Friday, October 12, 2007

South Africa: The Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast

Leaving the Drakensberg under a cloud of cover, we made our way to the Wild Coast. Many know this area as the Transkei, as it was the largest apartheid-era homeland in the country and thus also the poorest. Even today, the area is still home to the largest concentration of black South Africans, and it felt more like East Africa to us, with rural villages and communities, and lots of un-penned livestock and small farms. In fact, they talk about the Transkei Big Five being goats, cows, pigs, sheep and dogs.

The area is home to the Xhosa (said with a click that we can’t seem to master) and Pondo people. And their simple rondavel (round, mud homes) huts are distinctive for their turquoise color. The color, however, while now both fashionable and traditional, stems from earlier times when families could only afford the discounted, off-color paint that a company tried to unload in the region.

This was also the birthplace of Nelson Mandela, and there’s a great museum in Mthatha that chronicles his childhood, rise to power, imprisonment, and release. It’s quite moving.

The natural scenery is also quite moving, and the new moniker ‘Wild Coast’ seems fitting. Rugged steep hills plunge into the sea, with little development or paved roads to be found. We first lay our head in Port St. Johns, where we had to stop to get our windshield wipers fixed. With help from some locals, Eric sought out the most trusted auto mechanic in town. Evidently he’s the only one who isn’t drunk before breakfast. Driving down a rough dirt road, Eric found a bare-chested, long-haired hippy smoking a morning spliff with his mug full of coffee. His assistant was on his second beer of the day, and another guy was sleeping in the back of a hatchback parked under a mango tree (both looked like Willie Nelson). Classic. And of course he was able to fix the problem in no time, unlike the mechanics in Kokstad at the service station.

The Wild Coast was probably one of the more culturally rich segments of our South African journey. We first ventured to a mud cave, where locals go to cover their skin with Xhosa mud, breathe in the healing properties of a natural sulfur vent, and drink from the restorative natural spring (smelly and salty!). People were amazingly welcoming, considering we were intruding a bit on their traditional rituals, and they seemed to take pleasure in helping us decorate our bodies. One guy, in particular, went to town on Eric. Eric showed his gratitude by doing an interpretive leopard dance that seemed to both impress and frighten everyone (see attached video).

Our Wild Coast adventures also included a stay out at the Kraal in Mpande, a self-sustaining backpackers´ lodge perched on an insanely beautiful stretch of the coast. No electricity meant beautiful candle-lit nights, while lots of rain made for a somewhat wet and slippery walk to the composting toilets in the middle of the night. This was our introduction to mussel cracker, a crazy delicious fish with huge chompers, shipwrecks, and drum circles. We know this latter bit is going to scare some of our indie rocking friends at home. The drumming at the Kraal was made all the more hilariously bohemian by the conversation about conspiracy theories, astral planes, and global consciousness shifts by our fellow dreadlocked drummers. But when in Rome...

Leaving Mpande, we made our way to Coffee Bay for gorgeous hilltop walks, cliff jumping into the ocean (watch the barnacles!), and more drum circles at the Bomvu Backpackers (that endorses its own tribal rhythms band).

The highlight here was local guide, Silas, who led us out to the Hole In the Wall, and kept us laughing with nicknames (Eric=sweetie, Kathleen=funny wife), local knowledge, and a huge warm grin.

When we were out at the Hole In the Wall, a naturally-carved rock that beautifully frames pounding surf, we happened up the initiation of a new sangoma, or traditional healer. You are born into a being a healer, it´s not something you make as a career choice, and it´s usually passed down through families. They are then trained to work with the forces of both the natural and the supernatural, as witchcraft and superstition still play a large role in traditional communities. We watched as the new initiate was baptized in the water, and then celebrated with a freshly-killed goat stew boiled in a huge pot.

No comments: