The Transkei

South Africa's Wild Coast

South Africa’s Wild Coast


I picked up the Baz Bus, a hop-on hop-off style backpacker’s bus, in Umzumbe from Mantis & Moon. Unlike the various forms of transportation in SE Asia, this was a fairly legitimate way of getting around in that there was not a variety of caged poultry beneath my seat and the driver didn’t seem as though he might actively be trying to kill us. There were about twelve of us on the bus and ironically, one girl was from Lake Tahoe. Gotta love when life sends you little reminders that the world really is smaller than you think 🙂

Only two of us were heading to Bulungula – a French dude and me – so we hopped off at a Shell Station in Mthatha and boarded a shuttle headed to Coffee Bay. About 45 minutes into our drive, the shuttle pulled into a small superette. Alexis (the French guy) & I hopped off and were to wait until the Bulungula shuttle came to fetch us. After about 20 minutes of talking to some local high schoolers, including one who completely put me to shame by rattling off the names of every governor of every US state, the “shuttle” arrived, which was nothing more than a bakki with bench seats in the bed. We couldn’t sit in the back part of the bakki because it was too cold so four of us squeezed into the back seat of the cab with two in the front and we bumped and rolled over rocky, unpaved roads. 95% of my time in South Africa has been filled with warm, sunny days but this day (of course) was rainy & cold. Regardless, the Transkei is a beautiful, undeveloped part of South Africa where cows, donkeys, sheep & goats roam freely across rolling hills and through dense forests.

There were four South Africans in the shuttle plus Alexis and me. We stopped about halfway through our journey unexpectedly and while we waited for the driver to finish doing whatever it was he was doing, one man in the car turned to me and said, “We’re stopping for hot dogs & chips because that’s what you eat in America, right? You guys are obese like us! We match!!!” And then he nearly laughed himself into a coma and since I couldn’t really argue, I laughed with him along with everyone else in the car.

We reached Bulungula around 6:30 p.m. but even in the cold & darkness, it had a warm and welcoming atmosphere. Dave, the owner, gave us a tour of our solar-powered randaval, bathrooms complete with compost toilets and rocket-powered showers (which are so cool!), and explained all of the activities available at the lodge.

The lodge is run entirely by the community. Whereas in other rural villages it would be unsafe for tourists to walk around, that is hardly the case in Bulungula for a number of reasons. Firstly, the village sees tourism as an income generating opportunity and secondly, the tribal authority basically laid down the law on community members by saying something along the lines of, “We need money. Tourists have a lot of it. Be nice to them or get out the hell of here.” And so with that, tourists are afforded the opportunity to experience a bit of tribal culture without having to fear for their lives.

On a more serious note, it really is an incredible project. The lodge is inspiring local businesses, improving educational facilities and teaching the community to become self-reliant which are recurring necessities in rural South African communities. Excited by the next few days, I grabbed a cider, settled in by the fire to chat with some of the other guests, chowed down on homemade chicken curry with roti and called it an early night.

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You didn’t weigh your produce?

An experience worthy of mention is grocery shopping in South Africa. As I’ve made clear, finding a grocery store with edible produce is a mission in & of itself but there are a myriad of other curious nuances.

We drove 25 minutes south to a town called Port Shepstone, which has the nearest reliable food store. The Super Spar looks like any other grocery store you’d see in the US but the products are slightly different. I’d like to draw upon the following examples to illustrate my point:

  • Milk is not refrigerated. It’s basically a larger version of the Parmalat-style cartons that my mom used to put in my lunchbox, which begs the question of “If it doesn’t need to be refrigerated, what exactly IS it?”
  • Black beans do not exist in South Africa. I’ve heard rumours of their existence but I personally have never actually seen them.
  • All beans and most canned vegetables are in brine. What’s brine, one might ask? It’s basically some kind of pickled liquid that preserves your food while also giving it a tuna fishy taste. So if you manage to find chick peas, rest assured that they will taste like canned tuna.
  • Forget quinoa, kale or any of that other hippie dippie crap you’d get in the US…here, you’re lucky to find couscous.
  • Marshmallows are pink. As in Easter egg pink. They taste exactly the same but a pink dye is added to this already artificial concoction. For what purpose, no one seems to know.

  • Cream soda is green. LIME green. And if you discuss this with a South African, they will adamantly argue that cream soda that is not green, is weird.
  • Avocados are the size of your head. But I see this as more of a cause or rejoicing than confusion.
  • Overwhelmed by unfamiliar products and brands, I fill my basket and head to the cash register. As the cashier is ringing up my groceries, she asks if I want a packet. Frantically, I try to guess what she might be asking given the context of the situation and respond “yes” without much conviction. So she pulls out a packet and starts putting my groceries inside.

    Jenna – 1, Super Spar – 0.

    She slides an avocado over the scanner, picks it up and snarls at me, “You didn’t weigh your produce?”

    “Oh, um, no…I’m sorry.”

    A look of utter disgust washes over her face as she has someone else run to weigh my produce.

    Jenna – 1, Super Spar – 1

    She shoves all of my belongings into two packets, clearly not concerned by the possibility of my packets ripping and waits for me to pay. She doesn’t give me a total and there is no total price clearly visible. I hand her R 300 in hopes that this amount will be enough. The cashier shakes her head and gestures for me to hand her another bill so I fork over another 100 note. The cash drawer pops open, she forcefully hands me my change and the person behinds me nearly shoves me out of the way.

    I’m not sure what the final score was in this match but I think it’s safe to say that I hardly emerged victorious. Maybe I’ll have better luck next time…