Whilst travelling through South Africa on the Baz Bus we took a trip to Coffee Bay on the 'Wild Coast' and spent 3 days of fun there, making friends, experiencing culture and taking life as it came...
On arrival we were presented with a free beer and had the 'Buffalo Rules' of the bar explained: always drink with your left hand, get caught drinking with your right and you have to 'down' the drink! As it was a Sunday, there was also a free dinner - in our case, chicken potjie (a type of stew with melt in the mouth chicken, vegetables and potatoes) which was amazing. This local dish, cooked in a three legged pot over a fire or barbeque, is one that has to be sampled in South Africa and was fast becoming a favourite. We also ate in the bar area on other nights throughout our stay and the food continued to be tasty, local dishes (including freshly caught fish/seafood, banana bread etc) which were good value (approx 35-40ZAR for 2 courses).
Coffee Shack backpackers is known for its 'party' atmosphere, however it is also a place where peace and serenity can easily be found. The staff are friendly, helpful and seem to enjoy working there as much as we enjoyed visiting. The backpackers hostel offers a wide range of accommodation including camping, dorms, twins and, our choice, rondavels. These round houses are across the Bomvu River which, in itself, presents a unique experience as the mouth is close to the easiest crossing points, so at high tide you can be stranded on either side! All the accommodation is clean, and the ladies bathrooms are amazing - sinks carved out of huge chunks of rock, decorated daily with local flowers! The communal areas are fantastic, plenty of kitchen space, tables and chairs to relax in, a giant hammock for book reading (or sleeping) alongside a fireplace with seating.
However, the biggest draw the backpackers has is its location. Coffee Bay was named after a ship carrying coffee was wrecked nearby; the beans came ashore and grew for a short while. There is no longer coffee in the area but the name stayed. It is located on the 'Wild Coast’, part of the Transkei region and is home to the Xhosa people. This area of South Africa is where many tribal traditions continue and the snapshots of life seen are more likely to be the stereotypical ‘real’ Africa of mud huts and traditional clothing. This does not in any way detract from the experience, yet visiting this country makes you realise it is a place of many parts, people and ways of life, none of which define South Africa by themselves.
One of the first activities we did one morning was to walk up the hill behind the backpackers to a view down into the bay and the dense green hills all around. It is a great area for walking and there are a few particular favourites including the hike to the ‘Hole in the Wall’ – a natural rock formation which some people choose to abseil down!
As well as the hikes previously mentioned, there are numerous activities on offer from either the backpackers or self organised including surf lessons, volleyball, drum making workshops and cultural experiences. Unlike many of the mass produced ‘tours’ marketed by other areas we had visited in South Africa, many of the people we met providing these experiences were locals who still continued their way of life but also astutely benefited from the tourism landing on their doorstep. The hostel actively works with the local community to improve education for local children, as well as educating visitors. One of the best examples of this was the Masizone Women’s Project – a local project, which with funding, provided the local women with an opportunity to practice their traditional skills and sell their crafts to help make a living. They had lots of Xhosa crafts on offer including woven baskets, wooden sculptures, bead work, traditional clothing plus stunning hand made paper with drawings depicting local scenes and ways of life.
Sundowners and Drumming
One of the ‘traditions’ we had been frequently told about in South Africa was the ‘sundowner’ – relaxing at the end of a good day with a cold beverage watching the sun go down. After 5 weeks in the country we had still not managed this, yet whilst at Coffee Bay, this became a reality. The staff at the backpackers loaded the majority of guests in to mini-buses (along with the obligatory coolers) and drove us to Mpuzi cliffs which overlook the Bay. We were accompanied by local children who sat and watched us watching them. Next came one of the most memorable parts of our visit – a drumming lesson whilst the sun went down.
Earlier in the day we had purchased a djembe drum from Silas, a member of staff who runs the drum making workshops (and is well known for ‘falling in love’ with at least one female member of the groups which arrive every few days on the Baz Bus!). Although we would have loved to have made it ourselves, time did not permit, however we did choose one of his own made ones, on the promise he would teach us to play. Our palm tree/springbok drum was taken to the cliff top with us, and after a short lesson, the drumming began. It is an enchanting sound and the local children treated us to some dancing to accompany the music, the sun went down, the moon rose and the beers kept flowing! A perfect evening.
Music and Memories
There are many impromptu/semi organised activities that take place in Coffee Bay. The staff are happy to allow guests to relax but will always be willing to arrange an activity if asked. One evening Silas’ brother bought his Mambazo choir to sing before dinner. I had only ever heard this type of music on a CD before and to hear it live is just breathtaking. The power and emotion in their voices was phenomenal. They sang about peace in Africa and I defy anyone who heard them not to be spellbound.
Another evening had Silas bring his drums around the fire and a group of us played. Silas led for a while then I was promoted to playing the bass and leading – nerve wracking but amazing nonetheless, all you need is a bit of rhythm and the rest seems to happen by itself. I did not play any recognisable tunes but the sound coming from the fire area was one which will remain inside me for a long time.
Silas now has his own tour guide company which is based in Coffee Bay and he can take you on some of the most popular hikes in the area as well as introducing you to some of the local Xhosa culture. For more information and details of prices check out his website www.coffeebaytours.com
In all, our time at Coffee Bay was relaxed and full of experiences with like-minded people. The backpackers was perfect for whatever you want it to be; you can party, you can relax, you can learn about the culture, keep busy, do nothing, whatever you choose, it will be.
We travelled on The Baz Bus (a backpacker mini bus which travels most of the major routes around SA, taking you door to door between hostels; www.bazbus.com) which drops off at Umtata Shell City service station and the Coffee Bay hostels can arrange to pick you up from there. Although we stayed in Coffee Shack backpackers (see below), there are two hotels as well as another backpackers and home stays can also be arranged. Coffee Bay is in an isolated area so don't expect TV, great phone signal or other mod-cons. It is one place where you can see some of how the 'real' South Africa is.
We stayed in a double rondavel at Coffee Shack (camping 70ZAR pp, dorms 120ZAR pp, rooms from 320ZAR) but there is at least one other backpackers - Bomvu Paradise (camping 60ZAR, dorms from 100ZARpp) and two hotels – Ocean View Hotel and the Coffee Bay Hotel (both rooms from 400ZAR/night).
As the area is quite isolated you need to ensure you have enough cash and provisions (if self catering in backpackers) to last your stay!