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The time warp that is Mdumbi – an American perspective

“Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” – Doc Brown, Back to the Future

My wife, Jessica, tells me Grahamstown is just off the N2. We’re making good time. She’s looking through our latest version of Coast to Coast backpackers guide, already curling with wear. 

CLIFFS FROM MDUMBI TO COFFEE BAY

Grahamstown has a cathedral, she says, and every year there’s a huge art festival. It may also be the last town we’ll be able to draw money.  Mike told us we would need cash.

We met Mike in Asia and he invited us to South Africa, promising he’d take care of us.  True to his word, he has given us his car while he tries to stay in his bunk on a ship pitching in winter swells off the coast of Namibia. Mike said we had to see the Wild Coast – we had to see “a different side of Africa”.  Over Skype, he’d been telling us about a hamlet called Mdumbi: “It’s like stepping into something real,” he promised. 

“It’s a time warp.”

We live in Mississippi.  A trip home to Virginia takes about 11 hours. When I lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I would drive 8 hours to North Carolina to surf a Saturday swell, so I’m very used to distance driving. But cattle crossing the N2? Now that’s something new. Stretches of the road without markings… also new.

I remind myself: “This is Africa…  This is Africa.”

Grahamstown sounds English, but we evidently stand out like sore thumbs in the plaza, where lines snake out from ATMs that don’t work. It takes hours to get cash.

Already, far from our destination, Africa is changing. As if, layer by layer, European influence is being pulled back like a buckskin. 

LOOKING FROM VUKANI OUT OVER MDUMBI

 Almost there

I am averaging 12km/h.  The sun bursts and starts to fall.  I don’t want to pop a tire, but I also don’t want to be caught out here overnight.  The headlights of the “Green Mamba” (Mike’s Toyota Tazz), are puny in the electricless gloom. 

This is frontier. 

I’ve heard the undercarriage scrape against the road. It’s like we’re chasing an animal, not a place – it keeps running ahead. 

We pass a cluster of huts and kids reach out their arms and yell’ “sweets!”

We rattle on, tires throwing back unsettled dust that hangs like a chalky sky.     

Arrival

Mdumbi is the end of the road.

We skid to a stop, children surrounding our car, and we barely see them in the night light. We take a breath and internally celebrate that we’ve made it to Vukani Backpackers.

A bald man with a big white smile greets us and all I get from the conversation is that his name is “Spargs”, I think…  Spargs shows us our room and gives us candles. 

I tell Spargs we’re hungry, and he sends his kids to guide us to Mdumbi Backpackers. He seems to understand me, but I, unfortunately, can’t say I understand him. 

The children guide us without lights through the dark. Stubbing our toes on the sharp rocks in the road, we pass the silhouettes of donkeys and cows, wandering or sleeping in our path.  

VIEW OVERLOOKING VUKANI AND, BEYOND, THE ROAD AND MDUMBI

Lodging

There are two backpackers in Mdumbi. Mdumbi Backpackers (MB) is a five-minute walk from the village and provides the closest access to the beach.

Owned by Johann, a local surfer, it’s the only place in the area with electricity.  Other amenities include wifi, toilets, a recreational area with pool tables, a communal kitchen, and camp grounds.  You can stay in a traditional rondavel (double, R280, or dorm, R130), or camp (R70). 

MB is community-minded, offering employment and English lessons to locals. If you want a secluded place with an English-speaking owner, this is the place for you. 

One night, we linked up with other travellers and had a huge braai in the communal area, cooking local fish we’d bought among sausages and other meats, drinking beer and wine, and enjoying the warmth of other South African travellers.

Unlike MB, Vukani Backpackers is not listed in Coast to Coast.  Vukani offers rondavels for single rooms/dorm rooms (R115) or one of three double rooms overlooking the river mouth (R240).  There’s a kitchen with a solar-powered light, a refrigerator you can share with the family, an outdoor shower with a generator for hot water, and now, I’ve heard, flushing toilets. Latrines were introduced just in December 2013.  Beds are comfortable.

Every night, the clear winter skies and ocean meld into a void and the lack of electricity in the village brings the stars close, all around us, like fireflies. 

Vukani has the best views in Mdumbi as well as a closeness to village life.  If you want a local experience or have a tight budget, or if you just want a simple yet comfortable experience, I’d recommend Vukani.    

Coffee Bay

Food

Mike was right about the time warp. We seem to almost forget time: other than sunrise and sunset, food is all that brings to mind the time of day. 

MB provides breakfast and lunch most of the day. Guests need to sign up for dinner by 1PM the day of.  The food is fantastic and costs only R60. Dinner includes soup, salad, Xhosa bread (baked at MB), and dessert. 

Ziyudama, next to Vukani, is a one-table restaurant and shebeen, or watering hole, where you can eat traditional Xhosa meals in a thatched hut overlooking the river mouth or have a beer. The restaurant is open for breakfast from 8:30AM and requires a three-hour notice only for lunch and dinner. 

Doing nothing – part of the bliss

Part of being in Mdumbi is doing nothing, but if you want to stay busy, there are options. If you’re keen on kayaking, the folks at Ziyudama can easily help you get in touch with someone who can help you. 

Just down the hill from MB is the point, where there are often good waves. It’s also a great spot for fishing.  The Indian Ocean is warm year-round, and most days you can surf or swim in boardshorts. 

It’s a good idea to have a spring suit or 1mm wetsuit in winter.  I had a range from stomach to head-high waves four days in the week with two to five surfers out. Every morning, I would look out from the grass in front of our room at the swell lines, trying to gauge the size.  The current (from the point to the river mouth) got very strong at times. Watch out for sharks.  After one of my best waves on the trip, I turned around, waist deep in the shore break, to see whales shooting out of the horizon and schools of dolphins surfing the waves.    

Many visitors hike to Port St. John’s and if you don’t know your way around, simply ask at MB for a guide. Coffee Bay is a three-hour hike with sprawling vistas, the path weaving in and out of villages smaller than Mdumbi.

A popular hike goes from Mdumbi south to the Wild Lubanzi Backpackers (four hours), and to Bulungula (six hours from WL), the following day.  The roads between these locations are rough, so hiking may be a good alternative. 

Walk around, buy cheap fresh fish in the yard at Ziyudama, explore the fields and trails, or have a beer with villagers who will, with a smile on their faces, encourage you to buy.

You want to leave?  You want breakfast?

It’s our last morning, and I try to give Spargs and his family the eggs and bread we have not eaten.  He sits us down in the kitchen, and one of his daughters makes us breakfast – she refuses to take no for an answer. I don’t want to be rude, so Jessica and I just laugh politely. 

 “I hate that we’re leaving,” she says.  She’s the one who was worried about not having a hairdryer.

 Spargs’ daughter brings us food, smiling. We thank her.

“Well, let’s just stay,” I say.

 I intend it as a joke, but I’m not sure that’s how it sounds.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
When to go:
Mdumbi in the winter provides a nice contrast to Cape Town’s cold rainy weather.  For us, it was sunny every day and mild.  School holidays start in June, and more people come to Mdumbi during that time. 
What to bring:
  • Cash is a must.  It is preferable to have small bills. 
  • Food is a good idea. 
  • Hiking boots, surfing and fishing gear.
  • Headlamps / flashlight. 
  • Spare tyre and a car jack.
  • Soap, shampoo, and toiletries.
  • Camping gear, if you’re sleeping out.
  • Towels.
  • Surfing and fishing gear. 
How to get there:
Bus or car.  4WD preferred, but not necessary.
Note: There is a small Tshani Store just outside the village, but they have a limited selection of supplies.  You can buy rice, toilet paper, candles, and sodas there.
Bookings: vukanibackpackers@gmail.com / +27 (0)73 714 3655
Bookings: mdumbi@mdumbi.co.za / +27 (0) 83 461 1834

 

Henry Wise

Henry Wise is an American writer and English instructor at the University of Mississippi. He loves to spend the little money he earns on trips, has traveled in six continents, and lived for several years in Taiwan. An authority on cheap whiskeys and long awkward silences, Henry enjoys gardening and surfing, and lives next to William Faulkner's grave, which he visits regularly. He's gotten food poisoning in Cambodia, climbed a 90-foot rock face in Montana blindfolded, was badly sunburned in Chile sailing on a windless Christmas day in a volcanic lake, and is the worst karaoke singer Taiwan's immigration officers have ever allowed on the island.

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