A YOUNG couple have spurned convention, bright lights and big salaries to settle on the Wild Coast, where they are helping a village community forge a sustainable future.
Dave Martin, now 37, was an IT specialist working in London and his wife, Rejane Woodroffe, was a highly regarded international investment consultant before they settled at the mouth of the Bulungula River, just south of Coffee Bay.
Their ultra-green Bulungula backpackers’ lodge, of which they are part owners together with the local community, has won accolades from around the world. And the success of this enterprise is being used to drive a fleet of social and environmental upliftment projects in the area.
Martin said his passion for community development started when he was studying at the University of Cape Town and worked in his spare time for the NGO Shawco to improve health care in the local townships.
After university, he travelled up through Africa using public transport and it was during this trip that he realised “the rural African village is my favourite place”.
Having got to London, he worked in the IT industry there for two years, and was able to save up for the rural development project he had in mind.
Upon returning to South Africa in the early 2000s, he set off on a recce of the Wild Coast, which he had pinpointed as the ideal location for the project, hiking from Kei River all the way up to Port St Johns.
“Every day is paradise as you walk along the Wild Coast. What I was looking for was a derelict building. Rather than diminish a pristine spot by building on it, I wanted to improve on the natural beauty by restoring a derelict building that was already in place.”
It was the earliest signature of what is today Bulungula Lodge, which was one of the first tourist establishments to be awarded the Fair Trade accreditation, recognising exceptional social and environmental value-add – in 2005.
The British Guardian and Observer newspapers named Bulungula worldwide runner-up in their 2009 ethical travel awards.
Martin found his derelict building, an abandoned and vandalised illegal fishing cottage, on the hill above Bulungula River. In a two-year process, in close partnership with the people of nearby Nqileni Village, he restored the building. Guided by Port Elizabeth environmental consultancy CEN, they used only local materials.
Although the land is communal, the right of an outsider to obtain a lease is controlled by the Land Affairs Department. After a lengthy process, this was granted in 2004.
Bulungula’s long list of green credentials includes solar power only and waterless compost toilets. All grey water is re-used. Waste like tin and milk cartons is used for school arts and crafts material, papsak wine inners are used to make hotbox cookers, only returnable glass bottles are used, and paper and cardboard waste is burnt. The small amount of remaining waste, mostly plastic, is taken to the Mthatha dump site.
But if the green side at Bulungula is impressive, the social investment is extraordinary.
Besides the community’s 40% profit share, the enterprise employs, directly and indirectly, 55 local people.
Twenty-five work at the lodge and a further 30 run their own activity companies, the profits of which are theirs. These activities range from horse-riding and canoeing to various social history tours. A great favourite is the “woman power tour” where visitors spend a day doing what the local women do: carrying firewood and water on their heads, grinding maize, collecting traditional plants for cooking and medicine, making a cow-dung floor and cooking the evening meal.
Woodroffe is the head of the Bulungula Incubator, whose flagship is a world-class pre-school and library designed by the former headmistress of Cape Town’s elite Herschel Primary School. Three similar schools are being built in surrounding villages.
The incubator also includes after- school programmes, scholarships and a number of micro-enterprise development projects. One of them involves 20 farmers growing lemon grass to sell as a natural flavourant to the rooibos tea industry.
Martin said community was the thing that made Bulungula so attractive to his visitors. “They enjoy its natural beauty but, most of all, it gives them an opportunity to interact with a traditional Xhosa community on their own terms,” he said.
“The best thing for me is to be part of this amazing community, where the people are loving and supportive.
“It’s the exact opposite of the trend in western urban society where, although we are sociable beings, we are living increasingly separately.”