The Mthatha Shell Ultra City is no ordinary refulling station. People are buzzing around here, cars lined up on the side, schoolkids eating icecream. This is a pickup point for numerous shuttles, like the one i’m getting to the remote Bulungula hostel. The division between rich and poor is constantly highlighted in South Africa. As I sit watching from the window eating my ice cream, a man looks in the bin outside for left over food. Seconds later a young boy opens the bin to dispose of some rubbish, before climbing back into a Mercedes-Benz. The divide isn’t always over colour lines, this is a predominantly black Xhosa area – just 20 minutes from Nelson Mandela’s home.
After almost two hours wait (something referred to as Africa time) I’m met by an old man with a nice smile. “Are you going Bulungula? I say ‘Bulungula’, ‘Bulungula’, no one here.” I nod, “That’s me.” The bukkie (truck) is completely rammed with stock for the hostel. Two women climb out of the cab and proceed in attempts to rearrange, move and shove cartons and goods. After another 30 minutes we’re crammed in the dusty truck. I try to insist I sit in the back, but they refuse: “You’re our guest.”
The drive was a long 3 hours. After crazy lengths of time down dirt tracks and pothole ridden roads – I knew I was going somewhere real. Passing through a small town, I saw what someone had previously mentioned about the presence of Chinese shops with cheap goods. It’s strange seeing a town flooded with black faces and then a few Chinese ones appearing on the side.
We eventually arrived at the hostel. Set in the beautiful countryside in the Nqileni village – the lodge sits before a fantastic beach where the Bulungula river meets the sea.
The tour is extensive – and rightly so. This hostel is carbon neutral, using only solar energy to power the few electronic devices in the main lodge. The huts are authentic Xhosa built, sparse with furniture – the only light source a candle in the middle of the room. The most interesting and new thing for me were the compost toilets and ‘rocket’ showers. “Just do your thing and add two scoops of sand,” he says casually. The shower is designed, as one guest described, like a ‘big boys toy’. Quite literally a mini-rocket, you add parafin to the base and light the tissue on fire to produce ‘instant’ hot water. It’s not quite as effective as a boiler, but the offset is certainly phenomenal. With their efficiency and minimal use of resources, this lodge pays a minute fraction of other lodges – and it all adds to the experience, not to mention the all important environmental impact. The other empowering thing about Bulungula is that it’s a community hostel, with them owning 100% of the land and 40% of the hostel. The place is constantly buzzing with locals, a new source of income for many, entertainment and education for others.
Rising early, I finally caught sight of the true beauty of the area. I took a walk down the wide beach and sat on a sand dune, admiring the glorious surroundings. A few fishermen venture to the shore and I picture a brief dialogue with their parners: “Get me something to cook!”
Back at the lodge, I signed up for Canoeing – having enjoyed our brief session in Chinsta the previous day. My guide was Jambo, a young boy of 13 years. I was impressed with the confidence they’d clearly vested in this boy, and more so to find that he earns 2/3 of the fee – 40 out of the 60 rand it cost me. The river was enchanting, how rare to find such a spread of quiet, gorgeous nature. We had a laugh as we sped along the water before being completely exhausted, letting the canoe float and dangling our feet over the side.
We pull over to the side and I’m led up the hill to the ‘restu’, or the pankcake restaurant. These villagers must have some stamina and muscles because everything is over a hill, climbing up and down constantly. The restaurant is just a bare circular mudhut with a few benches and a parafic stove. As we discussed later – it’s amazing how little you need to make something so great – whilst we have everything and can’t make something basic. The pancakes were fantastic – Jambo and I wolfed them down.
With such little time to spend, I signed up to the village tour too. A young woman took me around, up and down the hills of the village. She explained to me different traditions, for example the brown stripe painted around a house symbolising that the husband has died, married women wearing headpieces and long skirts, the different sides of the house for men and women and so on. The most interesting, I think, is how if a family have twins they dig a special tree from the forest and plant it outside their house.
We joined a church group during song, the women were amazingly enthusiastic, one snatched the orange from my hand and took a bite. “Keep it,” I said, motioning with my hands. She handed it to someone else who took a bit and it continued. It’s amazing how many people got a taste of that orange.
The stories of Bulungula seem endless, and I only spent two nights there. Last night there was a party for one of the leaders who was leaving. After almost 9 weeks in South Africa, I finally had my thirst for Banoffee pie quenched, with freshly whipped cream. They managed to turn the lodge into quite a zone, with UV lights and all.
The one thing that gets repeated about Bulungula is the sky. There is no light pollution, you can see stars, planets, galaxies that you never thought existed. So very often, a shooting star. I think I could easily spend weeks there, cut off from the world and it’s unnecessary pace, just to reflect and ponder. But life goes on, and as my time grows ever shorter here, I’m forced to press on. So here I am, at the Shell Ultra City, waiting for the bus to my next destination.