Wednesday, March 5, 2014



One of my best favourite places in the world is Churchaven on the Langebaan Lagoon outside Cape Town. I like lagoons. The Blue Lagoon in Jamaica (the very same one in the movie of that name) was delicious – filled with swirls of cold river water that stubbornly refused to be warmed by the Caribbean’s waves lapping against it.
Like Jamaica, the Eastern Cape has lagoons around practically every corner. They’re not as variagated in shades of green and blue like the Langebaan lagoon, but they are all gorgeous. Many are flanked by cliffs of jungly trees and vines. Many of their beaches are shaded by milkwood trees.
Our idea to make Coffee Bay our next stop was poo-pooed by staffers Maz and Noemi as we left Amapondo Backpackers in Port St Johns; they suggested better places. 
I like being buffeted off course, it’s how we found many great places, most recently the hot springs in the middle of a forest in Zambia.
The tar ran out halfway to our new destination.  We wound our way around and over green hills on rutted gravel tracks to the Mdumbi River mouth. A village – no more than 30 rondavels and a handful of bigger houses – perches on the top of a hill along with Mdumbi Backpackers.

On the road into Mdumbi

The view from the village

The view from the stoep at Mdumbi Backpackers

The smallholder peasants have the best beachfront property at Mdumbi. Long may that last. Their smartie pink, yellow, turquoise and green rondavels overlook the longest beach with the softest waves, a huge lagoon and a fat river.
Those properties are probably worth millions in any currency. The long beach is flanked by green hills dotted with cows and sheep – there’s few roads, no traffic, no noise except for the sea and occassional bleating and mooing.

The lagoon gave Churchaven a run for its money. It was warm and deep and I had it all to myself on the perfect afternoon when I finally went for a swim after eyeing it for a few days in search of the best spot to dive in.
I ate my best meal on this entire trip at Mdumbi Backpackers. I told the staff to let us know when they were serving seafood and when the day arrived the meal turned out to be a feast. For a mere R75 each, we had fresh oysters – I love the taste, hate the texture – a creamy mussel soup with fresh bread and prawns served with rice, butternut and salad.
I had never seen prawns as big as a crayfish before and gorged myself on them. Julia says I’m smiling fondly at them in this photo:

For the first time on the trip we kayaked – up the Mdumbi River and in a wide circle around the lagoon. 
Poor Julia forgot to put sunblock on her thighs which turned as red as the shells of the prawns I had so enjoyed. The burn was bad enough to warrant three days of slathering with Burnshield.
A week or so later, she pulled sheets of skin off her thighs, exposing a new, pale pink layer to take out on walks in the midday sun.

Before ...

And after

Mdumbi was hard to leave and, with hindsight, we should have stayed longer. On our last night, a thumping southerly wind brought heavy rain, ripped out our awning and snapped off one of the metal bars from the bottom of our rooftop tent.
Pikachu cowered in the car while we battened down the hatches as best as we could. The three of us stared at each other when we finally climbed into the tent – Pikka’s eyes were huge in her tiny head. It felt as though the wind was going to lift the tent off the roofrack, carry us over the hill and deposit us in the middle of the ocean.
There was nothing else we could do except lie down and hope for the best. Wierdly, the howling wind sent me into dreamland within minutes and we all slept till late the next morning. After some quick repairs – the metal brace just needed to be screwed back in – we set off.

One day, soon, we're going to do the five-day hike on the coast to Mdumbi

Travelling along rutted roads that rivalled the worst we had seen in countries to the north, we made our way past crummy-looking Coffee Bay to the Hole in the Wall. 
None of the photos I had seen of the place did it justice. The walk to the hole was spectacular – a narrow path under an umbrella of milkwoods to the rocky cliff through which the sea had pummelled a big hole.
The water squeezed through the hole and made gentle semi-circles of waves on the other side that swept into the lagoon. I had one of the best swims of my life in that lagoon, on a perfect day when there wasn’t a breath of wind.

Life just got better

Pikachu loved the walk through the tangled milkwood trees to the beach

Another first on this trip: we spent hours lounging on the soft grass under the milkwoods that flanked the lagoon. Now that I have ample time on my hands and the wherewithall to get to the best beaches on the African coastline, I find that I can no longer plop myself down on the sand and lie there all day. My gogo hips complain within an hour and my skin seeks shade.
Next stop Bulungula, also recommended by the staff at Amapondo Backpackers. The drive there was three hard hours to cover 85km. The roads were bad, there were few signposts and our Garmin got confused several times.
Within minutes of arriving, we knew we wouldn’t be staying and that it had been a mistake not to stay longer at Mdumbi. The only camping on offer at Bulungula was in their tents which were much smaller than ours. 
We checked into a rondavel – the first on this journey – and took a walk on a beach that was nowhere near as nice as the last three we had visited.

The view from our rondavel … we've seen better

Bulungula was fully booked and it was hard to figure out why. They had complicated paraffin showers, smelly longdrop toilets and supper – a tasteless bobotie – was served on enamel plates.
But the place was pumping with foreigners doing all kinds of worthy activities like carrying wood on their heads with rural women for an hour or so, and paying lots for the privilege.
I still don’t get community tourism and I don’t think I ever will. I absolutely don't mind paying for  accommodation directly to a community, and not a conglomerate hotel chain. The vast majority of places we've stayed on this trip have either been owned by locals or a community tourism initiative.
We've hired guides and paid for lots for extras. But why, oh why, do the activities have to include spending a day with a local peering into her hut and her pots? If we go to Norway, can we spend a few hours watching a woman loading her dishwasher?

I don't like long drops, oh no. I hate them, hoohoo

It took us six hours of driving on terrible roads up and down lush hills and across fat rivers to travel the 260km from Bulungula to Elliotdale and finally onto the N2. We gave a gogo a lift and she cackled when we drove past the local kiddies (and some teenagers) who saw us coming, held out both hands and screamed “Mlungu, give me sweets!”
Rural Eastern Cape looks a bit more prosperous than when we last sped through it in 2002. So far, the only shacks we have seen was outside Butterworth, but there’s a huge RDP suburb under construction across the road from the settlement. 
The rural schools have all recently been renovated but we doubt that the quality of teaching has improved. Julia was incensed every time we passed teenagers in unforms strolling down the gravel roads in the late morning. Every time we passed the school at Hole in the Wall the children were sitting on the grass outside. It wasn’t possible that they had that many breaks.
Somewhere along the N2 we drove past Qunu, but I didn’t see any signs pointing to it so we missed the opportunity to visit the grave of the esteemed ancestor.

Next was Morgan Bay, a campsite crowded with caravans and old people who all speak English to us and each other but sound as though they’re struggling to get the words past their Afrikaans tongues. We’re on this trip to visit places outside our comfort zone, so I guess a caravan park filled with wrinklies is just another learning experience. 
We stayed put for six days – we were steps away from a fat lagoon and the walks on the cliffs and along the beach were breathtaking.

Stuck next to the lagoon at Morgan Bay

We saw some incredible sights on a day's walk on the beach

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