Welcome to Bulungula

Wednesday March 3
My scariest travel moment up to now was the time George Jemott led us to a point near the City of the Dead in Cairo where we had to run across an Egyptian freeway at rush hour. Now I’ve got a rival: the moment our Land Cruiser almost tipped over on the way to Bulungula.

The day had started out so well. The backpacker bus had picked us up in Durban as planned, and more or less on time. Although the driver must have been doing 75 miles an hour at times, he seemed sensible enough about passing other vehicles on the road. We stopped twice at roadside complexes that were shiny clean and stocked with chips flavored with chutney and tomato and other exotic flavors. And we arrived ahead of schedule at the Shell Ultra Station in Mthatha, where we debarked from the Baz Bus to look for our shuttle to Bulungula.

On the way to Mthatha, I re-read the materials that had convinced me we had to devote several days to visiting this eco-lodge. The Lonely Planet guide had called it “spectacular,” and the Rough Guide included it among the top 28 Things You Must Do in South Africa. The latter explained that the inaccessible area known as the Wild Coast (in the Transkei region) was one of the only places left in South Africa where traditional African village life still unfolded, with people living in simple round thatch-roofed buildings called rondavels. A Cape Towner by the name of Dave Martin who had worked on a variety of community-development projects had launched the Bulungula Lodge in 2005 in partnership with the Xhosa village of Nqleni. Not only was the lodge located on a cliff overlooking a breathtaking stretch of river and beach, but a stay there could also give you a unique chance to interact with black Africans living in a traditional society.

That sounded great to us, and when the Bulungula shuttle showed up around 3:15 p.m., two friendly Bulungula staffers introduced themselves and ushered Steve and me into the battered rear compartment of the Land Cruiser, along with a Swedish couple around our age, a thin young African man named Pumzileh, various backpacks and bundles and boxes of groceries and other supplies. Then we were off, jouncing over brutal terrain that we couldn’t see because the windows were all too caked with mud to allow any view of the landscape. The thought that this might last for more than 4 hours might have made me quail, but Pumzileh distracted us. He works for the Bulungula Incubator, the companion program started by Dave to launch projects to improve the village’s standard of living. One was to build a primary and preschool. Pumzileh was working on a new one having to do with planting lemongrass as a cash crop.
Since he was moving up in the organization, he had to find a replacement to fill his current job of acting as a liaison between the village and the Incubator. He favored hiring a young man working at the Shell Ultra Station in Mthatha. “I know that he is very responsible. He won the award for top cashier! Just as I did. I trained him!” But there were two other candidates, and Pumzileh said the elders in the village also needed to be consulted, as their view of the candidates might differ from his. He talked in such detail and with such earnestness about every topic that surfaced, it could have been tedious in a less talented story-teller. But he held us spellbound, describing how his gold miner father had disdained education for his children (with two wives); how his mother was surviving since his dad had died (at 56); how proud he was to be he first person from his village ever to fly (to Cape Town) and how poignantly he yearns to someday travel beyond South Africa. At one point, another turn of the conversation led him to recount for us the story of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. “I will never in my life forget how he could not wash out that blood on his hands!”

After two hours, we halted. We were at the end of the “good” road, the point behind which a 4×4 vehicle becomes essential. The owner of the grocery store there lives in a big fancy gated house, and allows travelers to park their cars within its locked premises. A young Dutch couple was supposed to be joining us there, but they’d gotten lost, so we piled out into the fading daylight to wait for them. A half dozen barefoot local kids, ranging in age from maybe 8 to 16, joked with Liesl, the Bulungula staffer, until a strengthening drizzle drove us all back into the Cruiser.

The Dutch couple finally showed up, and we set off again on a drive that Liesl said might take 45 minutes if we were lucky. We weren’t. We jounced up and down and sideways with a violence that I joked should be studied by the folks at Disney. At times, I felt us skidding, out of control, on the slick mud, and for me, the worst of it was not knowing how far we were from the edge of a precipice as the Cruiser tilted this way and that. (By then it was black outside the impenetrable windows.) When we did finally tip over farther than at any point before and then stop, and Liesl scurried back to open the door and urgently order us out, I saw that we weren’t near the edge of any cliff, a relief. Still it was cold and dark and the ground was slick, as we scrambled away from the truck to give Rufus the driver a chance to extricate it.

Somehow he succeeded. We climbed back in and maybe 15 minutes later, we pulled up at the candlelit lodge. The bad news there was that someone had forgotten to fill up the water tanks, so there would be no running water this evening. But dinner, a tasty beef stew, was ready in the large building that serves as Bulungula’s communal center. I’m sitting in it now, a day and a half later, typing. The landscape out the windows probably didn’t look any different 150 years ago. I see beach and cliffs that are at least as pretty as anything in La Jolla. But the only human structures are the few rondavels that dot the emerald hills. The interior of this room feels a bit like a time warp too — back to the 60s. The walls are painted bright salmon and rose hues and they’re decorated with images of cattle and flowers and rainbows. Mobiles made from driftwood and shells and brightly colors glass twist slowly. A driving African soundtrack plays softly. In just a few moments, Eva, the Swedish traveler with whom we shared the Land Cruiser Ride of Death, and I are doing the “women power” outing that supposedly will teach us how to carry water from the well on our heads. That’s how people get their drinking water in the village, but here at the lodge it sometimes comes out of taps.

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