- Gorgeous location - check
- Interesting activities - check
- Place and space to relax and do nothing - check
- Local character - check
- Safe and comfortable - check
- Good food - check
- Affordable - check
- No lowest common denominator generic global corporate sanitization - check
- No crowds - check
- Interaction with local people - check
- Environmentally friendly (carbon-neutral, in fact) - check
- Community owned - check
- Fair Trade accredited - check
Though they call themselves a Lodge, most people refer to it as "Bulungula Backpackers", but that may be because it is priced within a backpacker's budget and that segment of traveller is willing to make the effort to get to the destination. But having been around Africa and elsewhere in the world, I can say that it easily outclasses places several times its price, and I drove in from Mthatha on the gravel road in a hired Ford Fiesta, so it isn't really a mission to get there - an easy 6 hour drive from East London or a bit longer from Durban. You can also take the BazBus to Mthatha and arrange with Bulungula to pick you up at the stop.
It has dorm accommodations for R80 a bed per night or you can book a double rondavel for R200 a night. Cook for yourself or enjoy the meals made with a good deal of local produce, meat and fish and prepared by the staff - all of whom are locals.
The layout is a narrow string of traditionally built rondavels (mud and cow dung floors, cob brick walls, thatched roofs) with a common lounge/dining/cooking/reading/bar building, shared ablutions (with steaming hot 'rocket showers' fueled by paraffin) and a separate building with toilets. Everything is painted quite colourfully.
The driving force behind Bulungula is Dave Martin, and sooner or later someone will write a book about his life. He's good people in a way that makes most of us blush in shame and by temperament he just gets on with making things happen. He's no Dalai Lama, but let's just say we could use a lot more Daves in the world.
Now, having waxed about the place, Bulungula is not flawless in the way a time-challenged globe-trotting citizen of the world might like. Not everything happens on time (ok-most things don't happen on time), not everything works all the time, and there are few English speaking people around to help you out with whatever you might need help with. So you may not get everything you want, and what you do get may not happen on time or in precisely the way you wanted or expected it, but you will get an African experience.
By "African" I don't mean that things work on "African time" (wink, wink with a condescending smile...) or that all the people who work there are black and local or that the food is traditional local fare. (None of those things are always the case, by the way.) What I mean is that you'll get an authentic collision of worlds at Bulungula, with all the frustrating, spontaneous, eclectic, maddening, serendipitous and perplexing implications, and very little assistance in dealing with it - for better or worse. People with deeply traditional rural African cultural upbringing (Xhosa, to be specific) and little formal education are in their environment and you (likely to be Western and/or urban, well educated and affluent by global standards) are coming to see them on their terms. Bulungula is a gateway, a transitional space, a facilitator. But don't expect much help in telling you what you ought to do, how you ought to approach any particular situation, or how you should think about whatever you might encounter.
At Bulungula, outsiders have a rare opportunity to meet a distinctive dimension of contemporary Africa - what that means (if anything) and what difference it makes (if any) is up to you to figure out for yourself. This is the rare opportunity worth coming half way 'round the world to experience.
The beauty, the food, the people - everything else can be had in other places in other combinations in other ways, and to a better standard on a number of levels. So if you're one of those tourists who bounces in and out of places and doesn't like to sit still, or wants to collect destinations on a check list and get the t-shirt to brag to the friends back home, or who has anxieties about interacting with the unwashed locals in their own vernacular, then stay away. For the others, Bulungula is the kind of place that motivates you to travel to Africa in the first place, clinging to the hope you might some day find it and have the kind of experiences it makes possible.
There are interesting facts and dimensions to Bulungula as well - one of the clans in the local village of Nqileni are the Abelunga, the "white people", who have an ancestor that was a shipwreck survivor in the 18th century as a 6 year-old white girl who went on to become a queen among the locals. Local fishermen will also bring live crayfish up to you to buy (R15 for big ones R10 for small) and you can cook them on the spot and feast...and there are other delights to discover...