Fri, 13 August 2010

Freelance journo and avid surf wanderer Patrick Burnett comes back from the Eastern Cape's Wild Coast to continue a story he began 12 years ago after an epic hike from Coffee Bay to Mazeppa Bay. 

The Wild Coast is a place of awesome beauty and for anyone who loves the sea and the coast, it contains the kind of seascapes that sometimes appear to have been airbrushed before your eyes. Except the picture moves, with people bustling about their daily chores, cattle roaming, lambs bleating and, quite frequently, corduroy lines stacked up to the horizon.

Published in the first edition of Surfing in South Africa (2001) by Steve Pike, I ended the article by saying surfing was about endless dirt roads, reckless jolls and the changing patterns of the ocean and the gift of a perfect wave. I still stand by much of that, but after a recent journey back to the Wild Coast I can’t help feeling that the ending didn’t come anywhere close to capturing the essence of the place. It’s just about so much more.

Schools of dolphin surfing a wave in a way that looks like they are experiencing pure joy. A foreground of rolling hills and blue ocean in the background with explosions of white peppering the horizon to mark where whales are jumping clean out of the water. The hard work of people who get up at dawn to fetch water from a far away river and carry it over rugged ground, balancing the bucket on their heads. A lone woman making mud bricks that she packs in neat rows in the sun to dry so that she can sell them to people building new rondavels. Young boys fishing in a river of crystal clear water and an age-old mangrove swamp in the background. Black label beer by the 750ml bottle fetched from the shebeen down the road and drunk around the fire. BB tobacco rolled in newspaper and smoked on a stoep while watching corduroy lines stack up on a point. The list goes on, but I’ll stop there.

Much of these mind images are thanks to our stay on the north bank of the Mdumbi River at a small lodge run by former professional surfer Justin Sanders and his partner Lee-Ann Smith. My wife, my five-year-old son and I stayed at many places on the Wild Coast during a recent three-week trip, but this was a place I would certainly go back to.

What was refreshing about the Swell Tours lodge run by Sanders and Smith was that it exists slap-bang in the middle of the community who live in Mdumbi. There’s a fence around it, but it’s only to keep the cattle from coming in and eating the grass. This is in stark contrast to some places on the Wild Coast, where guests are shut in and warned not to befriend locals. But Justin and Lee-Ann appear to have put in a good deal of time to learn about where they are staying and how things operate, seeing their relationship with the community around them as a key part of what they are doing.

An example of this was when we were there for the World Cup game when Bafana Bafana played France. There’s no electricity, but Justin started a generator he keeps out back for the event so that he could turn on an old TV perched on a table in the common area. I reckon it was the only TV for miles around because before you knew it people started streaming in. We were warmly greeted by just about everyone.

Benches were hastily arranged to accommodate as many people as possible. And when THAT first goal was scored, the room erupted in joy, with hugs, fist pumps and smiles all around.

We stayed in one of two stunning rondavels, painted a rustic orange colour that turns warm and peaceful by candlelight. The thatch-roofed rondavel we stayed in had its own toilet and shower, with a dividing wall beautifully decorated with sea-smoothed pebbles inset on the wall. There’s a braai area where the nightly fire gets lit and a common area with a couch positioned opposite a French window that has a glorious view of Mdumbi point and river mouth. If you sit down on this couch, you’re almost guaranteed to stay sitting for longer than you thought you would.

There’s no shortage of things to do. On the first day we mostly lazed around on the grass outside our rondavel and watched the world go by.

The sounds of reggae drifted over from a neighbouring rondavel on a hilltop about 50 metres away. Someone brought me fresh oysters, which I had with Tabasco and black pepper. Delicious. There was the promise of fresh river prawns (Which arrived the following day and which Justin cooked up deliciously for me on a skottel). I was so content I even forget momentarily about going surfing.

If that sounds boring, there is excellent fishing in the river and along the coast. There are canoes to rent, which you can paddle up the river for hours on end. There’s horse-riding. Long solitary walks along the coast discovering secluded coves and beaches. Swims in the river. Trips to nearby attractions like Hole-in-the-Wall, either guided on foot or by car.

Being that pretty much everything I do is about surfing, it kinda worries me that I’ve got this far without mentioning anything about the surfing. That’s why I went there, after all. And there’s some top class waves in the area.

Justin, an excellent surfer with a mean backhand attack honed from years of living in J-Bay, knows the coastline like the back of his hand, a real bonus in an area where many spots would otherwise be hard to get to and where knowledge of changing tides and wind conditions can mean the difference between surf and no surf. The swell wasn’t great while I was there, but I still surfed nearly every day. There was a nearby reef that was a lot of fun and it wasn’t even working properly. Fun waves on a beach break. And the day we left, the premier point in the area turned on and I surfed for three hours. You will get waves here and quite probably they’ll be world class and all to yourself.

The other place we stayed at that deserves mention was Bulungulu Lodge, an initiative that has formed a partnership with the local community, who hold a significant share in the venture. There’s a few things that are different about what they are doing. Firstly, all the activities – fishing, horse-riding, canoing etc etc – are run by members of the local community as their own businesses, ensuring a direct benefit accrues to the surrounding community. Secondly is the attention they have given to the environment. Initiatives have been taken in re-planting dune forests and mangrove swamps. Electricity comes from solar power. The hot showers are run on paraffin, with the water running out into a grove of banana trees. Cooking and refrigeration run on gas. Toilets are non-flush. Rainwater is used for drinking water. What’s interesting is that it all runs seamlessly. The message is clear, if they can do it out here in the middle of nowhere and run a fair-sized commercial venture, why can’t we do this on a large scale in our suburbs and cities?

I liked Bulungula. I liked the way it is obviously partnered with the community, not in a window-dressing kind of way, but in a genuine move to establish a successful and sustainable venture. When we arrived I was worried that it was going to be too much of a backpackers haunt.

I’ve had my share of staying in backpacking places and while I like to meet new people, there’s just something hollow about the where are you from, where have you been, what have you seen conversations that tend to be repeated like stuck records with each new wave of arrivals. But Bulungula – with its combination of rondavels and dormitory accommodation – also attracts a lot of families and older travelers, so its an interesting mix of people. And if you’re staying in your own rondavel, from which you overlook a river mouth and broad expanse of pristine beach, it’s still possible to escape and enjoy some alone time.

There are loads of activities and beautiful beaches and sea cliffs in the area so you’ll never be short of something to do. There isn't a focus on surfing and although there’s a beach break outside the lodge that I reckon would be fun on its day, you’ll have to travel to access some of the better-known spots.

We stayed at other places during our three-week trip, but these are the ones that stand out, not only because they are awesome places to visit, but for me because they seem to be examples of how tourism can be done in a way that emphasizes integration not only with the physical environment, but with communities too. They’re also the kind of places where the moments when all existence seems to fade are just so much more frequent, where its possible to shed all the baggage and just feel life. As my son put it in non-philosophical terms when we woke up in a Mdumbi rondavel after a 12-hour sleep, “It’s just a round way of living.”

* Patrick Burnett makes hollow wooden surfboards. Check out http://groundswellsurfboards.co.za/

PS: Paid my way at both spots, so there’s no vested interest here.


Paul van Jaasveld
+2 #1 Paul van Jaasveld 2010-08-14 02:22
Thanks for well written article and epic pics.
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