Trundling towards the ocean after such rugged beauty of the Drakensberg was oddly not filling us with delight; imagining resorts and surf culture which was a thousand light years away from the emptiness and rawness of where we were leaving. As usual we had dawdled, stocking up on cakes and bread from the farm shop and saying our final goodbyes to the dogs. We arrived at the coast at night with nowhere to stay. After knocking on a few doors and making a few calls the only place we could find was a party hostel on the shores of a surfing beach. A dorm bed was all that was on offer but as we had few options we took it. Fortunately it was an empty dorm set in a jungle where rooms and teepees were hidden by undergrowth and wooden paths led you to a hot tub or tree house, a swimming pool, bar or viewing deck. A setting for dreams and fairytales. Simon indulged in an old footy match before we tucked ourselves in front of the iPad for a film and began to get our heads around this next chapter. The next morning, feeling too old for the hostel as everyone was scantily clad and still awake from the night before, we explored the local beach and had a swim in the surf watching families have quality time. The ladies covered their braids with shopping bags whilst the children raced and the chaps all stood in a line paddling and gossiping. It was a quick shower before heading back to our steed to jump to the next coastal town for a small explore. This hostel was quiet and empty, rough around the edges and void of any amenities but it did have a gate at the end of the garden that led straight to an empty white sand beach. We watched sunset over the waves on a bench for two from our garden with a bottle of beer. Simon was moaning he hadn't had a Indian takeaway for far too long and missed our 'usual' in Lidlingtons Lounge India. He was almost jumping up and down as we waited for our order only to find on opening the cartons it was far from an English Indian. Home was never so missed and despite the sulk and big lip, Simon managed to swallow it all. We woke up early and headed straight for a morning dip. Simon wasn't convinced I could get in the water without squealing but despite the rolling waves and strong tide the water was warm. And besides I wasn't going to let him win his bet! What a luxury to be able to jump from bed to jumping amongst the waves. As we had the beach to ourselves we acted like big children until out of breath. Just enough time for a shower and cornflakes (not at the same time) and then back in the car to Oribi Gorge.
Simon and I were enjoying having our own little places to hide ourselves in, spend all evening making a fire, cooking food the rustic way, drinking wine and pipe dreaming about owning a hostel, digging a fishing lake, swimming in vats of wine and building huge bonfires. Reclusive as it was, being anti-social and having nothing but us was absolutely my favourite part of the day. Oribi gorge gave us splendid isolation with an entire site of mini- cottages laying empty, ours having the best view over the ravine where monkeys hopped in trees above us, birds woke us up in the mornings alongside a perfect view of sunrise from our bed. Here we could tuck ourselves up in a little slice of home. We spent days walking through the valley, teetering over suspension bridges, considering the giant gorge swing (a member of staff had recently fallen to his death however so we took that as a sign worth listening to). The days were warm, sunny, mostly just the two of us but still, we were excited about getting 'home'.
As easy as it was to stay, there was more to see and so the bags were packed and loaded and we were off to see what was next. It is at this point I feel I should qualify the driving experience. We are crammed with all our bags into a wheelbarrow sized car, Simon and I looking like Noddy and Big Ears. With fishing rods, fire wood, wet towels, unnecessary hats decorating the inside it looked like we were on our way to do a car boot sale. The roads on South Africa are variable. The driving in South Africa even more unpredictable. On the occasions where I was in the passenger seat and thus handing control over to my better half the journeys would often involve interjections of "look out for he goat," "it's only 80kph here," "POTHOLE!" Now obviously Simon is a more than capable driver and my interjections were far from required. His tolerance lasted the first few hours of any given journey with polite replies. After a final flinch too far or even perhaps a grab at the steering wheel Simon would have reached his limit and with a sharp word and a rising red in the cheeks I would be silenced for at least a few hours. On those extra long all day drives we would have music sometimes, silence at others or on the odd occasion a blazing row followed by a thick heavy silence until one if us would swallow their pride and ask exactly what we had fallen out over.
Port St.Johns. An unlikeable town, dusty, noisy, polluted and chaotic. It is hard to understand the appeal but there were several backpackers in town and we chose one with a good restaurant and friendly owner. Just outside town are its stunning white sand beach bordered by forest and waterfalls and with perfect waves. It is also the most dangerous beach in the world with a record number of shark attacks; the most recent only 2 weeks before. Simon was ushered away by the chef to have a look at the gory photos of the poor man who took the risk and had a paddle at the infamous Second Beach. The nicest part of our brief stay was leaving it. The town nestled between two cliffs; the view from the hills compliments the town more than it deserves.
Onwards again and this time we decided to venture off road to a very remote community where there was one basic backpackers hostel which was co-owned by the local people who had been banished there in apartheid days. Still now in the old Transkaai areas the roads are in very poor condition, the electricity highly undependable. There is vast unemployment and severe poverty with many families living on $30 a month. The dedicated hostel owner strived to make employment opportunities and had been instrumental in setting up an adult education school and a community owned restaurant, a guide service and a place to sell local crafts. He fought for better electricity, for the upgrading of roads and for the preservation of the raw and intensely beautiful land around the area of Mdumbi. They now call this area the Wild Coast. Wild because it is as close to its original state as you can get. The very unkempt road took us several hours to journey with our poor little hire car not at all prepared for the ruts, bumps, stones and mud slides. Simon imagined himself in an episode of Top Gear whilst I closed my eyes! We arrived at night again with a 5 hour journey taking 8 hours to a hot dinner, a sympathetic welcome and very large glass of wine.
We woke up with the sun streaming through the tiny window in our wooden shack. We took ourselves to our little veranda wrapped in our blankets and gazed at Mdumbi for the first time. We had driven ourselves to the top of a head land and from our small shack we had a perfect view of a long and wide beach bordered by rocks on one side and an estuary on the other and a long, cow strewn meadow between us to get there. In the far distance was another headland where occasional rondavels were the only sign of life. This is what South Africa must have looked like 100 years ago, 500 years ago even! Both Simon and I knew we had stumbled across something rather special. We ended up in Mdumbi for eight days and it's very hard for us to really say what we did there! We met the incredible Delaney family who we shared our days with, kayaking through the jungle watching for owls and jumping fish, the three kids giving Simon surfing tips, walks along wide lonely beaches, noisy and laugh filled dinners. They were missed when they left us to get back to the two of us, our books, watching sunrise from the headland, lighting up the dolphins jumping through the spray. We met local people who were trying to start new businesses, get a better education. I left simon to go fishing with his friend Nokshana on one day to walk with Kwalene through his village and to see the caves, the inlets where people caught their dinner, see where they grew their tomatoes in makeshift greenhouses. We even went to his local shabeen (illegal drinking establishment) where the big mama there was so shocked to see me she made me food and got her son to take photos on his phone. The people here struggle daily, they are sheltered, once banished, from the rest of South Africa and so here you find innocence and intrigue. Their lives and survival carry on unchanged for generations. Simon and I were lucky to have been allowed in to this community where you help each other, share time and experience.
After 8 days we knew we needed to move on and knew that we can always come back when the time was right to stay longer. Back up the lumpy road, we dropped off Kwalene in his finest outfit at the town 2 hours away so he could have a date with his long suffering girlfriend. Back to the two of us. Onward to Hogs Back where the fairies live. Well, the hippies do at least.
A friend back in Bolivia had recommended we stay in a hostel called Away with the Fairies. We did exactly that and although the quietness and isolation was now lost it was replaced by people who will remain an integral part of our fondness for South Africa.
Monty and Alison were a couple in their twilight years. Afrikaans through and through they were hard working farmers who took a couple of weekends off a year to recover. Their passion for nature and the diversity of South Africa was infectious and for four nights we listened to their stories of life, hardship, history and beauty found in this country. Monty also taught Simon how to make a "real fire!"A legacy that will never been forgotten...
Hogs Back is up in the mountains, hidden in the trees. It has organic food, tarot readings, angel listenings, crystal headings and fairies. It's relaxed pace rubbed off on Simon and I and so although we did venture out to explore the peaks and trough around the town, we also enjoyed the gorgeous food in the shadow of a giant oak tree, we had a bath on the edge of a cliff top with literally nothing but trees and a view around us, we went to the hostel bar and it is here where we met Dan. Dan is the hostel owner. An English man in his early forties stuck in South Africa for 17 years. With his long beard, endless laughter, cheeky nature and sincerity in all he does he became our bar buddy, staying up so late that his own bar manager kicked us out! We dissected the world, we shared trials, tribulations and epiphanies. Simon and I both agreed that with some people there is such a connection, such a resonance that even such a brief crossing of paths makes an impact. Dan, Monty, Alison. All dear to us and significant. Hogs back may not have those promised fairies but it is a place of stories and tales; of magic and beauty.
Five days of Hogs Back and despite the reluctance we needed to launch into our next chapter. The acclaimed Garden Route. It is sold as the jewel of South Africa. Everything before it had taken our breath away and so it had much to live up to.