Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Into Zimbabwe: Bulawayo

We had no kitchen at our accommodation in Bulawayo, where we spent the first of our days in Zimbabwe, so we were often looking for places to eat. In areas of Africa less touched by tourism, sit-down restaurants are scarce, most eateries being of the take-out variety: bare concrete floor, stainless steel counter and rarely more than a Coca-Cola poster for decor. Many had good-sized menu boards on the wall with a wide variety of options, all for $1-$3 a serving: meat pies, beef stew, vegetable curry, samosas, and sadza (stiff porridgey maize meal, an African staple). But whenever we stepped up and tried to order off said menu, the woman behind the counter would look at us like we were out of our minds.

“We don't have it.”

“What do you have?” We'd ask.

She would then have a quick exchange with a man in the back room.

“Chicken and chips?” She'd say.

Chicken and chips, chicken and chips, chicken and chips. Regardless of what the menus show, apparently all Zimbabweans eat is chicken and chips, meaning a piece or two of anemic fried chicken and some soggy fries, freed at last from their heat lamp and stuffed into clear plastic bag. The one time we decided to eat at a sit-down place (you know, with tables, chairs, laminated menus, etc.) we told our waiter after he'd brought our drinks that we'd like to order food as well. He got a bit frantic and scared, ran to the kitchen, and came back saying, “here's what I can get you– I can get you chicken, some pieces of fried chicken... and some chips on the side. Yes?”

Disregarding the argument of whether these menus should stay posted, I assume they at one time more accurately reflected the repertoire of the establishments upon whose walls they were nailed. This is Zimbabwe, however, and while the situation has improved plenty, the menu boards above Bulawayo's take-out counters are evidence that, possibly in more stable times, the veggie curry was once available. In the same way, there is evidence of a once-healthy tourism economy in Zimbabwe: outside our hotel, a safari company's sandwich-board advert had been given a permanent home hidden behind the locked grate of a neighbouring doorway. On the highways we passed countless disused rest-stops, their picnic tables and garbage bins shrouded in overgrowth; in the tourist-info pamphlet rack there sits a fantastic brochure for Zimbabwean golf which likely hasn't been moved since 1973, and in the three nights we spent at our two-storey, fifty-room hotel right downtown, we were utterly alone.

In the courtyard at Berkely Place

People evidently just don't go to Zim without a reason. Prior to going ourselves, we'd met only three people who'd crossed its borders: a young woman who was born there and had gone with her boyfriend to visit relatives (fair enough), and one other Irish fellow who'd been on the road for over a year, traveling overland all the way from Europe (and who was contentedly riding minibusses with a backpack the size of a Frigidaire, therefore fitting into the 'crazies' category and needing no reason). President Mugabe's reckless tampering and the country's general economic and political woes have tagged the country as one best avoided. And as many a local will eagerly relay, this was true as recent as 2008, when inflation peaked at five billion percent (someone please explain to me how that is possible) and the supermarket shelves were barren. People are happy to complain about Mugabe, and use similar rhetoric to folks at home complaining about any disfavoured Western politician. “This is a peaceful country,” is what we heard time and time again, and while we're sure life in Zimbabwe is not all singing and dancing, as tourists we experienced a country as easy, friendly, and pleasant as one could hope for.

Upon arrival in Bulawayo, one of the first things that struck us was the money: since the Zim dollar is altogether worthless (more on that to come), the country now runs on US currency. We were armed with mint-fresh notes from home, but the first domestic bill we received (as change for a serving of chicken and chips, of course) was the soggiest, most worn out little one-dollar we've ever seen. The date said 2006 but it looked like it had spent the last four years taped to the forehead of a coal miner. While US money is dominant, no American coins are used – we received South African change, eight Rand going into one dollar. To help with the confusion, many stores accept Rand as well, the exchange rate varying from 7:1 to 10:1.

That extra year can make all the difference!

Bulawayo is striking in that the city has apparently undergone zero development since the 1950's. I'm no expert, but the entire downtown core hearkens to a single era of architecture, with little modification over the years. Boxy buildings, rarely extending higher than six or seven storeys, are graced with evocative art-deco lettering, and the double-wide boulevards are lined down the center with turquoise lampposts. In amongst the time-capsule edifices are a few Victorian buildings from the Southern Rhodesia gold-boom years (Zimbabwe has only been called so since 1980). At the edge of the city sits a mammoth relic of a power station that, while apparently plagued with mismanagement and inefficiencies, sure looks cool. The freshest and most contemporary additions to the city are the beer ads.

Whether or not said ads can be erected level is another story

We took a train from this station. More on that soon!

If the company we kept at our hotel was any indication, it's safe to assume we were the only travelers in the entire city. There is not a great deal to do in terms of traditional sights, but we did make it out to the Bulawayo Railway Museum, behind the train station. Neither Alanna nor I have ever been ones for steam engines, but it was good fun, and pleasing in how it differed from anything similar at home. One of the museum's most significant possessions is the luxury rail car used by our pal Cecil John Rhodes in his travels around the country. Given the man's stature no expense was spared, and the car remains outfitted with piles of original silverware and crystal. The car's value must be astronomical, and we would have been satisfied simply gazing into the windows, but the museum's 'acting curator,' a guy my age, produced a key, and led us through a casual tour of the car, encouraging us to touch or pick up anything we pleased. Any such exhibit at home would have been sequestered with velvet rope, but in Zimbabwe, Rhodes' most precious cutlery is fair game.

After the Rhodes car, the curator left us alone to snoop around the acre-plus yard of train cars and engines on our own. Some were locked, some weren't – we were permitted to wander as we pleased, force doors open, and climb over things. I wouldn't doubt that we browsed the best and biggest large-scale train collection on the continent, and in terms of bang-for-buck and pure explorability one would be hard-pressed to find an equal anywhere. Many a four year-old would have thought they'd died and gone to heaven, and there there's something alluring about big weighty machines that even a flimsy art student like me can't deny.

As far as food goes, we did manage to find some more diverse meals, including a very decent fast-food pizza chain that had – gasp – a vegetarian option (though the chicken and chips thing still plagues us, we're in Malawi now and thought we were ordering shawarmas for lunch today but received what was basically chicken and chips with fancier seasoning). Bulawayo was the first real instance of us being without certain amenities we'd become used to on our travels: namely any form of self-catering kitchen, or hot showers, or toilet paper in the bathrooms, or cheese in the supermarkets (we are going to miss you, cheese!). I felt we were on the brink between the “well-established backpacker circuit” form of traveling and something different – 'harder' may not be the right word, but at least more alone, more expected to step out of our comfort zone a smidgeon. But who am I kidding, there was fast-food pizza, so really, how hard can it be?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Black, White and Gold: Johannesburg in a Day

In South Africa, just about everywhere you go, the word on everyone's lips seems to be 'crime'. Crime in the cities, crime in the country, crime with guns, knives and fists, sex crime, gang crime, war crime...You begin to wonder what people would talk about at the dinner table if it weren't for rape and homicide. You also begin to wonder how much of this dinner-table gossip has directly contributed in the erection of high cement walls trimmed with electrical fencing, and how much of it might well be entirely unnecessary.

Nowhere is the topic hotter than in Johannesburg, where the extremes of poverty and wealth compounded with the ubiquity of illegal firearms make for an often deadly combination. Although we remain skeptical that Johannesburg is in fact overrun with gun-toting criminals who would kill for an iPhone, we were swayed by the stories of fellow travellers (some of whom were mugged before even leaving the train station) and decided to base ourselves in Pretoria, about 50k from the madness.

With its colonial government buildings, wide tree-lined avenues and malls teeming with moneyed teenagers and familiar brand names, Pretoria did have a safe, sedate feel. Walking in the suburbs, passing the dignified embassies of Algeria, Slovakia and Singapore (Canada's was a mauve, stuccoed eyesore straight out of Richmond, BC) you couldn't possibly feel further from harm. But aside from the city's graceful gardens and buildings, and a handful of uninspiring museums, our attention was inevitably drawn to its louder, more vibrant and extravagant neighbour: Jozi, Jo'burg, eGoli – Johannesburg.

Given all the negative things we'd heard about Jo'burg (and the fact that we lacked our own transport) we opted to stretch our budget and sign up for an organized tour. Not ten minutes in, we were regretting our decision, as our tour guide – a doddering Afrikaaner woman who had apparently been in the business for 25 years – turned out to be about the least informed 'local expert' one could possibly imagine. Half of the things she told us either came from the tour brochure or were written on a plaque right in front of us. It was like like paying $500 for a university course, only to be read to from the textbook by someone with a PhD in the subject. However, we did have to give her credit for knowing where all the stars stay when they come to Johannesburg – and for having an (almost) close encounter with Richard Branson.

Despite our guide's inability to tell us a single thing we didn't already know, and her blatant disrespect for, well, just about everything, she did serve her purpose of getting us to the sights and home again. First, we visited the Hector Pieterson museum, which commemorates the struggle for equality, with particular attention paid to the role that youth played. In June 1976, school children in Soweto marched to the police station to protest against the implementation of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in their schools. More or less completely unprovoked (accounts differ – some argue that the children captured/beat/set fire to a police dog) police opened fire on the children. In about fifteen minutes, 23 children were shot and killed, including Hector Pieterson, a 13-year old boy who became an icon of the struggle when this picture was published in newspapers around the world.

A few blocks away from the museum is Nkagane street – the only street in the world where two Nobel Prize winners have lived (Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu). The Mandela home has been turned into a museum, where tourists can wander through rooms showcasing photos and memorabilia of South Africa's favourite political family. Of particular interest are the letters between Nelson Mandela and his daughters Zeni and Zindzi, and certificate from the CIA apologizing for their part in his arrest and subsequent 27 years of imprisonment.

Both museums offered sobering insights into South Africa's turbulent past, but for us, the most affecting experience came late in the day at the Apartheid Museum. Deliberately constructed to reflect the sombre, restricted atmosphere of apartheid, visitors enter the museum through either the 'Blankes' or 'Nie-Blankes' entrance – race is assigned at random. Scott is white and I am black. Through the first corridor, I can see and hear him, but a wall of bars separates us – whites and blacks do not mix. Reunited, we spent the next three hours immersed in the horrors of (and eventual triumphs over) apartheid. At every turn, you are confronted with candid black and white photographs of township life, shockingly racist excerpts from Nationalist Party speeches, video clips of resisters being gunned down by police. In one room, below a series of hanging nooses, you learn about the 121 political prisoners who died under apartheid rule, many of them at the hands of the authorities who created cover-up suicide stories to mask the true circumstances surrounding their deaths. Despite feeling a bit overwhelmed with information (the museum spans about 300 years of compelling history) it is the personal accounts of those who lived it that resonate for long after you leave the museum. You can't help but be absolutely awe-struck by their perseverance in the face of such crushing oppression. You also can't help but be similarly awe-struck by how long it was allowed to continue, finally coming to an end a mere 16 years ago.

Regardless of Johannesburg's reputation for brutality and lawlessness, there's no denying that it's the country's – and perhaps the continent's – epicentre. People aren't leaving the city, they're flocking to it. Long after the gold mines (which were the city's initial raison d'etre) have closed, people from all over Africa continue to be drawn to Jo'burg, for its reckless consumerism, its vibrant arts scene, its endless possibilities. Sixty years after Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu opened the country's first black law firm here, in a society divided along racial lines, Johannesburg has emerged from apartheid a complicated city, scarred, but forever promising.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


If this entry comes off as coloured slightly in the negative, it is possibly only partly the fault of the city – in Durban we had to endure the final in a series of camera woes, where we were charged R200 to be told Alanna's year-old Canon (which she'd carried from Port St. John's, where it came in contact with a very mischievous Indian Ocean) was basically unfixable. Alas. We've since shelled out for a new one and the photos will resume as we get up to date. Since we have no photographic evidence of Durban, I'll throw in some random photos of the trip so far, and we can all pretend they're relevant.

In Cape Town, in the Castle of Good Hope Prison. All the wooden beams in the cells were covered with delightfully typographic carvings, and were often not without a sense of humour.

In Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Cape Town. A botanist with some family issues?

We both knew little about Durban before embarking on our trip, but over the course of our journey it has earned itself a mediocre reputation, and looks to be hot on Joburg's heels as the least safe place in the country – the big wall-map at our hostel had suggestions of where not to go. Much of the tourism literature markets the city as a beach-time summer-fun city, less for backpackers and more for those with a vehicle and a family and an eye on resort accommodation. The city sports an urban beachfront in the tradition of Waikiki and Miami Beach, and dolphin imagery abounds.

Ostrich eggs at the supermarket in Outshoorn, the 'Ostrich Capital of the World.' R29 is about $4.

In Cango Caves, Outshoorn. Crawling through tiny holes very far underground, lots of fun!

Behind the beach, the downtown core is a dense grid of drab apartheid-era office towers, dusty Victorian architecture, and a significant (so we're told) number of Art Deco buildings, in all stages of repair and lack thereof. Like every South African hub, Durban is in the midst of a comprehensive facelift prior to the World Cup – most noticeably in the renaming of streets to reflect a more historically representative nation. Bid adieu to the anglo comforts of Alice Street and Point Road, say hello to Masabalala Yengwa Avenue. The marathon-long blocks are crammed with tiny businesses, and, as is common in these parts, those unable to afford retail space simply set up shop in the gutter. Opposite the supermarket a man had established his own, and on a shanty plywood table was milk, cheese and other perishables laid out in the 28-degree urban swelter. Cell-phone faceplates seem to be big business, and often we passed young guys on the sidewalk holding a single leather belt or polo shirt, ready for barter.

In Storm's River, among the drab general stores and tourism facilities there was a storefront dedicated solely to some guy's Cadillac collection.

A bathtub at the edge of a cliff at our hostel in Hogsback, a strange Tolkien-themed town way up in the forest. There was a drought and we'd have felt bad filling it up.

For those less keen on sandcastles, Durban's claim to fame is its Indian population, the largest outside of India. The city's novelty dish is 'bunny chow,' basically curry in a bread-bowl (which we didn't eat), and there are a few beautiful mosques around (which we didn't see). We spent most of our tourist hours trudging through areas we ought not to be, grappling with an info-booth clerk's incorrect directions to the pick-up point for a city tour (which we didn't find). The only real worthwhile thing we had time for was the Victoria Street Market, a two-storey curio mecca in a bland pinkish building. Apparently, the original market had a little more historical pizzazz, but became too unsafe for tourists, though the new one is still rather close to one of our hostel's no-go areas. Inside we browsed dunes of souvenirs: an endless maze of Big Five carvings and salad spoons. One can only hope whoever makes all this stuff is earning a fair wage. The rules of African retail apply, and if the stall owners were any more coercive they'd have lassos. We explored the less foreigner-centric fish and meat market next door, but the four-dozen-too-many severed sheep-heads on display (skin on, skin off, your choice!) made our visit somewhat brief.

At Bulungula we met Evan from Hamilton, Ont. who was in the process of fashioning a cribbage board with scrap wood and a hand-drill.

Stoney Ginger Beer is our carbonated beverage of choice in Africa. Spicy ginger bite, beats Canada Dry tenfold! They often come in reusable silkscreened glass bottles like the old days.

So that was Durban. I feel we didn't completely give it a fair chance, but even if we did, my guess is that the city's most appealing sides would reveal themselves only in the company of an experienced local. For us it was the place that stole our cameras away, the place that overcharged for minibus rides, the place where not even the tourist-centre staff seemed to understand the bewildering city grid.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Up to the Roof

Southern Drakensberg

It hurts to say goodbye to the beach, but if it means installing yourself at the foot of the most badass mountain range in the world for a few days, well, wounds heal fast. I speak of the Drakensburg, a crescent of mountains which spoon the northeastern edge of Lesotho. While unassuming on a map, the pure age of these mountains reduces us twenty-three year-olds to mere specks in space and time. In a day's walk one can find dinosaur footprints in the hills, Bushman rock art in the caves, rainbow trout in the rivers (introduced by homesick Scottish settlers, natch) and the firepits of marijuana smugglers hiking their loot overnight into South Africa – basically all of prehistory up until, let's say, fifteen minutes ago. Before passing into Lesotho proper, we stayed at a backpackers' called Sani Lodge just outside and, because we can smell a bargain when we see one, settled into a three-night package deal which included all meals and a couple guided tours.

And we're barely at the top!
The main draw of this corner of the Drak is Sani Pass, a frighteningly ill-maintained set of hairpin switchbacks that weave up the mountains to the Lesotho border at the summit. The route is 4WD-only, by law. We were lucky enough to have the tour to ourselves – just us, a beige 1970's Land Rover, and our guide Matthew. We gathered that he'd recently broken up with his girlfriend, and the day was nuanced with a subtext of loneliness and regret.

The drive to the base of the pass is scenic beyond comprehension, rippled velvet-green slopes topped with stacked plateaus of basalt and sandstone. Being proponents of self-guided travelling we came to understand the value of a tour guide – the amount of knowledge our man Matthew could emit in a single day was astounding. An evolutionary quirk, for example, dictates that the Drakensburg's foliage must burn up once every five years to stay healthy, as certain seeds won't germinate without fire.

The switchbacks of Sani Pass. There was a dead horse at the side of the road.

At the top of Sani Pass, vehicle and bowels intact, we crossed the border. Once again, the shift in scenery was abrupt: the lush grasses gave way to barren rock, and stark shrubby mountains extended into the distance at unlimited visibility. We were in Lesotho (le-su-tu), the most elevated country in the world, the so-called 'Roof of Africa.' The country is completely surrounded by South Africa, but maintains a distinct and unique culture. On a stop for lunch we were met by three Basotho shepherds (the Basotho being the people of Lesotho, their language being Sesotho). The Basotho are a herding culture, and boys as young as fourteen are sent into the mountains to graze sheep and mohair goats, working alone or in pairs and living in makeshift stone huts, hours from the nearest town. Their get-up is the instantly recognizable combination of balaclava, heavy wool blanket draped over the shoulders, and galoshes, all in drab grey or brown. We saw them throughout the country, out on the hills or mounted on ponies next to the highway, and they have a timeless air about them, both grubby and dignified. One of the fellows we met played a homemade musical instrument made from string, a stick and a tin can. From their looks, one imagines them confounded by simple kitchen appliances.

All that said, I am still not accustomed to poking cameras into the faces of strangers, so I'll have to (bashfully) rely on this poached photo from a photography blog, where you'll find another informative post about the area surrounding Sani Pass.

Thanks, young shepherd! Thanks, John Queenan!

On the same tour we also had the privilege of visiting a village and popping into a local home for some homemade bread (cooked in cast-iron over a sheep-dung fire, very tasty) and traditionally-brewed sorghum beer (think very watered-down bread dough and you're getting close). Because of the short shelf-lives of such items in a landscape without refrigeration, any household with a surplus of perishables will sell them off, signaling the sale with a coloured flag outside the hut: red for meat, green for vegetables, white for beer, and yellow also for beer.

The following day we set out on a hiking tour through the Drakensburg foothills, and were once again alone with our guide. We explored the scenery and learned about the Bushmen, the true indigenous people of the area who hunted and gathered for millennia until as late as 150 years ago, when they were rendered basically extinct by white settlers and emigrating tribes from the north. While the Bushmen, or San people, lived all the way out to Namibia, The Drakensberg shelters the largest and most well-preserved collection of their paintings, and is a World Heritage Site because of it. There occurs much speculation over the paintings' intent, but the reigning theory is that they're depictions of witch-doctors' trance-fed hallucinations. In keeping with early rock art elsewhere, they look to be hunt fantasies – fat, healthy animals, in this case eland, pursued by armies of muscular men. Being somewhat of a big-game enthusiast myself, I got hot under the collar just looking at them, and had to go dip my head in a creek.

On the hike we spotted three species of antelope, they all looked basically the same but our guide was excited.


The taxi rank at the foot of Sani Pass is a decomissioned trade station from when the shepherds would bring their wool down on horseback in exchange for goods. This occurred until the 80's, now the wool is transported directly to Durban, the nearest city.

For most people one trip up Sani Pass is enough, but we did it doubly – first in a Land Rover, spacious, and with snack breaks; and two days later, crammed into a rickety van with our backpacks and fourteen other people. While Sani Pass is a scenic and thrilling tourist attraction (I've so far neglected to mention the “The Highest Pub in Africa” waiting for foreigners at the summit), it is also a functioning border post and the most viable way in and out of Lesotho for many of its residents, who travel to nearby Durban for supplies. The minibus taxis running up and down the pass are outfitted with four-wheel-drive, but they do lack the turning radius of the SUVs, and we had to pull three-point turns around some of the switchbacks, reversing tooth-clenchingly close to the precipice. Through customs at the top, we were met with women selling homemade balls of bread and maize porridge. The summit of Sani Pass is barely a kilometer away from the highest point on the continent south of Kilimanjaro, and it was foggy and vaguely Mongolian.

We came to spend over a week in the country, for the first time relying solely on the local minibusses to get around. We slept everywhere from a local Farmer's Training Center to an prim thatched-roof guest cottage, to a puzzling B&B in a building that would have passed for abandoned had we not known otherwise. We did feel Lesotho lacks the tourism infrastructure of its lone neighbour, especially for those without their own transport. But who can blame them, as the country gets few visitors – many travelers opt to visit Swaziland, South Africa's other doughnut-hole country, instead. Accommodation was ill-marked and restaurants were scarce, and there was often just not that much to do for a couple of budget sightseers as us.

Sunrise over Mokhotlong

Morija Guest House

Though whatever Lesotho lacks in conventional sights, it makes up for ten-fold in its friendliness and its people. While we met many wonderful folk in South Africa, the country can't rival Lesotho in the almost unanimous warmth and openness of its citizens. From a bumbling tourist's perspective, the sight of a determined group of young men marching with conviction in your direction (in a large, dirty, overwhelming African capital city, no less) is supposed to be a signal to flee. But in Maseru, after we'd unveiled our guidebook to get our bearings, the men tromped up and proclaimed, “why are you looking at that book when you could so easily be asking us?” Each member of the group introduced himself with a handshake, and we received a set of clear and eloquent directions, and they offered their phone numbers if we happened to lose our way again. Each time we wore a lost look, someone would abandon their post to help us on our way, and all we had to do at the minibus ranks was show our pale Canadian faces and we'd be asked our destination and guided to the correct vehicle.

A Mokhotlong taxi rank, under one of Lesotho's spontaneous and short-lived storm-clouds.

The bad news is that I decided to abandon my camera on one such minibus, and, with Alanna's out of commission from water damage, we are short on photographic evidence of this pretty little country and the dinosaur footprints, crazy spiral plants, and god-awful breakfasts contained therein. It is depressing how much the lack of a little piece of electronics can hamper one's experience of a place, but at least we were without in Lesotho, a country that, while admittedly not all photogenic all of the time, left its indelible mark in other ways.

Monday, March 1, 2010


When you're traveling for six months in Africa, and simply updating your blog sets you back about eight dollars, you're constantly on the look-out for ways to save a few bucks. So when we heard that Bulungula Lodge offers free first night accommodation to those arriving by public transport, we jumped at the opportunity. The hostel staff in Coffee Bay (our departure point) were skeptical that it could be done, but with a simple set of directions sent to us by the staff at Bulungula, we hailed our first ride with confidence.

I should probably clarify what I mean by 'public transport' for those of you who might, like I did, mistake it for an organized, safe and comfortable way of getting from point A to point B. When it comes to public transport in South Africa, organization, safety and comfort are all quite literally foreign concepts. There are no timetables, formal stops, regulations about baggage or alcohol consumption, and certainly no capacity limits. You will never see a 'Bus Full' sign here. What you will see are customized vehicles emblazoned with things like 'Thanks God!' and 'Shut Up!' careening around pot holes at break-neck speed blaring everything from gangster rap to gospel. And unless you're claustrophobic or you really have to pee, it's really not a half bad way of getting around.

The first two minibus trips were surprisingly quick and painless. Disembarking at the taxi rank in Elliotdale, we were greeted by two lively Xhosa men who were extremely eager to take us to Nkanya (the closest town to Bulungula) non-stop, straight away, for the low price of R400 (about $60). Unfortunately for them, we're not as gullible as the colour of our skin would have them believe, and after telling them that R400 was much too much several times, they released my bag and let us find our own way. In the end, the two-hour trip cost us R25.

Nearing the end of the terribly-maintained rural road to Nkanya, the driver asked us where exactly we were trying to get to. When we told him Bulungula, he informed us that we should have gotten off a long time ago, that it was too far to walk, and that there was no transport that could take us there. He knew nothing of the river we were supposed to cross, or the ferry that allegedly operated there. Not wanting to abandon two clueless tourists on the side of the road, he called his friend, who thankfully knew a bit more about the area, and assured him that we had not in fact gone too far, and that we were still very much on track. From the end of the road, we need only hike a kilometre down the hill to the river, where we would be met by the eskepeni (ferry) operator, who would point us in the direction of the lodge.

When we got to the river, there was no sign of any type of conventional ferry, and the only people around were two very energetic kids monkeying about in a nearby tree. When Scott asked them if this is where the ferry came, they said 'yes'. When Scott asked them if he should just shout for the ferry, they said 'yes'. It quickly became apparent that the answer to every question was going to be 'yes'. Thankfully, after less than five minutes of wondering what to do, a boy seemingly sprung from the reeds on the opposite riverbed, waved at us and pushed a rowboat into the water. When he first reached us, he seemed like a very serious, diligent little ten-year-old, but once he'd ensured that we were safely in the boat and that the mud had been cleaned off my sandals, he became very chatty, albeit mostly in a language we did not understand. By the time we left him, about all we had ascertained was that he had babies in his family, watched boxing on TV, and was good at fishing. Also, I am a girl and Scott is a boy. It was nothing short of a revelatory journey.

From the shore, it was about a forty-five minute walk through undulating green hills dotted with multicoloured rondavels, maize fields and roaming donkeys and cattle. Before we even reached the lodge, we could tell that we were going to regret our decision to stay only three nights.

We were greeted by a very bubbly and animated host, who excitedly showed us around the property, making stops at the paraffin-powered rocket showers, the composting toilets and the rain-water collection system. It seemed as though every form of natural energy was being harnessed, and that the environmental impact of the lodge was very consciously being kept to a minimum. In fact, from the very beginning, we could tell that Bulungula was hands down the least intrusive (socially, culturally, environmentally) place we had stayed and almost seamlessly integrated with the place and its people. Literally, figuratively, and in the best way possible, it was miles away from anything we had experienced.

Recognize this guy? All the photos in our header were taken at Bulungula, and this could very well be the same donkey that appears up there.

Our humble abode for three nights

Bulungula just seems to be doing everything right. While our hostel at Coffee Bay also claims Fair Trade accreditation and extensive community involvement, Bulungula did things a bit differently, and in our view, a bit better. While Coffee Bay created jobs for locals to clean, cook and run the hostel, Bulungula encouraged locals to create their own, by setting up their own separate businesses, running village tours, taking guests on fishing trips, or operating a restaurant. Since these are private businesses, guests of the lodge pay them directly, eliminating the middle man, and empowering them in a way that I don't think is fully achieved by employing them as housekeeping staff. The other obvious difference was that the lodge was physically within the village. There were no gates or barriers separating the tourists from the locals – village children and dogs ran freely through the lodge, and guests were encouraged to wander the hills and talk to the locals (who as a community own 40% of the lodge). Notably, this was the only place so far where we were encouraged to pick up any of the local language.

Miles and miles of sand, why not practice your hand stand?

A morning dip in the Indian Ocean

On our second day, we signed up for a guided village walk, where we met some locals and developed a deeper appreciation for their way of life – much of which seems virtually unchanged for centuries. We visited the home of the sangoma (traditional healer), the headman (second-in-command to the chief) and the shebeen (the village pub, where men and women congregate to talk and drink Xhosa beer out of a communal recycled paint can). We were warmly received wherever we went, and were made to promise that we'd come back, and next time, with friends.

We were also taken to various projects either initiated or funded by the lodge. There was a lemongrass farm used for producing rooibos tea, a restaurant serving tea and pancakes, an agricultural diversification project, and most recently, an impressively-equipped and well-run pre-school. The school fees are entirely covered by proceeds of the lodge and donations, and the only requirement of enrollment is that at least one parent makes him/herself available once a month to come to the pre-school to work in the kitchen or help out as needed. It was pretty cool to step into a classroom that looked identical to one you would find in Canada, save the fact that all the posters for fruits and seasons and animals were in Xhosa (plus, you know, it was housed in a thatched-roof rondavel). 47 children aged 3-6 attend the school daily, with additional after-school programs running a few days a week for older children.

While Bulungula is probably far from most people's ideas of a utopia (clothes must be washed by hand, electricity is scarce when it's cloudy, the toilets kind of smell), you can't help but feel a sense of peace here. In the modern world, we are supposed to be increasingly connected, but when you visit Bulungula, you realize that in fact, in many ways, we are moving in reverse. When you talk to the people and see the way they live – close to the earth and each other – you'll find yourself wondering how and why we have deviated so dramatically from such a harmonious existence. Although there are no doubt problems here, you feel assured that they will not be glazed over for the benefit of tourists, and that the solutions will be both democratic and sustainable. More than anything, you will leave Bulungula with the memory of an ineffably beautiful place, and the inspiration to lead a more grounded life.