Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Gary Fletcher

The hot bottleneck pipe burns my hand as I hold it with my novice’s grip. The coal warms my face as I draw, sending a wave of sweet smoke into my lungs. I can feel the Rasta’s eyes staring at me through a curtain of greying dreadlocks. My eyes water as my chest burns. “Welcome to Coffee Bay.” he says, before I cough my lungs out.

Coffee bay, on South Africa’s Transkei coast has always had a reputation. Besides the scenery – the clustered huts, nestled sparsely on the hilltops above a rugged coastline, the smell of clean air, rough surf and freshly caught fish – this untouched stretch of coast has always been known for its cannabis. Rastafarians travel across the country to buy it, while generations of weekend hippies have been travelling here to smoke it.
It’s a part of the Xhosa culture. A culture preserved by their untouchable homeland. They are a nation bordering on poverty, surviving on subsistence farming and what little the government and tourism gives them. It’s a simple life. Hard, but in a beautiful land that belongs to them and has done for centuries. Marijuana has been a part of that subsistence for a long time. Used originally for medicinal purposes and tribal ceremonies, its growth in recreational use has seen it become a lot more than just a plant that grew in the corner of the kraal.

“I’ve got good ganja, big heads!” often follows a greeting in whispered tones and a grinding fist into an open palm is its signal from the roadside to moving cars. Getting the weed is easy, but finding the fields is another story. The maze of pathways winding through little villages and over rolling hills can be tiresome if you’re going the wrong direction and they all look the same when you’re lost. Most locals will be more than happy to help you, as soon as they understand what you’re saying. But, bare in mind, no favour comes for free in the Transkei. 

I found some friendly dope smugglers. A dangerous profession to be in, considering the roadblocks along the N2 and the high police presence within the Kei. The police know why people come here, but to the smugglers it’s more about the experience. The fields, the trading and spending time in the Transkei, that makes the risks worth it. For them it’s a mission to find the best quality ganja and the adventure that comes with looking for it. Children run next to the car, shouting for sweets as you drive. Testament to the simple but happy life they lead, where a Wilson’s toffee will make their day.
It was under the smugglers guidance and their contagious sense of adventure that took me to Rasta Dave.
Dave is one of the most respected farmers in the area, known for his green fingers and strong ganja. He has perfected the art of growing, from seed selection to harvesting the final product in this natural environment. As we walked through the valleys around his land, he showed us the different stages involved in the growing process. First he selects a decent sized, north-facing slope that’s exposed to as much sunlight as possible. He then borrows a neighbour’s cows and keeps them on his selected piece of land for a couple weeks. Making sure they are well fed, while they fertilize and churn his soil. Then he plants and waits, keeping a careful eye out for any male plants. It’s the females that produce the buds that are used for smoking, once pollinated by a male they produce seeds instead, causing the quality to drop. One male can pollinate a rugby field of females, wrecking the crop. Dave has learnt to spot males early. The whole growing process takes about six to eight months and is as organic as it gets.
The plantation is usually hidden behind a fence of corn, maize or other tall plants. We passed through this natural barrier and were greeted by a sight that would bring any pothead to climax. A marijuana happy place completely hidden until you are right on top of it. Picture that scene from The Beach, but not so much in straight rows, rather just right on top of each other. We had to wade to move forward. Believe me, in a situation like that you can’t help frolicking around like a giggling child.
Once we were over our initial shock, Dave pulled a bud off one of the plants and told me to eat it. It kind of tasted like mint mixed with basil, but really strong with an intense burning tingle along the front and sides of my tongue. Dave said that the tingle was a means of testing how strong the plant will be. The smugglers, each shovelling handfuls of weed into their mouths, said nothing but looked impressed.

Once the weed has been harvested, it is hung up to dry along washing lines that run along the inside of one of the stereotypical Xhosa rondawel huts. On the outside it looks like part of the scenery, but on the inside, the windowless thatch hut is completely curtained with marijuana branches. These are the branches that the smugglers would choose from. Picking the best, based on their expert opinion and using everything from cash to car batteries as currency.
While they traded, they smoked, but in a manner that was more a ritual than your casual toke outside the back door. Passing a pipe in an anti-clockwise direction around a circle. Touching fists, with a nod and a solemn look, as the chalice makes its rounds beneath a cloud of smoke. “We receive positive energy form the left and pass it on to the right, it’s the Rasta culture.” said Dave.

I embraced the culture, and once I’d finished coughing, I began to smell the real smells of Coffee Bay. It began to smell more like thatch, sweat, fire and marijuana.