Dangerous Times on Coffee Bay
Jan 17, 2009
|We continued up the Wild Coast to Coffee Bay. To get there we had to backtrack to the N2, turn off the main highway and then follow another road back to the coast. This road was worse than the Chintsa road; the other drivers were dangerous, the potholes were large and abundant, and the livestock seemed to think that the road was their own. Pedestrians wandered the road, some trying to hitch a ride. We were relieved and tired when we finally reached the Coffee Shack backpackers.
The countryside was very beautiful.
The landscape is dominated by large, very green hills and valleys. Bright green rondevelles, the traditional homes of the local Xhosa people, are interspersed along the horizon. The large hills drop off suddenly and abruptly into the ocean. The resulting cliffs are rocky, jagged and intimidating, but picturesque. Brown sand beaches hide between the cliffs, giving the surfers access to the region’s great waves.
The little village of Coffee Bay isn’t really much to look at. There are a couple of run down shacks, one housing a pizza parlour/drum making shop, and a few other dilapidated buildings. Kids, older ladies and some dodgy characters hang out outside the only two hostels asking for handouts, selling jewelry and offering some questionable substances. The hostel discourages giving sweets and money to the begging kids. Instead they’ve asked the kids to do something for money such as washing a car, minding a car, guiding to the hole in the wall etc. It seems to be working quite well. If not for the beaches and the beautiful coastline, this probably wouldn’t be a tourist destination, but it does live up to it’s billing as an edgier Garden Route. The Wild Coast is an appropriate name.
We stayed at the Coffee Shack backpackers, a hodgepodge kind of place with lots of character, situated right on the coast next to a little waterway that swells with the incoming tides. The Coffee Shack offers great home cooked meals, a variety or tours and activities, themed parties in the pub, and an overall friendly atmosphere. We set up our tent against the fence in the backyard and signed up for their group dinner. We met up with our London friends, Sarah, Anna and Jo having left Chintsa a little later than us. We had a good homemade dinner of roast beef, roasted potatoes, veg and Xhosa bread. We had an early night. It rained during the night and our tent leaked so we got a bit wet. We’ve slept in the tent for 12 straight nights and were relieved when the hostel told us that they had a double room available for us.
We moved into a little rondevelle cottage. We still had to use a common bathroom and shower, but we were happy to get up off the ground, sleep in a bed and get out of the rain. My sleeping mat has had a hidden hole since Namibia and I have to keep blowing up periodically throughout the night to keep myself off the ground.
We signed up for a group hike to the Hole in the Wall, where the pounding surf has drilled a hole through a ridge of rock. We hiked up and walked along the top of the coastal hills with views out onto the water. We saw pods of dolphins surfing and flipping out of the water. We had to climb up, down and across the valleys. We passed locals leading livestock, carrying fishing rods and women off to gather mussels and oysters. Our guide Joseph led the way, chatting with the locals and answering our questions. He explained that the bay was called Coffee Bay after a shipwreck caused a cargo of coffee beans to be washed up on the beach. Joseph also explained that all the homes are round because they are built with mud, and mud corners are weak, so the homes are made round without corners. The homes are all painted the same light green colour not for some culturally-important reason, but because that is the cheapest colour available.
The walk along the coastline or rolling hills was nice. Along the way we saw a dried up waterfall and a mini hole in the wall. We came down onto the hole and the wall town and walked along their beautiful beach before swinging right to the hole and the wall. The hole in the wall was a little anti-climatic. It was simply a giant hole on the rock wall with the ocean surge shooting through. It wasn’t really the phenomenon we thought it would be. Usually, visitors can jump into the water near the hole in the wall, but the sea was really rough so it didn’t seem safe. We just sat on the beach amongst the rocks and ate the toasty lunch that was waiting for us.
It was interesting to see the everyday life going on around us. Boys climbed the trees and picked fruit for their families. Men fished in the waters. Girls washed clothes in the river mouth. And between the waves the women would rush out onto wet rocky ledges near the hole and pick mussels. We were driven back to the hostel and relaxed until dinnertime. The walk to the hole, rather than the hole itself, was the highlight of the tour.
We went on another group tour that evening, having signed up for dinner at a local Xhosa village. We were driven to a nearby village and went on a short walk down to the chief’s huts. The village children followed us down offering us some of their frozen ice pops and asking for money. Our guide set up a bunch of chairs and told us that according to Xhosa custom, the men are offered chairs while the women sit on the ground with the children. It was pretty awkward as the group was divided according to sex and all the guys reluctantly took their seats while the women sat on the grass.
The village chief then sat down with the men and gave us a traditional welcome. Soon three plastic pitchers of homebrewed maize beer were brought out and passed around. The beer was a milky, creamy brown colour and tasted like dirty socks. But the Xhosa can’t seem to get enough of it. All hospitality – at least amongst men – seems to revolve around the drinking of Xhosa beer. If granted an audience with the chief, you must drink some beer. Although the first few sips were ok, they kept refilling the plastic jugs and encouraging us to drink more. We would pay for this later.
We were invited to ask questions and through our guide, the chief told us about traditional Xhosa culture and describe village life. The mamas, or village women, cooked our dinner in black three-legged pots over open fires and coals.
The mamas had matching outfits of blue turbans, red shirts, long white skirts and painted faces.
At least a couple of the women were married to the chief. We forced down more homemade beer and it was getting worse by the gulp. Every gulp left dirt and debris in my mouth.
It was a rainy night so we moved into the large rondevelle hut for dancing and food. Again, the men were provided chairs along the wall of the hut, while the women were told to sit on the ground at our feet. We were served mealie pap, a maize porridge, and a mixture of sugar beans. After our meal we watched the mamas dance. The women sang, drummed and danced. The dancers held a stick and the dance moves involved a lot of shaking and jumping The women learn to “shake that body” early in life and can really move. Groups of us were then brought up to dance with the mamas. Rebecca was part of the first group, and then I went up with the group of men. The mamas, having found out earlier that Rebecca and I are married, teased us by encircling me and shaking their booties, all the while giggling and winking at Rebecca.
By the time we left it was late, dark and pouring. The only flashlight the guides brought ran out of batteries so we had to climb up the hill to the road in the dark while the rain poured down on us. It was a bit of an adventure and we were soaked within minutes. We had to wait by the road for a few more minutes until the transport from the hostel came to pick us up. It was an irritating few minutes. The drive back to the hostel was in an open aired safari truck so that was also very wet, and with the wind, very cold. We went to the room to change, warm up and intended to come back out to the bar to wash the Xhosa beer taste out of our mouths with some real stuff. Instead, we unintentionally fell asleep. We were very happy to be in the room and not stuck in our tent.
We learned later that the village tour is meant to show us the traditional life and that it is fairly accurate. The tour visits a different village every week., so the proceeds form the tour are passed around and shared amongst the community. It was a very interesting experience and probably the highlight of our time on the Wild Coast. The Xhosa beer, however, was an awful, evil concoction that punished us over the course of the next week. We had to finally take antibiotics to beat it out. If someone ever passes you a plastic bucket filled with a suspicious liquid, just say no.
Our third and last day at Coffee Bay was a beach day and another surf day for me. I upgraded to the 8.9 foot board, and we grabbed a bobyboard for Rebecca and walked down to the beach. We were warned to stay away from the rocks on the right side of the beach, so I went in with the bodyboard first to get a feel for the waves here. I then grabbed my surfboard and did nothing but fall for about 30 minutes. The London girls joined us on the beach with another surfboard and a couple of bodyboards, and I started to have some success with the new board.
Rebecca was on the beach watching our stuff and the girls wanted her to come out and bodyboard with them, so I went back to rest and for security duty. Rebecca and the three girls having a great time – the waves were big and the current was strong, but they weren’t worried. After watching for a bit, I started to read my book.
I looked up to see a one of the London girls coming to shore, wiping out in the surf. I smiled and waved, and she waved back. Then she kept waving and I saw that she was calling me over. I kind of sauntered over, not knowing that something was wrong. As I got closer, I could see that she was almost frantic. She yelled at me: “Paul, you have to go get them!” Me? I’m no David Hasselhoff. I failed out of swimming lessons very early. I didn’t even pass the Survival level, which means I can’t even save myself. I looked out and saw Rebecca and Jo desperately trying to hold on to Jo’s surfboard as a rip tide dragged them out to sea. Massive waves, the height of small buildings, were crashing right behind them and the rip was taking them right into their breaking point. I could see their faces from the beach and they looked panicked and frightened. This was serious.
This is how Rebecca tells it:
One minute I was talking to Anna and then I caught a wave into shore. Unfortunately, it didn’t take me into shore but into the rip-tide zone. The feeling was horrible. I couldn’t get in and couldn’t move. I started screaming for help but no one could hear me. After a little bit (it felt like a lot longer) Anna turned to me and she could sense something was wrong. She kept yelling: Are you okay? I kept saying no and making a thumbs down motion. She caught on, and the girls came out to save me. Anna and Jo headed towards me and Sarah went into shore to get Paul. Anna and Jo reached me, but Jo got caught in the rip with me. The rip took us out further and further. Anna managed to just avoid it and swam hard for shore to get help. Jo and I climbed on her surfboard and I let go of my bodyboard. We tried swimming sideways through the rip. We kept moving further out and couldn’t stop the huge waves from barreling down on us. We were knocked off the board twice but managed to climb back on each time.
Back to Paul (aka. The Hoff):
I had to act. I didn’t even have time to think about it. I raced into the water towards the girls. I got about two steps in when I realized that I would need something to float them back on and to help me get out there. I grabbed Sarah’s bodyboard, realizing that it was a flimsy little thing decorated with dolphins and flowers – clearly meant for children. I ran into the waves, and started swimming as fast as a could. I looked up and saw two lifeguards running beside me. I didn’t realize that it was so shallow still. I didn’t realize that there were lifeguards on the beach – they must have come out of the trees. I stood up and ran as fast as I could, then started paddling the baby bodyboard furiously as the water grew deeper. I reached the girls at about the same time as the two lifeguards.
The waves were crashing right behind us, I asked the girls if they were ok, and Jo answered, but Rebecca was unresponsive and seemed to be in shock. I went around behind her to support her on the surfboard and reassure her that everything was going to be fine. A couple local teenagers had swam out to help and to retrieve Rebecca’s lost bodyboard. We tried to move the surfboard out of the rip, but the current was too strong. A lifeguard told Rebecca to grab his orange floating thing, and Rebecca needed some persuasion, thinking that the little float was less safe that the giant surfboard she was clutched in a vice-like grip. We finally convinced her to grab the float, and I held her legs up as the lifeguard swam all the way into shore without slowing or stopping (he was like a machine). Jo was still on the surfboard and was helped out of the rip and into shore by the other lifeguard and some locals.
We were all shaken, but Rebecca especially seemed worse for wear. It took her some time to realize that she was safe and she seemed to have limited memory of the event. At one point she looked at me and asked what I was doing the whole time this was happening?? I do my best Baywatch impression – probably the most heroic moment of my life – and she doesn’t even remember me being out there? I feel like Rodney Dangerfield – no respect!
After a little while, it seemed like the tide changed and the currents were no longer as strong as they were before. The three girls went back in the water. I tried to get Rebecca back in, thinking it was best if she got over the fear quickly, but she refused to go beyond waist deep. I managed to get her to bodyboard some of the smaller waves, but she soon went back in and refused to come back to the water. The lifeguards stayed by her for a while, then they borrowed my board to try a little bit of surf for themselves. I managed to catch a few more smaller waves, by this time we were all very cautious and looking out for each other, and then we called it a day. As we left the beach and the scene of the near disaster, I knew it would be a while before we set foot on another beach.
We celebrated the rescue that night with Sarah, Anna and Jo. They were really very brave in going after Rebecca and they are as much responsible for her rescue as were the lifeguards – I don’t want to think about what would have happened without Jo’s surfboard. We popped one of our J.C Leroux champagnes, and the girls popped one of theirs as well. We bought drinks for the lifeguards who had come to the bar to join the party. They told us that Rebecca and Jo were lucky. We shared our close call story with other travelers and tried not to think about what could have happened. And we taught the girls our favourite game of snaps.
The next morning we woke, checked out around 10:30 and said good by to the girls who were staying for one more night. We had a great time with them and we all hope to meet up again, either in London or somewhere else. We set off at noon the next day on the long drive to the Drakensburg mountains. We were going to get as far away from the ocean as possible.