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Basking in the beauty of Bulungula

After an early morning yoga session in the company of a school of about 50 dolphins frolicking in the bay, I overhear Bulungula Lodge manager Dali, speaking to a guest he is expecting. It is 7 am and the young man had just arrived in Elliotdale on the overnight bus from Johannesburg.

Elliotdale is less than two hours away from the lodge, but Felix only ended up checking in after 4 pm. To raucous laughter, later in the evening. he explains in his deadpan German accent that he had to wait for the taxi to fill up - a total of 8 hours.

That is one way to get to Bulungula.

Luckily, we arrived by car aided by a printed map with directions that included driving until you reach the Nokholedji Store, passing the yellow MTN container on the right hand side of the road (it is no longer there, by the way) and many other twists and turns on some of the Eastern Cape's finest dirt roads. Either way, it is every bit worth the effort getting to this piece of paradise.

A 500m walk up to our rondavel, with a welcome party of goats, sheep and pigs lining the trail, we settle into our home for the next few days.

Bulungula Lodge is one of the few places we had actually booked in advance when we decided to undertake this trip. It is somewhere we have been wanting to go to for many years now, but with the 15 hour journey by car and the three week annual leave allocation mostly used to visit family in Europe, it has been been virtually impossibly until now.

Dali, the friendly manager on duty, welcomes us and proceeds to show us around. Having been cooped up in the car for several hours, the boys naturally need to use the loo and Max's first observation is that "there's no flush, mom". This is their first introduction to compost toilets and being completely off the grid. The showers too are energy efficient, three of them powered by paraffin and a fourth by solar power. Electricity too is entirely supplied by the photovoltaic panels.

After performing our necessary ablutions, it is time for dinner: a mild chicken curry, which the boys are not too crazy about. The peach cake and ice-cream after, is another story though. There are facilities to cook your own meals, but due to the remote location of the lodge, you either have to stock up properly before your arrival or enjoy set meals prepared by staff who are members of the local Nqaleni community. The lodge is now in fact completely owned by the community after founder Dave Martin donated his share in 2014.

We scan the number of activities available and decide on a plan of action for the next few days. Through the Bulungula Incubator the community is encouraged to develop their entrepreneurial skills.

The next morning we walk down to the local preschool for a tour of the Bulungula Incubator. It is 10h30 am and the children aged three to six years old are given a fruit before being let out for free play. One of the devoted teachers, Funeka, shows us around and we are amazed by the materials they have managed to source so as to be able to give these young children the best start possible in life. Opened in 2009 it forms part of a larger early learning project for the community that also includes teaching mothers how to stimulate their babies and toddlers before starting formal schooling. While lamenting the fact that some children regress when leaving the confines of the small well-run preschool to government-run primary schools in the area, she says they've started a forum with other neighboring preschools to make sure that all the children are on the same level when entering grade one.

It is break time though and the children are being lead in song and dance. While four year old Max is a little shy and prefers to stick to the familiar monkey bars, six year old Guy happy joins in.

The wind picks up in the afternoon and a planned walking village tour for the boys and I as well as the weekly 3h30 pm football match Guillaume had hoped to take part in are rendered impossible, so we use the time to catch up on English homework as new guests arrive at the lodge.

Willem and Joke ('J' pronounced 'Y') are an elderly Afrikaner couple from Pretoria. He is a church minister and the author of several books on spirituality, while she explains she worked as a marriage counselor for 33 years as she inquires how we met. They regale us with their own adventures to India, staying in an ashram and eating the local food. They have come to Bulungula for a 'home stay' to experience life in a Xhosa village and I am reminded of how South Africans never quite fit into cliches.

This too is true of a young civil engineering student at the Walter Sisulu University Butterworth campus who has come home for the holidays and is helping out with the canoeing activity offered by the lodge. Though thee canoes are owned by the community, Lindo and Orlando - yes, named after the football team - man them. They both speak English very well, but Orlando modestly adds that Lindo is the smarter of the two as he learnt his from mingling with tourists, while the 21 year old university student learnt at school. Orlando is curious about Belgium and Guillaume explains the capital, Brussels, is where the European Union is headquartered. He asks: "that is the organisation Britain just left, right?". He had heard it on radio news, from where he says he gets all his information.

I smile, broadly.

The canoe trip down the Xhora river is a hit with the boys who once again get to take the reins of something new and exciting. It is not only our daily exercise, but proves quite educational too as Guy spots and correctly identifies a kingfisher in the bushes on the banks of the river.

We stop for lunch at iLanga pancake restaurant, which is not as cheap as the pancakes at the local church bazaar at up to R30 each, but it is another entrepreneurial venture we are happy to support. The pancakes are delicious too, so we book for Pancake Sunrise, which takes place on the beach every Wednesday morning.

It is too cloudy the next morning though, so we do not venture down to the beach, but have the pancakes at the lodge and are joined by Weg/Go photographer Erns Grundling, who is on assignment and happens to be a close friend of one of my former colleagues at Eyewitness News. So without any cellphone signal and internet connectivity for the past four days, I get news from the mother city.

As we leave Bulungula reluctantly, we marvel at the beautiful success story it represents. In so many parts of the world, the benefits of tourism (in the form of jobs and economic windfall) are seldom enjoyed by the local communities. Yet, they still bear the brunt of its more negative effects: environmental destruction and the disruption of traditional values through the blunt confrontation with tourists, whose culture and purchasing powers are often wildly different.

In 'The Heart of Redness', South African author Zakes Mda makes a clever parallel between the fears shared by Xhosa ancestors and their modern-day descendants on this stretch of the Wild Coast. Both weigh the threat of 'modernity' against its potential benefits, for the former in the shape of advancing white settlers, encroaching further and further into their lands, and for the latter through a proposed hotel and casino complex investment. At both ends of history, the skeptical in the village warn of impending doom and the more optimistic dream of incalculable economic boon.

In Nqaleni, the community enjoys full ownership of Bulungula Lodge. Villagers have full control over their own destiny. They may yet be able to preserve this paradise environment as well as their ways and habits while still having a shot at reducing the grinding poverty that remoteness has condemned them to.

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