Coffee Bay

The residence compound at Zithulele is a pleasant little community of low sandy coloured brick bungalows and houses, each subdivided into smaller living quarters. Our bungalow comprises three similar sized dwellings. The houses are well spaced and there is a large central car parking area. The concrete road going from end to end is a great place for toddlers to shoot to and fro on their assorted bikes and scooters. On one side ‘Morning Glory’, bejewelled with gorgeous indigo flowers cloaks the fence between us and the mission house, in whose large garden a productive vegetable area is intensively farmed. Surrounding the compound on the other sides is a wire fence, topped, unfortunately, as a precaution, with circles of the barbed variety.

In the mission garden there is a small selection of farm animals including chickens. In charge of these latter, and with no intention of letting anyone forget it, is the local rooster. When I first drove up here two weeks ago, amongst the general roadside hubbub of people, dogs, taxis and caravans selling food, from inside of which erupted rumbling rock music, the sound which pierced my psyche immediately was the cockerel.

Whoever it was who first described male cockerels as saying something as benignly and pleasingly rhythmic as ‘cock a doodle doo’ was either hearing impaired or owned a bird with a speech impediment. There is sometimes a slight hiccup towards the end of the third syllable but in my (growing) experience this is often barely detectable. But it is this crescendo/decrescendo screech, out of the whole penetrating ululation, that is the longest of the three (or four) sounds. It is the one which has always triggered a specific sound receptor in my inner ear that renders it impossible to ignore. I don’t believe I am alone in finding that the crowing of a rooster at its customary (rather short) intervals can get on ones nerves, and that it worsens with repeated exposure. Were our rooster the only one within crowing distance he might restrict his territorial and matrimonial fanfares to the occasional ceremonial affirmation of his status but sadly there are at least two others somewhere in the vicinity. I can only just hear them but if you are a rooster this is pretty much the only sound of any importance to listen out for and he responds to the flung down gauntlets of his neighbours with tireless vigour.

He is an early riser, in fact my suspicion is that he does not sleep but stands in the dark waiting for the tiniest vestige of light to appear in the East at around 4 a.m. and then launches forth with all the stored up energy of the previous few hours of darkness.

This weekend seemed like a good opportunity to get away. Perhaps ten days behind the wire or the cockerel made minor contributions but, whatever were the reasons, I set off for Coffee Bay on Saturday. The road from Zithulele to the Coffee Bay/Mqanduli junction is new and sweeps up and down, zigzagging smoothly over the hills through picturesque countryside. From the junction onwards the view gradually becomes spectacular as the road rises slowly and then runs along the crests of a series of hills with breathtaking views on either side.

The hills are huge and roll in seemingly endless green waves of precipitous grassy slopes, with occasional woodland, off into the hazy distance where even higher peaks loom; the valleys are vast and disappear down beyond sight. The landscape resembles the foothills of the Alps or the tea plantation highlands of Sri Lanka but the scale of the terrain here is much grander. The hillsides are speckled with pale emerald-green or buff painted rondavels sometimes with no apparent routes of access. Houses and rondavels also form clusters along the roadside and at these the drive becomes a life sized video game of swerving to avoid cows, goats, sheep, horses and mules which hesitate and then stroll slowly but deliberately into your path. The deep valleys are very picturesque but the sight of a line of women snaking at snails’ pace up the hillside with containers the size of dustbins on their heads containing water from the river at the bottom is a reminder that beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder.

The road descends steeply into Coffee Bay and the last part is liberally peppered with potholes the size of footballs. However it runs alongside a pretty reed fringed river. Coffee Bay appears in every backpacking book and magazine about the Eastern Cape or the ‘Wild Coast’. As a result it has a number of backpacking hostels and shacks. Surf bums come here for the reliable supply of rollers sweeping in from the Indian Ocean. It is strikingly beautiful and extraordinarily peaceful. From the North end where a dark cliff brings the beach to an abrupt halt the sand curves round the bay to the South where it meets the river. Beyond this a green hill rises, really just a continuation of the river valley, and extends out into the sea to form a promontory. From the base of the hill a low plateau of rock stretches further out into the sea providing some degree of shelter to the bay, but not enough to stop the biggest waves from crashing over it.

I cross an old bridge and arrive at my destination, the Ocean View hotel. The Ocean View is the prestige establishment here. I am not against staying in cheaper accommodation but the Ocean View is already very reasonable indeed and I am given a room on the first floor with a white painted Mediterranean style stone balcony overlooking the garden and the beach,. The room is homely and very comfortable. I walk down to the beach and am tagged into conversation with a young local girl who sits outside the hotel beach gate next to a cloth spread on the sand which is her ‘shop’ displaying her shell and bead jewellery. I manage a few Xhosa phrases and discover that her name is ‘Min’ and that she lives over the hill. Her face is painted with a white pigment. It looks strange and ritualistic. I decide it would be rude to enquire what it signifies and I pretend to ignore it. I promise to return the next day to buy some of her wares. She sits down again on the log she has been squatting on all day.

I sample the cool, but not cold, Indian Ocean and then go for a walk down the beach. The sand is soft and pleasant to walk on barefoot, with pebbles confined to the landward edge of the beach. I wade through the river and up the hill where I find the coastal path which takes me through to the next, very rocky and sandless bay. Hiking the Wild Coast is popular and this brief taster explains why. It is hundreds of miles of unspoilt and scantily inhabited coastline of pristine beauty. The bird watching today is moderate but from high on the hill as I point the binoculars out to sea a shape breaks the surface; it is only about 400m out but probably invisible to those on the beach. A fin appears and a confirmatory spout of spray. For the next half hour I watch a group of at least three humpback whales apparently playing. Flukes appear and white underbellies. One seems to be smaller than the others, perhaps a calf, but I am guessing.

Next morning I decide a run along the beach would be a fine thing to do before breakfast. Min is already there with her shop set out. We exchange Kunjani’s and I note that today her face has no paint on it. Again it seems intrusive to ask why. I set off. I have the beach to myself and eventually arrive back at the hotel in a sweat ready for a shower and breakfast. Returning to my balcony I can see Min down below at the beach gate and she can see me. There is something symbolically unsettling about sitting high on a balcony in the best local hotel and her sitting patiently down on the log for hour after hour. My attention is diverted however as I spot, just beyond the rocky promontory, a triangular fin cutting through the water. Unbidden, and as testament to the potent influence of cinema, the ‘Der Der Der Der’ theme of Jaws springs into my mind and I scan the water quickly to see if there are any swimmers or surfers out there. As I watch, more fins appear and then a reassuring spout of spray and what turns out to be the first of three schools of dolphins swim leisurely past. The fins are so close together that they must brush against each other the whole time as they swim. Two leap out of the water just because they can.

It is time to leave. I check out and go to visit Min for the promised purchases. I think by this stage we are well enough acquainted that I can broach the issue of her face paint so I ask hesitantly ‘You look different today?’ and then more boldly ‘What was the white colouring?’ ‘Calamine’ she says with a smile ‘It protects me from the sun’.

An unhurried drive home with a stop by the river; the birds are fabulous – a giant kingfisher, a colony of yellow weavers and a fan tailed cisticola amongst others.

I arrive back at Zithulele. As the gates swing open the air is suddenly rent asunder with ‘cock a dooooo….’

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