We flew to Durban, barely surviving the constant chatter of a 38-year-old woman who overused the word ‘chillax’. Our VW Polo got upgraded (allegedly) to a Honda Brio Amaze – no really, it said so on the car – and we set off that Friday to Mantis & Moon Backpackers in Umzumbe/Port Shepstone. We stopped for lunch in Umhlanga to see my friends Megan and Jason on the way.
Missing turn-offs and heading past our destinations started early, but that’s all part of the adventure, right? Google Maps is only 87% effective … But we got there. Mantis & Moon proved to be a sweet backpackers – lush and eclectic and weird and wonderful. Cabins as tree houses and dressed mannequins scattered around the bar. Sculptures and a small slide to slip into the pool. A yoga studio. Dogs. (Every backpackers has dogs.)
I’d been swayed to book the ‘Paris’ cabin – a room with glass walls and thick curtains. We ate at the bar, watched the Rugby World Cup opening ceremony, and had deep chats with an interesting guy and his seemingly sad Dachund named Sophie. Gen went to bed while I gave into the lure of the hot tub, making friends with an American and two German girls in the rainy dark. Ultimately, Paris was great. It just needs a new mattress.
Day 2 started with a tea time visit to my aunt and cousin plus husband in Margate, followed by a much-anticipated visit to Waffle House nearby. Banana, chocolate sauce and ice-cream is totally permissible as lunch when you’re on holiday. The road was long, with many a winding turn. At least we knew where it was leading us: Port St Johns. The weather was poor – wet, grey, miserable – and made for several scary moments when visibility didn’t extend much further than ten metres. By now we were approaching Eastern Cape style driving: reckless, impatient, dangerous, and at times just completely crazy. Thank God for His protection. Dodging potholes and livestock is challenge enough! That and finding a respectable toilet in any of the ‘towns’. Plus there seems to be no end to the roadworks.
Gen took over the driving on the last stretch – a beautiful meander towards the coast. We arrived at Amapondo close to 5pm, claimed our spot in the 12-sleeper (poorly ventilated but very cheap!) dorm room, and went for a quiet walk on the shark-infested beach – a fact we learnt only after we’d been there! Good thing sharks generally stay in the water We avoided the chatty guy in the green afro-wig, wolfed down some burgers and watched Japan thrash SA in our first RWC match. The journey had been taxing, so in the spirit of true backpackers (not), we went to bed around 8:30pm. It was glorious.
We followed Amapondo’s Hennie in our own car up to the famous Port St Johns airstrip the following morning. Here we encountered what can only be described as something out of a zombie apocalypse movie: a pack of dogs appeared in the road by a lone stone building and proceeded to chase down our car and literally throw themselves in front and against the vehicle! Every time I accelerated, some would disappear in front and I felt forced to brake. We were getting nowhere. Gen still laughs at me for shouting ‘I don’t want to kill a dog!’. By now we were on the actual airstrip, waiting for them to lose interest. I picked my moment, channelled my inner Vin Diesel, and left those rug rats growing smaller in my rearview mirror. Victorious escape. I did, after all, learn something from The Fast & the Furious…
We moaned at Hennie for having left us behind, but also laughed about it and just enjoyed the fantastic and windy view from up there. The dogs weren’t an issue on the way back. In fact, we stopped to say hello.
Our next destination was an off-the-beaten-track self-catering cottage further down the coast. The gravel road seemed to stretch endlessly ahead, but the promise of a little haven all to ourselves was decent motivation. Hluleka is a gem of a place. You can sleep four people in a cottage for just R424 a night! And they have DSTV. Checking in proved interesting as there seemed to be a language barrier and it felt like there were awkward silences as he stood there looking at me and I politely asked for the key. Again.
The wonderfully sunny weather had been replaced by cool winds and clouds, but we still enjoyed a homemade salad on the balcony and an early-evening stroll on our private beach. This was paradise. A part of me was sad that we were only staying one night. I even showered twice because the bathroom was so fancy. And I could finally just sit in bed and read. The 2am lightning was rather spectacular from my curtainless bedroom too!
We were delighted to be greeted by the local zebras upon exiting Hluleka. My sister strongly advised us to take the longer inland route through Mthatha to get back down to Coffee Bay because with the shortcut, and I quote, ‘there is a 100% chance you’ll get lost’. Those sounded like awfully high odds so we opted for the safer path. Mthatha is one of my least favourite places in South Africa (I will never complain about Wynberg main road on a Saturday morning again!) and we managed to get through fairly quickly and with deliciously fresh Spar vetkoek and mince which we only stopped to eat kilometres out of the town. The tar road to Coffee Bay is spectacularly scenic but peppered with monstrous potholes. If dodging potholes were an Olympic sport, I’d be a gold medalist by now.
We eventually found Coffee Shack Backpackers and the delightful Eunice showed us around and to our rondavel dorm – each bunk-bed fitted with its own lamp and plug point. Genius! The bathrooms showcase pretty mosaics, rock basins and there is even a hairdryer station! It’s attention to detail that makes you appreciate a place like this.
Gen and I took a walk around the pebbled beach to emerge on the other side – Coffee Bay. Suddenly I saw what the hype is about. The beach is beautiful. A woman named India and her entourage followed us and tried their best to make us buy their beaded handwork.
We headed out back there again for the ‘sunset’, but mostly just sat on the hill, chatted to the Germans (who seemed to be following us down the coast), and enjoyed the feeling of the grass under our feet.
Supper was a hearty plate of salad, Xhosa bread, roast chicken, mash and vegetables. All for R60. The setup of a long tables created a wonderful atmosphere of community and it wasn’t long before we were swopping stories with the Germans and Israelis while it rained and thundered around us. I took some time to write down touristy things for them to do once in Cape Town – a whole page full! – and the other foreigners took pictures of it with their phones for future use. It made me proud and grateful to live in the lovely Mother City.