At the Petrol Station

After several hours in the car, seeing only huts and termite mounds along the N2 highway in rural South Africa, my husband said he was going to have to pull over. No one liked the idea, stopping by the side of the road would make us vulnerable to other people and animals, but we had no choice. Then, just as we drove over the next hill, a petrol station appeared like a mirage, complete with toilets.

The boys approached the toilets first. With coin in hand, they followed the toothless smiling woman to the men’s room. A few minutes later it was our turn. My daughter and I smiled at the woman, saying hello in Xhosa, “Molo.” She smiled and laughed, offering us toilet paper and waiting outside the stall as we took turns using the clean, flush toilets.

Our next petrol station experience was cleaner and bigger. At the Shell Station Union City in Mthatha, we entered the large new and bright restroom and discovered several stalls with flush toilets. A woman attendant sat by the sinks, and we left our coins in the tip jar on the counter after washing our hands.

A few days later, as we drove north along the western boundary of Lesotho, we stopped in a small town looking for petrol and a place to relieve our bladders. It was early, about 9 a.m., and at the first station we stopped they didn’t have any petrol. We continued to the next station where we were told the same thing. Finally we found petrol at the town’s Shell Station. While my husband and son sat with the car, my daughter and I went in search of the toilet. We walked around the side of the building where one of the workers led us to an African man who controlled the keys. Skinny and older and speaking no English, he led us through a gate and down a walkway between high white walls. Reaching up to a ledge, he lowered a small cardboard box and held it out to us. The box contained toilet paper and somehow he made me understand that I was supposed to pay him and take whatever paper I needed. I paid him 2 rand, and he unlocked the “women’s room.” The large and spacious white tiled bathroom was filthy. One of the stalls had no door and no toilet seat. Inside the other stall was a door but no latch. The tile floor was broken, and the faucet didn’t work. We left in a hurry.

On the Way to the Wild Coast

Bumping and tilting, lurching and laughing, we eased over and through the rutted and pot hole filled dirt road on our way to Bulungula. Thankful for the clearance of our Renault Koleos, a small SUV sold in South Africa, we edged onward as the road dipped down and curved along the hill, taking us ever so slowly to our destination on the coast.

When our South African friends told us about Bulungula Lodge, they described it as a paradise, a beautiful, relaxing place where we could learn about the local people; after checking out the website,, I knew I had to go there. I wanted to experience this place that is solar powered and 40% owned by the village. I wanted to go to this place where I could learn to carry water on my head, eat South African food, walk on the beach and kayak on the river. We changed our itinerary, adapted our route and added an extra week to squeeze in a 3-night stay.

Before we left the U.S., we called David, the lodge’s owner, not once but twice, asking questions about the roads. We scrutinized websites and blogs which described the route and debated renting a 4 x 4. We considered leaving our car in Mthatha and taking the shuttle to the lodge. But David patiently reassured us. He told us that 60% of the people who stay at Bulungula use 2 x 4 cars to get there. We printed out the driving map and instructions from the website, left ourselves plenty of daylight hours, and hoped for the best.

After filling up on petrol, we took a left off the N2 and followed cars and open trucks crammed with people and women singing, passing small buildings and a telephone box before we turned off the tar road onto dirt. Colorful round huts and square buildings accented the rolling hills; a store, a school, cattle crossing, a dog, children yelling, “Sweets!” People walked only a little slower than we drove, and they smiled and waved as we passed by. The sky was blue and clear, the green hills rolling to the sea. A man in a suit walking by told us we were going the right way, and we continued, eventually seeing the peach and turquoise colored huts at the river mouth, our destination.

Getting to Bulungula Lodge isn’t easy, and that’s a good thing. It took us 3 hours to drive 79 kilometers (that’s only 49 miles) to reach Number 11 on the Rough Guide’s list of “Things Not to Miss in South Africa.”