Best Backpackers - Eastern Cape & Wild Coast
The Wild Coast and Amathole Mountains are two of South Africa’s least westernised and most beautiful areas, where the Xhosa people live a traditional lifestyle amid the green rolling hills once inhabited by the young Nelson Mandela. In these neighbouring parts of the Eastern Cape province, community-run backpacker lodges in stunning locations offer eco-friendly rondavel accommodation and opportunities to experience Xhosa culture.
Deep in the Wild Coast region, Mdumbi is 30% owned by the local Xhosa community and won a silver award in the World Responsible Tourism Awards 2014. Overlooking the mouth of the Mdumbi river and a pristine beach, the compound integrates accommodation and community needs, with basic guest rondavels alongside a kindergarten and Mama Nowethu’s cafe. In this spirit, liquor is not sold on site, and thirsty backpackers are encouraged to pop up the road to the village shebeen. Activities include surfing one of South Africa’s best point breaks, kayaking, horse riding, cultural tours, and volunteering at the associated NPO.
• Camping from £3.50pp, dorms from £6pp, doubles from £12.50, +27 83 461 1834, mdumbi.co.za
Photograph: Janice Adlam
On the waggishly named Chillington Farm, outside the alternatively-minded mountain village of Hogsback, Terra-Khaya is devoted to off-the-grid sustainability. Bring your head torch and sense of adventure; accommodation is in wattle-and-daub cabins with shared donkey-boiler showers and composting toilets – all gazing down a beautiful valley in the Amathole Mountains. Electrical plug points are found only in the lounge, and guests receive a free night’s stay for bringing and planting an indigenous tree. The horse-whispering owner Shane Eades, who practises natural horsemanship, offers rides lasting up to four days in the surrounding forests, with homestay accommodation in a Xhosa village. Also on offer are mountain-biking, foraging for mushrooms and hiking to waterfalls.
• Camping£4pp, dorms £6pp, doubles £13.50, +27 82 897 7503, terrakhaya.co.za
Bulungula, on the Wild Coast. Photograph: Alamy
Getting to this remote lodge is half the fun. Download a map, with its instructions such as “turn right at the yellow fence pole”, or pick one up, like whispered directions to a secret beach, from another Wild Coast lodge.
After a 40km drive along gravel roads, through green hills dotted with Xhosa villages, follow local ladies with baskets on their heads to the pink and turquoise rondavels overlooking the beach.
Add community-run activities such as village visits, canoeing, tours of the affiliated NGO and pancakes at sunrise, and it is hardly surprising that stays here often extend from days to weeks. Established in 2004, the Fair Trade-accredited lodge became 100% owned by the local community in 2015. There is a strong focus on renewable energy, and facilities include composting toilets, paraffin-rocket showers and electricity-free rondavels.
• Dorms £7pp, safari tent (twin or double) £15, double room from £16.50, +27 47 577 8900, bulungula.com
An accessible introduction to the Wild Coast, Buccaneers occupies eight hectares of coastal forest in the village of Chintsa West, less than an hour’s drive from the bright lights of East London. In this family-run backpacker resort, accommodation includes safari tents, beach cottages and stylish suites with sundecks overlooking Chintsa Bay. Every evening, as guests eat a candlelit dinner, the brother-sister team give a rundown of the lodge’s community-run activities, which range from surf classes and yoga to horse-riding and touring a private wildlife reserve. The rural township and brewery tour includes a visit to 95-year-old Mama Tofu, an inimitable Xhosa matriarch and a tasting at Emerald Vale craft brewery. There are numerous volunteering opportunities with the on-site organisation, VA32.
• Dorms from £6pp, safari tent from £14, doubles from £15, +27 43 734 3012,cintsa.com
Wild Lubanzi Backpackers
This seaside lodge at the Wild Coast village of Lubanzi is partly owned by the local community and has a focus on sustainable living, reflected by earthy decorations such as the Gekko Dorm’s sinewy driftwood staircase. The private rooms are equally fantastic, with elements such as a raised bed for watching the sunrise and an oval door that looks like it’s straight out of Hobbiton. The sun heats the showers and powers the lighting, as well as the fridge and freezer in the self-catering kitchen; the paraffin lanterns come out at night, when home-cooked dinner featuring vegetables from the organic garden is served. Activities include sea-fishing, village visits and hiking the coast to the Hole in the Wall rock formation.
• Dorms from £6pp, doubles from £14.50, +27 78 530 8997, lubanzi.co.za
In the popular Wild Coast village of Coffee Bay, this backpacker lodge abuts the beach on either side of the tidal Bomvu stream. Private rooms occupy thatched rondavels climbing a grassy slope, while the campsite is next to the sands and the six- to eight-bed dorms have double bunks.
Weekly parties and freebies abound, from free Sunday-night dinners and clifftop full-moon parties to Xhosa dance performances and Tuesday-night shindigs in the outdoor bar.
The Fair Trade-certified lodge is 30% community-owned and responsible tourism informs all its activities, including its Sustainable Coffee Bay NGO and tours offering an experience of rural Xhosa life – and a taste of umqombothi (maize beer). Surf lessons and guided hikes are also on offer.
• Camping from £3.50pp, dorms from £6pp, doubles from £16, +27 47 575 2048,coffeeshack.co.za
Away with the Fairies Backpackers
Many Hogsback locals claim that the village in the forested Amathole Mountains inspired Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien, who was born in Bloemfontein, and supposedly holidayed here. Unlikely, but Tolkien may have heard of the otherworldly spot from his son Christopher, who visited while stationed in South Africa with the Royal Air Force. Either way, Away with the Fairies has a fantasy theme befitting this village of crystals and stone circles, from its Wizard’s Sleeve bar to rooms and forest cottages named after Frodo et al. Guests can commune with their inner hobbit and enjoy the magical clifftop setting in the open-air bathtub overlooking a valley of Afromontane forestry. Activities in the surrounding woods include hiking, mountain-biking, climbing and abseiling down a waterfall.
• Camping £4pp, dorms £7pp, doubles £16, +27 45 962 1031,awaywiththefairies.co.za
Named after the African homesteads found here, this off-the-grid getaway overlooks a river mouth in the subtropical Pondoland section of the Wild Coast. Ecological features include solar-powered jar lamps, a medicinal garden, worm farms for recycling organic materials, odourless biogas toilets and a rooster alarm clock. The aim is to encourage the sustainable development of tourism in this area threatened by mining and highway developments, and many locals from the village of Tswelleni (onion in the Pondo dialect of Xhosa) work here. Accommodation is in thatched rondavels with Indian Ocean views – whales and dolphins can be spotted from the stoep (veranda) – and activities include sampling traditional Xhosa dishes in Tswelleni and surfing a dozen local breaks.
• Camping £5pp, dorms £7pp, hut share £9.50pp, +27 82 871 4964, thekraal.co.za
Deep in Pondoland, Mtentu gazes across the estuary of the same name at the extensive Mkhambathi Nature Reserve, where golden beaches give way to open grassland and swamp forests. Community-run activities in and around the reserve include canoeing up the river, exploring the coast on Pondo ponies, hiking to waterfalls and experiencing a traditional Xhosa healing ceremony. Accommodation is in rustic thatched cabins sleeping up to four, each with a veranda for taking in ocean views over morning coffee. Green facilities abound, including solar- and gas-powered showers, and a percentage of Mtentu’s turnover goes to the local Amadiba community.
• Camping £4pp, dorms £6.50pp, cabins (sleeps 4) £29.50, +27 83 805 3356,mtentulodge.co.za
Tiny Elundini village is reached on a gravel road through the Amathole Mountains, north of Alice, home of Nelson Mandela’s alma mater, the University of Fort Hare. This backpacker hostel, owned by a Xhosa-Belgian couple, has a dorm and private rooms in rondavels with solar lamps and shared rainwater showers and composting toilets. Drinking water is from harvested rainwater or from the village borehole. There is an excellent range of community-run activities, including guided hikes (a day walk leads through the forests to Hogsback) and mountain-biking. Alternatively, stay in the village to learn how to make Xhosa bread on a braai (grill) and pick up a few phrases of the clicking Xhosa language.
• Camping around £3pp, dorms £5pp, doubles £12, +27 78 357 3285,elundinibackpackers.com