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Where the Streets have no Name

Coasting along the Transkei



Riding Vepsas in the Transkei

After planting numerous trees in East London to offset our carbon emissions, we set out for the Transkei in blustering winds like the blasts of a fire-less dragon. Passing through the borders of the old Ciskei, I felt a cold shiver to think of our country’s dark history of apartheid.

Too soon we had to turn off the tar, following a dirt road mired with giant potholes as if the earth was opening up to swallow us whole. Battered by the wind, jolted by the road, the idea of a kidney belt (which protects your vital organs from strain or a crash and supports your back) suddenly became more appealing.

Transkei rural village scene

A gang of dirt bikers came screeching around the corner like bats out of a cave, perhaps more suited to the terrain than us, but going too fast to truly appreciate it.

We knew we were close when long yellow grass so dry it was as if the sun had leached out its very life force became rolling green hills dotted with multicoloured huts like someone had scattered smarties across them. It was easy to spot the Transkei’s "Big Five" – cow, pig, donkey, goat and chicken.

Cow in the transkei

The sun was long past its zenith as we pulled through the gates to Bulungula, riding between vast rain-forged gorges that threatened to break our bikes in two.

Riding our Vespas up a steep hill in the Transkei with gorges

The next obstacle was sand so thick it was like wading through lard. While Chris stopped to take a photo, I crept past, gravely underestimating the width of my saddlebags, which bumped Chris’ bike so hard that it caused both scooters to topple over like dominos, while I sprawled over them like a fallen stuntman.

Located in Nqileni, one of the poorest, most remote villages in South Africa, Bulungula is testament to the fact that ecotourism can be an effective poverty-fighting tool. Owning 40% of the lodge and its profits, the community is very much a part of Bulungula, which was overflowing with guests, guides and village kids.

Completely off the grid, Bulungula uses solar energy, captures rainwater and reuses kitchen and shower water (filtered through three ponds and a banana circle) for the garden.

Waterless compost toilets, rocket showers (a chimney-like system that heats water by drawing hot air upwards using just a tiny amount of paraffin) assure their eco credentials, while co-owners, Dave Martin and Rejane Woodroffe are doing incredible community development work through the non-profit organisation, the Bulungula Incubator.

That night a storm hit us, making our safari tent flap in the wind like a pelican without wings.

After long hikes on the beach, a tour that took us into the heart of the village and even saw us trying to balance a bucket of water on our heads, it was time to head out to Zithulele Mission Hospital.

 

We'd be checking out the environmental work of Roger Galloway, founder of the Wild Wild Coast, which works in partnership with the Jabulani Rural Health Foundation to facilitate their environmental projects.

Carrying a bucket of water on my head at Bulungula

 

The hard road to Zithulele

Suckers for punishment, we’d decided to take the coastal gravel roads through the Transkei.

Zithulele Mission Hospital

Arriving somewhat broken, we enjoyed a cup of rooibos before Roger took us on a tour of his indigenous nursery, telling us about some of his projects which include clearing invasive aliens, tree plantings, building a community play-park and school, interest-free micro-finance and skills development, a permaculture food garden and greywater system, and so many more it was somewhat daunting.

Arriving somewhat broken, we enjoyed a cup of rooibos before Roger took us on a tour of his indigenous nursery.

He told us about some of his projects which include clearing invasive aliens, tree plantings, building a community play-park and school, interest-free micro-finance and skills development, a permaculture food garden and greywater system, and so many more it was somewhat daunting.

Roger Galloway and Melissa Andrews talk gardening and permaculture

 

Heavy mulching in display

 

Mbolompo Homestay

Roger has also spearheaded the formation of the Mbolompo Homestay, village-based accommodation that is the home of the Siyephu family.

Arriving at Mbolompo Homestay in the Transkei

The three of us formed a mini biker’s gang through the village to the homestay, which enjoys stunning views over the Mncwasa River mouth.

 

A sheep at Mbolompo Homestay, Transkei

 

Dorm hut at Mbolompo Homestay, Transkei Xhosa kid waves bye at Mbolompo Homestay

 

Staying in a traditional Xhosa rondavel made from mud, thatch and a cow dung floor, we enjoyed ablutions constructed with clay bricks, earth mortar, cob, earth plaster and as much recycled material as possible.

Ablutions at Mbolompo Homestay

Rocket showers, a living roof, bamboo guttering and old potjie pots for basins further limit their environmental impact.

We took a hike with the youngsters of the Siyephu family to check out the beach, rolling our way down the grassy hills and skipping next to the river.

Rolling down grassy hills, Transkei

 

Kid fishing at Mncwasa River. Transkei

All road trips test your endurance to the limit, but the next day was my personal Achilles Heel. Just 10 kilometres from Mbolompo, changing down on a steep uphill and taking off again in first gear, my bike shot forward, front wheel in the air, and I embraced the hard, stony ground yet again.

Fallen Vespa in the Transkei

The story behind Hole in the Wall

Back on that horse, we rode to Hole in the Wall, forged by powerful waves against sandstone and shale over millions of years and a symbol of the Great Cattle Killing, a historical tragedy that saw thousands of Xhosa starve after following a prophesy commanding them to kill all the cattle and destroy their crops.

Hole in the Wall, Transkei

As the story goes, a young girl called Nongqawuse saw a messenger from the realm of the ancestors at a waterhole. She told her uncle Mhlakaza about her vision. As an important Xhosa priest, Mhlakaza's social rank ensured great impact to the prophecy he derived from his niece's vision.

He announced that soldiers who were incarnations of the souls of dead Xhosa warriors would arrive on the 18th of February over the sea, come onto land through the "Hole in the Wall" and defeat the hated British. But, he continued, the Xhosa had to make a sacrifice to help the warriors by destroying all their cereals and killing all their cattle.

After the victory, there would be food in abundance for everybody. The Xhosa followed the instructions in his prophecy to the letter, killing their entire stock of cattle. The catastrophe took its course. Thousands of Xhosa starved and the British had an easy time conquering the remaining people.

Mpako River, Hole in the Wall

 

Hole in the Wall

Continuing along some of the worst roads we’d encountered so far, we rode up such a steep, rocky and windy hill (washed away by recent floods) that Chris took a sharp corner and wasn't able to avoid falling into a gorge.

Right behind him (perhaps too close) I attempted to sneak past, but seemingly didn't have enough power, cut out and wasn't able to prevent the bike from sliding backwards, which caused me to topple over backwards like a drunk off a barstool, lying on the road determined never to get up again.

Fallen Vespas, Transkei

Our bikes lay there like fallen soldiers, while we gathered our wits to try again.

Mawotsheni Community Project

Arriving at Mawosheni Community Project just outside of Coffee Bay, we met Kate Gething Lewis, who has been helping out for the past two years.

However, she was quick to assure me, the project is run by the community, and in fact started when Nomapuzi, a teacher in the area, saw the need for a pre-school.

With no funds, no salary and no school other than a ramshackle rondavel, Nomapuzi walked three kilometres every day to give her children the best start in life she could possibly offer.

happy child on swing, Mawotsheni Community Project

Today, the project is supported by Willen en Doen (“Will it and Do it”) is home to a thriving food garden, community centre, spaza, future orphanage and compost toilets, and offers skills development including intricate sewing projects using recycled materials.

Swamped by kids at Mawotsheni Community Project

It's the likes of shy Siphokazi Soya, who started volunteering at the spaza shop because she hopes to eventually earn some kind of income, who will benefit from Mawotsheni. Siphokazi's story is the story of many - she dropped out of school at Grade 11 because there was no money to pay the annual school fees of R200.

With four core members and volunteers from the community like Siphokazi who are a vital part of Mawotsheni, including the headman who does the security detail, the project is well on its way to being 100% sustainable. 

Riding to Mdumbi

Vespas stopped at a bridge in the Transkei

Brimming with inspiration we rode up to Mdumbi along some more savage roads, marvelling at our tyres ability to withstand the abuse. Stalked by a bakkie (small truck) just behind us, we allowed it to overtake, only to then brake constantly to keep to its speed. We overtook again and had endure it's constant presence for most of the ride.

Fortunately people in the Transkei were always friendly - a slack-jawed stare was nearly always followed by a wave, though it was hard to simultaneously wave and ride without missing the cavernous potholes that appeared as if about to swallow us.

We rode straight past the backpackers all the way down a joke of a road to the beach, which stretched before us in a display of magnificient splendour. Chris had to ride both bikes up while I took up the mantle of photographer (conveniently masking my fit of nerves at the road's condition).

Riding a Vespa at Mdumbi Backpackers

Mdumbi is Fair Trade Certified, 30% owned by local employees and has an NPO called Transcape to address development in the surrounding area - looking at health and education to job creation. The NPO also assists people affected by HIV/AIDS through awareness raising, support, home-based care and treatment programs.

Environmental care is also considered - there's extensive gardens to produce organic fruit and vegetables (including a permaculture garden started by Sean Spender), recycling, solar backup systems and heating as well as a greywater filtration system, while they work with the local Mankosi community and University of Cape Town to monitor marine resources.

After a night spent in one of their comfortable rondavels, bikes parked as close to the hut as possible, we woke up in the early morning to the frenzied barking of the backpacker's dogs, who'd adopted us after we took them for a hike the previous evening.

Peering out in the dusk, we saw a guy in a red jacket running away, thankfully without carrying any of our belongings (we'd left our bags on the bikes to save the hassle of taking them off only to reload them the next morning).

Inspired by the Kraal Backpackers

Fortified with a brief breakfast, we tackled the last leg of our journey with gusto and were rewarded with newly graded gravel roads all the way to the Kraal.

Parking our bikes outside we rushed to the edge of the cliff to admire the crashing waves, and spotted hundreds of dolphins teeming in the ocean, surfing the waves and leaping joyously in the air, as happy and in their element as a world-class ballerina on stage.

Hundreds of dolphins surfing a wave

The Kraal is completely off the grid, running on solar energy, gas and candles, while water is heated using a hybrid water system (combining a rocket shower with a donkey boiler).

They also capture 23000 litres of rainwater, reuse all their greywater (filtered through a reed bed) and have built a biogas toilet (which creates energy from waste).  Naturally, they also grow their own vegetables, and have formed Kraal Toddlers, a rural non-profit organisation that aims to improve health, living and learning conditions through awareness, education and local empowerment.

Some of the work includes nutrition programmes, building community and school-based playgrounds, sustainable farming and gardening projects, traditional crafts and cultural heritage and the education of local communities on eco-tourism and sustainable lifestyles.

Waking up to more dolphins steaming past as if on repeat, our life in the city felt like an unsettling dream. Fortunately, South Africa has so many more eco spots to see that life on the road is long from over.

View from the Kraal Backpackers

Catch us next time as we venture to the little-known wonder of Magwa Falls, getting seriously lost and finding some equally serious adventure.

Check out the latest blog - Road-trippin: Lusikisiki to Durban

 

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