A Travellerspoint blog


rain 25 °C

We set out from Hogsback early the next morning on the shuttle back to East London. Thankfully this time we had the luck of a proper car to ride back in which made for a much more pleasant experience. After a short stop at Sugarshack, a hostel virtually on the beach, we departed onwards into the heart of the Transkei area of the Eastern Cape. Our destination was Bulungula Lodge, a hostel run as part of a community project in an isolated Xhosa village on the coast. The level of remoteness was such that we were dropped at a service station near the town of Mthatha and joined another shuttle service for a journey of more than 2 hours, mostly along 'roads' that were so water damaged that even our 4x4 transport had some difficulty. It was truly a stomach churning ride and we were both very glad to finally arrive!

The hostel itself was a series of rondavels - traditional round houses made of reeds and cow dung - and other larger buildings for the communal facilities. While it was not nearly as clean and modern as some of the hostels we have stayed in, we had been prepared for the experience and soon got used to the compost toilets and paraffin powered showers. We were shocked, however by the chicken living in and protecting its nest in one of the toilet cubicals! The community offered a number of trips and tours to experience different parts of village life, although on our first day the heavy rain that seemed to follow us from Hogsback postponed the activities that we had planned on doing. We spent the day chatting to our fellow travellers (once again a high proportion of Germans) and reading. Patrick found a copy of Nelson Mandela's 'Long Walk to Freedom' and spent a decent amount of time reading it here as it seemed a very appropriate setting for it! That afternoon the weather cleared up a little and we were able to go for a short walk along the beach, which was littered with broken shells and seaweed, an area that lived up to the name of the Wild Coast that we were on.

After the limited opportunities of the first day, we decided to make the most of the sunshine when it came and booked 2 tours for the next day. The first was called 'woman power' and involved spending a few hours in the role of a Xhosa woman. We both had a go at this (after some gentle persuasion on Patrick's part!) and walked to our guide's house. After being given our sunscreen of watery clay, an apron and a scarf to tie around our heads, we went to collect water from the local spring, carrying it back on our heads, collect firewood from the local forest and help in the preparation of lunch. This was samp (ground maize meal cooked with water) and pumpkin, blended together to make stiff porridge-like material. While not the most tasty meal of the trip so far it was possibly the most traditional. Although the tour was an interesting sampler of life in the village our guide spoke very little English so most of Ffion's questions about her way of life went unanswered. That afternoon we set out on our second trip of the day to take a tour around the village. We stopped at several houses and other buildings, almost exclusively in round huts, including a house where a mourning ceremony was taking place for one of the previous inhabitants. As part of the mourning anyone who wishes to pay their respects to the departed visit the house and drink traditional Xhosa beer which is, again, made with maize meal. The local sangoma (spiritual healer) was present to help the passage of the dead man into the world of the ancestors and we were invited into the house to try the beer and talk to the sangoma. We learnt that she sees around 3 people each day and can cure most illnesses apart from AIDS, a problem for which you have to walk a few hours to the nearest clinic. We then visited the local shop and our guide explained the name and purpose of every item on offer! On our walk back from the shabeen (the village's off licence) we witnessed a vet (someone who was originally from the village but was now working in Gautang province) treating a bull for some sort of testicular problem and also met a number of people from the village, many of whom were keen for us to come in and have a chat. The hostel owners have set up a small NGO which, among other things, sells solar panels to families and has built a preschool. There is a primary school a few kilometers out of the village and for high school students travel 1 hour each way by transport. We asked three new mothers where their babies were born and were pleased to hear that they were all born in hospital even though it's 2 hours away by transport. We signed up for the hostel's home cooked bobotie for the evening meal - a Cape Malay dish of spiced minced beef topped with a cheesy eggy crust - and enjoyed the company of some people we had met during our stay at Wild Spirit, who had arrived that day.

On our final day we had planned to spend some time visiting the local medicine man, but unfortunately he had to make a trip into town. In its place we decided to take a canoe trip up the nearby river to the local 'restaurant'. After later reflection, Patrick remembered that he hadn't been canoeing before, a fact that made the trip a little less enjoyable as our guide's lack of English meant that instruction and help was pretty non-existent. Added to this was a strong wind blowing in off the ocean and what may often be a pleasant paddle upstream turned out to be a bit of a chore that almost ended with us capsizing midstream! However, we managed to stay afloat and after our guide decided it was too choppy to try and go any further we made our way up to the restaurant (a round hut with two woman and a stove) for some pancakes. Given the limited cooking facilities the results were quite nice, as we shared a savoury 3 nut (butter-, coco- and cashew) filled pancake and a sweet 'Bulungula special' of raisins, dates, condensed milk, cinnamon other spices. We had a quiet final evening getting things together and woke up early the following morning the prepare for the gut shaking shuttle back for our journey back to civilisation and our biggest city since Cape Town.

Posted by ffionandpatrick 05:27 Comments (3)


semi-overcast 30 °C

Our next journey started early in the morning again as we had crossed the first baz bus stopover and were now on the PE to Durban leg. Once again we saw our friend Sebastian on the bus, the fifth and final time our paths crossed, and shared stories from our time in PE. The bus driver for this trip gave us one or two items of interesting information en route as we started moving across the Eastern Cape towards the former 'African homelands' of the Ciskei and Transkei, areas designated as such by the apartheid government in an effort to restrict the movement of blacks into the big urban centres. After several hours of undulating road we arrived at East London, from where we caught a shuttle service back inland towards the mountain village of Hogsback. Over the past week, Ffion had been trying to sort out trips round this historic area of the 19th century Frontier Wars, Fort Hare University and Lovedale College in Alice, although at this point we had found that the way the Western Cape and Garden Route are set up for tourists is a stark contrast to the less developed Eastern Cape: there were seemingly no obvious ways to get to these destinations and visit these historic sites.

After nearly two hours squashed into a small truck, the road kicked steeply uphill from the hot plains to the cooler area of the Amatola Mountains. It is said that this area provided JRR Tolkein with inspiration for several of his Lord of the Rings landscapes, a fact that we were constantly reminded of by the names of the houses and businesses in Hogsback (Rivendell, Hobbiton) although we later read that Tolkein had never visited this area and had left South Africa when he was only 3 years old! Our hostel had great views looking back down the valley towards the plain below and across to the 'hogs', 3 craggy mountain tops that allegedly resemble running hogs. The village's name was also reenforced by the shop names such as 'Hog Wash, the Hog's Inn, 3 Little Hogs Café' etc. We spent our first afternoon doing one of the hostel's recommended waterfall walks. The receptionist optimistically told us it was a 1 hour trip, though after a tricky couple of hours battling through the forest we did find the impressive Swallow Tail Falls. After another couple of hours steep uphill through the forest we made it back to hostel where we spent a pleasant evening chatting with Tom and Emma from Peterborough and two students from Rhodes University in nearby Grahamstown.

The following day, after our first night in the hostel's outdoor dorm (a garden shed with a tin roof), we walked into the village to look for a few things and again try and find the best way to travel to Alice. We found again that Fort Hare seemed to be not at all interested in answering its 'visitor' phone line and that the laundry service only operated when the woman in charge felt like it. Feeling slightly disheartened by this we returned to the hostel and did their 'longer' walk, though on Tom and Emma's advice we cut part of it out to keep it to a manageable length for the day. When we reached the Madonna and Child Falls we agreed that it was probably worth the effort to come and see it, although the frequency of walks to waterfalls after the previous day and the recent memory of Wild Spirit did take some of the novelty out of the experience. By chance when we got back to hostel we found from talking to the woman on reception that her landlady worked at Fort Hare and was willing to give us a lift down to Alice the next day, and that Lovedale College had returned one of Ffion's emails and were also willing to show us round. That evening Patrick again found some African Cup of Nations to watch in the bar, and Ffion had an entertaining evening chatting to Tom and Amy, who we had met in Wild Spirit and comes from Llangollen (the first Welsh person we had met on our travels).

Our day in Alice started quite early, but given the amount of effort it had taken us to find a way to get there this didn't seem too much of a problem. We travelled down with Maya, a lecturer in the Sport Science department at Fort Hare, and one of her colleagues from the psychology department and were dropped off at Lovedale College just as the students were arriving for morning lessons. The reason we were so keen to visit what is now essentially a technology college was that Ffion had written her MA dissertation on a certain Mr P.J. Mzimba who had studied and worked at the college (originally set up by missionaries) before splitting from the mission church to establish the first African church in South Africa in the late 19th century. We were met by one of the school administrators who gave us a tour of the site showing us where the original and older buildings stood and giving us some idea of where things had taken place on the campus. On the way out of the college we also passed the church that used to be attached to the college and saw the graves of some former pupils: one had been instrumental in translating the Bible and writing hymns in Xhosa and the other was one of a group of slaves rescued from East Africa and brought to the school in the mid 19th century.

After a short walk through Alice we came to Fort Hare, the university designated blacks only under apartheid and the centre of learning for South African political figures such as Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, as well as other African leaders such as Robert Mugabe and Julius Nyerere. We visited the university's art gallery which had a very interesting temporary exhibition on the American Civil Rights movement - possibly to give the students a comparative study - and some South African art. We then had a walk around the campus looking at the Students' Centre, Library and Staff Centre, all around avenues named after its famous alumni. Although it had been a long day in an unfamiliar town we were both glad we had made the effort to visit these important historical sites and Ffion was particularly pleased to have been able to see 'where it all happened' which is what all historians enjoy! After our lift back up into the mountains we spent a final evening indoors as the rains started coming down quite heavily giving us not the best night's sleep under our tin roofed bedroom!

Posted by ffionandpatrick 06:19 Archived in South Africa Comments (1)

Port Elizabeth

sunny 32 °C

From what we had heard from fellow travellers along the way, Port Elizabeth (or PE for short) is an unpleasant port city that is about as glamorous as Hull or Newport, and that the only reason not to stop for the mandatory one night baz bus stopover is if you are spending the large amount of money required to take a trip to the nearby Addo elephant park. We decided that there may be some merit in staying a little longer and booked three nights at Jikeleza backpackers, while leaving the option open of making a quick getaway after one night if it looked like we might end up in a situation similar to the one we found ourselves in in Knysna.

As it turned out we found enough things to do to keep us interested for the full three nights and can happily report that PE is definitely more appealing than Hull!

We decided on the first day to go to PE's apartheid museum which is called the 'Red Location Museum of the People's Struggle'. The hostel kindly called us a taxi from a firm they frequently use and we set off to the far side of town. Our taxi driver was a woman (we think) called Cathy who drove in the manner of taxi drivers everywhere - on the knife edge between getting you to your destination as fast as possible and ending up underneath every truck you pass. Thankfully we arrived in one piece both on out and return journeys. The museum itself is in the centre of PE's largest township, Red Location, in an area of town called New Brighton. When we arrived we thought it looked very much like an old factory and we discovered later that it had been built in this way to call to mind the roll of the factory trade unions in the Struggle in the area. We made our way around the exhibits which included a timeline of significant activists from the Eastern Cape, ANC members and others, men and women, people of all races. We also saw a gallery dedicated to women of the Struggle, a photo essay about the Langa massacre, where police gunned down a crowd of mourners killing 20 and injuring 27 more, and a number of 'memory boxes'. These rooms were made of the corrugated metal that the majority of township houses are built from and were where a number of organizations displayed their small contributory exhibitions. These included a room featuring interviews with some of the 'footsoldiers' of the Struggle and their perceptions of how South Africa has now changed, a couple comparing the experience of American and South African mine workers, a room dedicated to Vuyisile Mini, an activist who was executed on trumped up charges in the mid 60s and various others. Much of the information on display was aimed not only at the tourist market but also at education for local visitors, including those from the township itself. All in all it was a very interesting and in various places moving display of the struggle and hardships Africans went through in the darkest years of apartheid.

After another ride back with Cathy in the taxi we went for a walk round the city centre. Here was the most clear example of colonial influence on the architecture with the Victorian style city hall, old post office and library complemented by palm trees and streets named after political figures such as Govan Mbeki. The Donkin memorial gardens, named after the same Elizabeth Donkin who gave the town its name, consisted of South Africa's largest flag pole, largest flag, a small lighthouse and an even smaller stone pyramid, built by Elizabeth Donkin's mourning husband after his wife died of fever in India. After a short stop at the hostel we then went up to the local St. George's Park, home to the oldest Test match cricket ground in South Africa, albeit without actually going into the stadium itself. That evening, as our hostel was the first for a few days to have a Satellite TV package Patrick was happy to finally be able to watch some of the African Cup of Nations. However, as both of us noted after a while, the football played between Tunisia and Niger was not exactly of the highest standard!

The following day we went for our first beach day of our travels, walking the few km to the nearby Humewood suburb. On this walk we saw the heavy industry that had perhaps put off the travellers who had decided not to stop for long in PE, but quite quickly passed it and found a long strip of beach by the Indian Ocean. After a stroll up the sand, a short paddle and a brief look round the complex next to the beachfront casino, we stopped for lunch. Patrick decided to try one of the native meats for the first time, ordering a springbok stroganoff (quite tasty but not massively distinguishable from the usual beef) and Ffion had a chicken, prawn and feta bake, which was her favourite food to date in South Africa. We spent the rest of the afternoon people watching and paddling on the beach before setting off back to the hostel. We decided to get an early night after this as the next baz bus leg began before 7 the following morning, although our fellow dorm-mates' noisy return at 1 in the morning meant that we set off along the eastern cape coast feeling more than a little tired!

Posted by ffionandpatrick 06:33 Archived in South Africa Comments (1)

Nature's Valley

Walking in the Garden Route

rain 28 °C

After the disappointment of Knysna we were very pleased to pull up at Wild Spirit hostel in Nature's Valley. It's a family run hostel on a farm near lots of forest with a slight hippy feel. On two of our five days we experienced very heavy rain so we spent a lot of time in the communal log cabin talking to the farm owner (a 90 year old originally from Sussex called Peter), reading and using their free but slow internet. We also played a lot of board games and became the world champions of a game called 30 Seconds (like Articulate and Taboo). We say world champions because we played twice and thoroughly beat opponents from South Africa, America, Australia and Germany. Ffion also enjoyed painting the view of the valley from the decking area.

On our first night we ate potjie for the first time – traditional African food cooked in a three legged pot – and took part in an informal drumming workshop around the fire. The following day we undertook the 'long hike' with four Germans who were also staying at the hostel. Over 6 hours we walked through fynbos (sweet smelling South African shrubs) and a dense forest, past another smelly lagoon, along a beautiful beach (being careful not to be stung by small jelly fish that were being washed in by the tide), across impressive moon-like rocks and through a river. It was a great walk but we both started to feel like the previous evening's potjie hadn't agreed with us half way around which resulted in us looking feeble for being unable to keep up with the efficient German pace of walking!

After two rainy days we were happy to see clear skies for our day with the animals. Although South Africa has a huge array of game reserves they're expensive and difficult to get to without a car so we decided to experience the next best thing – three different animal sanctuaries situated only a few kilometers away from our hostel. We started off with an 8am Elephant walk. After a very comprehensive talk by one of the handlers we were given the opportunity to touch the elephants and feel their soft ears, harsh skins, soft heels and bushy tails. We were also able to lead the elephants, trunk and hand, on a short walk around their enclosure. Having never even seen an African elephant before, Patrick was particularly amazed at the feeling of looking over his shoulder to see a two tonne animal following obediently behind.

We then went on a personalised tour of Monkey Land where we saw 8 of the 11 types of monkey living there. There were capuchin and squirrel monkeys in abundance and it was fun to watch them eat, fight and play with their brothers and sisters. Walking further into the park we spotted a single Ring Tailled Lemur and followed it around the corner to where there were many more enjoying the bananas and other fruit left out for them. Standing so close to them without a zoo fence in the way was very impressive and they seemed as though they were tame animals. Most of the monkeys at the sanctuary have been rescued from circuses or from people's homes but they're given time in an acclimatisation cage until they forget about interacting with humans before being released into the park. Some of the Lemurs were missing tails which was the result of fights with the monkeys. Our guide said the different species tend to stick to their own areas of the park but occasionally get bored so usurp someone else's area for fun.

We were skeptical about visiting Birds of Eden, the third sanctuary in the area, but we were very glad we'd made the effort to visit as soon as we entered and saw a Golden Pheasant at the same time as a small canary type bird. We bought the information booklet and spent several hours walking around trying to tick all of the species off. We managed around a third which, considering we decided to ignore the many and various types of doves in the park, we were pleased with. The best spot was definitely the Macaws which were also very tame and didn't mind us photographing for a number of minutes.

The final day we spent doing some of the smaller walks around the farm and were certainly sad to be leaving Wild Spirit when the Baz Bus rolled up an hour and a half late for our late evening trip to Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.

Posted by ffionandpatrick 09:19 Archived in South Africa Comments (2)


Not to nice

rain 24 °C

On our way from Oudtshoorn to Knysna we had another interesting Baz Bus journey passing impressive scenery and pretty coastal towns. It was nice to see people getting on and off along the way who we'd already met at hostels or on the bus such as Sebastian from the Oudtshoorn leg. So far we've had a good experience with the Baz Bus but the fact that it only runs on certain days means that you often have to decide whether you want to stay somewhere one night or three. As we have a whole 6 weeks in South Africa we decided to stay 3 nights at Knysa (pronounced nize-nah). When we drove into the town and signed in to our hostel we immediately started to regret this decision.

The hostel was a bit grotty so we went out to have a look around the town straight away. There was a pleasant waterfront area which is modeled on the Cape Town V&A waterfront. Having been at the original waterfront just a little over a week ago though, the model version was a bit of a let down. The town itself didn't seem to have much to recommend it and we returned to cook tea at the hostel in a kitchen with a serious ant problem still unconvinced we'd made the right decision to stay for 3 nights. The straw that broke the camel's back and made us check out the following morning was when Patrick climbed into the bunk above Ffion that evening and one of the slats holding the mattress snapped and fell on Ffion. Perhaps it's a good job Patrick didn't try sitting on an ostrich...

The Baz Bus timetable meant we had until 5pm to kill in Knysna the following day. It was raining but we put on our kagools, walking boots and brave faces and headed out to visit a brewery that the guide book claimed made 'Yorkshire-style beer'. 4km later, having walked through a lot of rain and passed a smelly swamp, affectionately called 'The Lagoon', we arrived at the locked gates of the brewery. We were half way to The Heads from where there were apparently great views of the bay but, because of the weather, we decided not to bother going any further. We visited the internet cafe in the afternoon and were amazed to find that, on a Saturday afternoon in a reasonable sized town, half the shops were already closed. We were not at all sad to be jumping onto the Baz Bus that evening for a short ride to Wild Spirit hostel in The Crags.

Posted by ffionandpatrick 03:23 Archived in South Africa Comments (1)

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