countin' the days

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Wild Wild Coast (Gone Wild p.II)

As of yesterday, and thanks to the generosity of our new Mainer buddy Greg, our 2+ week extravaganza on the Wild Coast concluded. For now we're chilling in Jeffrey's Bay, one of the world's great surf capitals, and though it's a bit odd to be in such a developed area, we're enjoying the abundance of fresh produce, fresh waves, and bright sunshine. But the last couple weeks were some of the best ever, so here's a rundown of how our wild fortnight in the Transkei went down:

We headed from Durban to Port St John's expecting to spend just a couple stop-over
nights there. Instead, we spent over a week. From the first instant I arrived, I was hooked. People were friendly, chilled out, and after nothing but a smile; the landscape was beautiful and dramatic, a river mouth (originating in Lesotho) emptying into the Indian Ocean, surrounded by tropical jungle and steep cliffs; and most importantly, it felt like Africa again. We fell instantly in love with the backpacker's, Amapondo : perched
on a lush hillside steps away from Second Beach (the best swimming beach), with a big vegetable & herb garden fresh for the (free) picking, good campsites with a great view, and fantastic characters all around. In the first few days, we got covered in mud at the sulfur springs, hiked to Third Beach, boogie boarded endlessly, made friends with many a local, and visited the community center started by the Amapondo Children's Project. The rest of the week was decidedly more relaxed, as we took it nice & easy and enjoyed the multiple meanings of PSJ's catch phrase: More Fire!!

And oh yes... the drumming! There are drums all over the Wild Coast, and people playing them all day. Our first night at Amapondo we went up to a local shebeen (illegal bar) for sundowners, and as local dredlocked drum-maker Bali pulled his homemade creations out of his 1974 bright blue Peugeot station wagon, a crew of local kids banged out some rather phenomenal rhythms. Bali teaches a drum class to these kids twice a week at Amapondo's community center, and I went and observed one such session. Aside from providing tutoring, the Project tries to give these kids a creative outlet as well. I heart Amapondo!

Somehow, we made it out of Port St. John's. Our next stop was Bulungula Lodge, a place I'd been hearing endless good reviews about from every other traveler. My expectations were high, but were easy surpassed. This place is pretty amazing. Bulungula was started by a South African dude named Dave, who after studying social activism for a while decided to put it into play. The Xhosa people own 40% of the lodge in a community trust, and the lodge is completley part of their village. They make up the whole staff, help make decisions concerning all aspects of the lodge, and dozens of them hang out in and around the lodge all day. Part of Dave's plan is to empower the Xhosa, who have been more or less trampled on by South Africa for centuries, and teach them various ways to rise up and out of the extreme poverty most of them are trapped in. I heart Bulungula!

My first glimpse of it, along the rocky dirt "road" carrying us along the home stretch of a 3-hour drive, was from the top of a perch looking down at the green hills, blue waters, wide river, turquoise Xhosa huts, and the sparkling little peninsula on which it sits. It is a completely rural location, and that is part of it's overwhelming charm. Guest accomodation is in traditional Xhosa mud huts, each one decorated a little differently. We, of course, were camping, and scored the best location yet: a little nook under some mangroves, on the sand, right next to the beach, waking up every morning to ocean waves and sunrises. In addition to being a Fair Trade in Tourism member (for reals: businesses get awarded by SA's Fair Trade in Tourism board... how cool is that), Bulungula is also extremely eco-friendly. Powered by solar & wind, they have compost toils, and paraffin-powered rocket showers, both of which are decorated by psychedelic murals made of paint & tile. We spent our days there taking walks, jumping off of sand dunes, testing out the waters, eating at the local restaurant -- a mud hut run by 2 women serving up killer curry or dessert crepes, doing yoga on the bluffs, laughing with the locals, eating fantastic meals (fresh crayfish!), and collecting absolutely mindblowing seashells & decorating the campsite with them. Bulungula is the kind of place that forces you to slow down, breathe deep, forget about the rest of the world and just enjoy life's most simple beauties.

Our final days in the Transkei were spent in Coffee Bay, a beautiful location with a lovely hostel and some killer drumming ... but after dwelling in the magic of Amapondo & Bulungula, we were disappointed. The vibe was off, the strangely prominent begging culture was shoved in our faces, and a whole lot of locals were only concerned with what might come out of my pocket instead of my heart (were we back in East Africa?). Plus, I've been anxious to get to Cape Town, since next on the agenda is going to the nearest STA Travel office and changing my flight so I can stay here in this fantastic country for another 3 months!...

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Gone Wild

Reluctantly, we left Lesotho... but it was time to get to the beach. We headed straight for the Wild Coast, a region of absolutely pristine coastline that, for
mostly f-ed up reasons having to do with cultural misunderstanding, hate, and apartheid, has been left untouched. The region is also famous for Pondo Fever, a certain ailment acquired from a certain magical plant that makes you never, ever want to leave. It's safe to say that I have now acquired a healthy, happy dose of Pondo Fever and am totally in love with the Wild Coast and all the fantastic people, locals and otherwise, who inhabit it.

I've been here for the last two weeks (what day is it?) and it's been absolute heaven. I have lots more to add about this but it will have to wait for another time when the internet is less expensive, works faster, and the Indian Ocean isn't lapping at the white sand steps away from the lodge. So more updates soon.

But for now, I am alive & well, enjoying life to the point of ridiculousness, and feeling like I've finally found somewhere that feels like home. We've been living completely out of the tent, since camping is both the cheaper and way more awesome option at every backpacker hostel. We've also been enjoying the "self-catering" option, which means cooking for yourself in hooked up backpacker kitchens at each lodge. So we've been eating fantastically, sleeping in awesome locations, and saving lots of money at the same time. South Africa is a dream come true.

Into the Great Wide Open

South Africa is rocking my world. I've been blissfully out of touch for the last three weeks, mostly having too much fun to think about updating the blog. But here's a taste...

It was a bit of shock to fly from into Jo'burg from Tanzania. I remember our ride from the airport to the hostel, feeling completely wowed by riding in a new, clean vehicle on a huge multi-lane (paved!) highway with plentiful signs directing the flow of traffic. What were these crazy inventions? South Africa, though still very much a developing country, is leaps and bounds ahead of east Africa, something that has been both pleasant and disappointing in some respects.

Anyway!... We stayed in Jo'burg for a few days, longer than we had planned on. Joe got pretty ill with a fever & flu-like symptoms on our second night which, when coming from a malarial area, means you've got to high tail it a hospital, which is what we did. The malaria scare turned out to be just a nasty travelers ailment (all too familiar to most of us), but we chilled out in the 'burg for a couple days to make sure all was well. Finally, we decided on heading south.

After a brief stop at a delightful hostel in Pietermaritzburg where we camped among enormous cannabis plants and grubbed on homemade thai curry, we headed for the mountains. The Drakensberg ("Dragon") Mtns run along the border between South Africa and Lesotho, a collection of sandstone & basalt peaks that form a gnarly sharp skyline for endless kilometers. We decided to go up the famous Sani Pass, a death-defying series of insane switchbacks going straight up into Lesotho. However, I saw practically none of the pass on the way up, because I was crammed into the very back row of a minibus taxi (that's South African for matatu), with my bag on my lap & shoved in my face, with 17 other passengers who kept yelling at each other to open the windows. It was pure hell, and easily the longest hour of my life. But Lesotho proved a warm, beautiful welcome... and we spent the next 4 days in pure bliss.

Lestho has been called a "hiker's paradise" and it really is. You can hike for hours, days if you want to, without seeing other hikers or fences to interrupt your path. You would likely see some of the locals, shepherding their goats, cows & sheep, and if you paid close attention, you could probably see their small stone huts blending into the mountainsides. One of my great Lesotho moments was coming around a ridge curve and finding a very small village, where a shepherd was gleefully singing at the top of his lungs, filling the valley with this beautiful joyous song while we made our way through. We were also greeted by another Lestoho shephard on a peak, at the top of a pile of rocks. Dressed in a heavy grey woolen blanket and not much else, he ran straight up the rocks we'd spent at least 5 minutes working on and just stood by us for a few minutes, watching us munch on snacks and devise our next move. The Basotho people don't speak much English, but any lack of verbal communication is made up for by enormous smiles and enthusiastic greetings, which we received from many people. On our last day, sitting by the Lesotho border post hitchhiking our way down the pass, we struck up a conversation with James, a local who was incredibly fluent in English. We discussed many matters, including his recent wedding and New York City, and he explained to us Lesotho's motto: peace, friendship, prosperity. Indeed.