Friendship & Curiosity On The Wild Coast

By Rahim Walker
Updated: November 11, 2007

***image10***CALIFORNIA — “They have black people in America?” a Xhosa fisherman said as he looked at my dark skin. Our paths crossed in a brief exchange at the edge of the ocean. Crayfish dangled in front of the fisherman’s face. Sun glinted off the breaking waves. It lit up the beautiful South African land.

Rubber boots covered the fisherman’s blue jump suit. I inched closer to the ocean. I wanted to surf. But I couldn’t justify rushing away from this man.

Black people in America. For the fisherman, the revelation must have been profound. The world he lived in was vastly different. Thatched mud huts dotted a green landscape accentuated by undulating hills. Cows, goats and sheep cluttered bumpy dirt roads. River mouths wound threw the land and spilled into the ocean. The air was fresh.

Sunset cast a hue of reddish orange over the rural landscape. My legs straddled my surfboard in the middle of the ocean. The water was cool and refreshing, but far from transparent. I was all alone, I hoped.

A brisk north east wind caressed my chest as I projected down the line on my first wave. The rural landscape drew in my attention. Children splashed ashore and playfully ran up and down impressive mounds of sand. Free roaming cattle graced the beach. A slight breeze blew over the land.

***image9***The Xhosa people inhabited an undeveloped and neglected region of South Africa. It was called the Transkei. And it was there the Xhosa people were banished to survive with little resources. Just a few kilometers away the African National Congress hid weapons in caves along the coast. These weapons were used to fight the Apartheid regime that fell almost 14 years ago.

Later that night a stocky red-bearded white South African introduced himself to me. His name was Hyman and he had a hearty grin. He was partial owner of Mdumbi Backpackers, one of the area’s only sleeping and eating options. We were seated on a bench in a rustic chill out hall called the Mdumbi Café.

“There’s so much you can do here, you don’t even understand,” Hyman said.

But he wasn’t referring to surfing, hiking, horse riding, or the village tours. He was talking about making a difference. And it was just my presence, I realized, that was doing such.

Transkei Mudhuts and their inhabitants

Transkei Mudhuts and their inhabitants

Les Woods and his family were kind white South Africans from Cape Town. I met them at Mdumbi Backpackers. One day they invited me along for a surf exploration toward an epic left hand point break near the village of Ebalow.

A spear diver told me numerous ships crashed off the coast there and that surviving sailors mated with locals. The people look somewhat Spanish and Portuguese, he said.

Scantily clad children popped out of their little huts and screamed “sweets, sweets.” I sat in a four wheel drive SUV with Les, Sharon, Roy and Lindy. We had spent hours lost in a maze of unsigned dirt roads. We pulled up to a shop. Twenty Xhosa school kids stood outside. They were wearing blue and white uniforms. Their gaze fixed directly upon me.

Clicking noises flew from the school kids’ mouths. I sat in the car paralyzed. The concept that black people existed outside South Africa was unimaginable for many Xhosa people. It was at that moment the value of exploration really stuck with me. We didn’t score excellent surf. In fact we never paddled out. But I was content. A virgin land blossomed from decades of hatred and neglect. And a new world fused with the old.

Mdumbi Surfing long right point break.

Mdumbi Surfing long right point break.

In a Glimpse

As the blustery cold invades the Northern Hemisphere, South Africa will be enjoying a sunny summer. Main tourist season runs December to February. Best waves from April to August.

Historical Note: South Africa will be the first African country to host the FIFA World Cup when 32 soccer teams descend upon the rainbow nation in 2010.

Trip Planning

The Coast to Coast guide is an invaluable resource for backpacking South Africa.

How to Get There

Various airlines service regular destinations within South Africa. Try:

-Delta Airlines

-South African Airways

-British Airways

NB: Domestic flights connect to Umtata (aka as Mthatha).

Busses run from Johannesburg and Cape Town

-DMJ bus service is the cheapest and most direct local transport

-Greyhound and Translux are both reliable and offer greater amenities but longer travel time

-Bazbus is a backpacker bus offering hop on hop off service. Great value for long stay travellers

Where to Sleep

Mdumbi Backpackers. Camping, 4-6 person dorm, singles, doubles. See website for rates. Volunteer exchange for long stays. Community driven activities make this a unique experience.

Where to Eat

Mdumbi Café.

Delectable seafood plates and traditional African cuisine.

In any one of the cities:

Ostrich is a savory plate



Your best bet is to attend a local braai (bbq)

Making the Most of Your Trip

Durban Bluff-Anstey’s Beach Backpackers

Mpande-Visit a white Sangoma at the Kraal Backpackers

Hole in the Wall-Pounding seas carved out a beautiful arch that stands in the sea

Bulungula-A touch of paradise along the coast

Garden Route-Jeffrey’s Bay, Knysna, Mossel or Plettenberg Bay, George, Hermanus.

Practical Advice

Always double check information as rates, routes and businesses change. Keep informed of any crime trends. Naive and flashy tourists can attract harmful attention in the larger cities so leave unnecessary items at home. Be mindful of local customs. Each community has its own unwritten code of behavior so talk to the locals and find out.

Learn the Lingo

That jol was lekker bru! That party was nice, bro.

Howzit is a common greeting and can replace a dull Hello.

I’m coming just now. ( just now means soon, eventually, or never so have fun with the ambiguity)

Robot is a Traffic light

Bakkie is a Truck

Molo is Hello in Xhosa

Ndivela Emelika means I come from America

Ngitheta isi Ngesaqha means I speak English. Good luck getting the pronunciation right