Monday, 26 May 2014

Umngazi River Bungalows, Port St Johns

“Your one wild and precious life”

I love winter beach stays, where the days are clear and the sun warm and inviting. One can walk for many miles and feel energized and alive. In the evenings there is the enjoyment of sherry by the fire and the nights are just cool enough to sleep under cosy covers. Umngazi River Bungalows ( are the perfect place for a warm winter beach escape, as there are beautiful long beach walks, and much to do including canoeing, fishing, tennis, darts, snooker and a fabulous spa.  

The setting is spectacular – as riverside and beachside as it gets, with cottages facing the river, indigenous forest or ocean. Not called “the Wild Coast” for nothing, the coastline is pristine, with dramatic gorges, river crossings and cliffs.

The luxury you will find here is not the usual imported, urban, angular modernist kind. It is soft, curved, natural and intensely local. The rounded thatched Pondo huts are finished with timber and stone, and even the door handles and towel rails are smooth, curved, natural timber. The bungalows all have wide glass doors, with little separating one from the beach other than a stretch of green lawn. Outdoor showers, generous baths with sea views and fine linen elevate this stay well above the usual beach bungalow standards. This is barefoot luxury at its best.

At Umngazi there are plentiful indoor and outdoor seating areas – lounges decorated in bright colours by someone with a great love of fabrics, recliners, dining areas and decks facing all directions.

I like Pondo hospitality – there is no simpering or gushing, only dignified generosity. With a distrust of insincere “quick smiles” as they say here, you are more likely to receive an approving grunt when you make the most of their ample catering. The caregiving arrangements are excellent and I saw several children enthusiastically greet their hosts. I have heard of many rest-deprived parents of tiny tots travel to Umngazi just for the amazing baby-sitting service.

By contrast, I am in the Eastern Cape to visit a worthy project of incredibly dedicated women who care for the sick in their community. Having not visited this area often, I had a hankering to discover more of this pristine wild coast and found Umngazi River Bungalows one of the more accessible beachside locations. However I had worried that the contrast between the stories of these women and a luxury stay might unhinge me. But the women in this project are now being paid by the government for their work, and supported by a local NGO with debriefing and training. They are assertive and professional. And at Umngazi, the evident respect for local culture, the plentiful employment created by the resort for the surrounding community, and the multiple local income generating projects made possible by this place leaves me feeling inspired and hopeful. True development is not about patronizing charity or handouts, but about inclusivity, ownership and employment which allows people the satisfaction to raise their own families well, and this is one of the best examples of that I have seen in a luxury holiday hotel. Both the women’s project and the Umngazi community support make me want to be a better person, to enjoy life to its fullest, while supporting others. As usual when I do community development work, I thought I was coming to give something, but find myself learning and gaining more than it was possible to offer.

Accommodation Experience:
And so I thoroughly enjoy my work and find I am able to have an energizing stay. My favourite time of day at Umngazi River Bungalows, it turns out, is the evening walk to and from supper. I stay in the furthest cottage from the restaurant and love the mindful stroll along the river. Schools of fish swim past me, catching the silvery light as they jump in unison. A cool breeze comes off the water. The skies are full of stars and it feels like I can touch the Milky Way. I swing my scarf to and fro as I walk and throw my head back to drink in the night sky. I feel wild and free and I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s questions:

Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

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