You know when you’re small and your parents take you to a ‘jungle gym’ and in that jungle gym there are all sorts of great things you can climb on and tons of little nooks and hidey holes to discover and squash yourself into? And also, there are like, places where you can imagine the floor is a huge lava flow or it’s an ocean and you’ve got to jump across it to slay a mutant dragon alien and SAVE THE WORLD? And you know how you’re supposed to stop going to these places when you reach a certain height? And once you reach that height and you get denied entry and all you can think is, ‘But… I’ve got a world to save… and a curly slide to hurtle down… But… But…’
That my friends, is the very worst part of becoming an adult. Why do you think I’ve spent so much of my time above a certain height (adulthood, ugh) as a nanny/babysitter. The jungle gyms. Access. Heck yeah.
This past week I stayed at a place that brought back some of that joy that you can only feel if you’re swinging from a rope into a ball pit. Yep. A place kind of like a jungle gym. For grownups. Complete with little tree houses, hidden hideaways, hammocks to swing on and an enchanted cat with mystical powers: Monkey Bay Backpackers in Ballito. Love it.
There’s all kinds of reasons why I ended up Ballito last week. Most of them aren’t nice. So it was a pleasure to be staying somewhere so darn welcoming, comforting, and best of all, jungle-gymish. Want to talk happiness? Let’s talk treehouses. Let’s talk fun little places to pitch tents. Let’s talk endless coffee. And let’s not forget the best charity bookshop in South Africa, right across the road. Paradise.
I looked at other places to camp in the area. The competition is there and some of it looks great, but it’s just too expensive. I’m a safari guide. I don’t do expensive. And give me friendly faces any day. One of my big motives for staying at Monkey Bay was its in-your-face surf vibe. They offer board rental and lessons. There are boards stacked right outside next to their cute ‘surf shack.’ Heck, you find the place by looking for the giant BILLABONG logo spread across the whole street-front. And what did I do on impulse instead of booking a surf lesson? I went for a walk-in tattoo. That’s no surfing for me for at least two to three weeks. Why didn’t I just surf? Goodness me, The decisions you need to make in Ballito: Surf? Or tattoo? Sushi? Or pizza? Beach? Or Birdwatch? Shop? Or massage? And the best part is that it’s all so affordable. Mostly. What matters is that Monkey Bay is the perfect base for all of this delicious stuff, especially when you’re making your way between safaris in the Eastern Cape and safaris further north in Natal. The tourist trail is a beautiful thing. Live a little, y’all.
Oh well. The need to try out their surf lessons is reason enough to return to Monkey Bay. And I will. To do everything. And I need to because I spent almost a week at the lodge and I didn’t even see it all. There were just so many hidden corners and quirky little spots to discover. I’d walk down a path and I didn’t know where I was half the time. And that’s awesome. Jungle gym. Good vibes. Despite being in the middle of all the action (like, SO close to the beach boardwalk and to Dominos Pizza and the famous Mo Zam Bik Portugese restaurant) Monkey Bay is a little tropical paradise. The bird geek in me loved the ever-present purple crested louries, yellow bellied greenbuls, natal francolins and the absolute love of my life, the red capped robin chat. Sunbirds and weavers flitted about between the lush vegetation and I was constantly waiting to see what bird would emerge next.
Big credit to the staff too. Mike the owner was great for conversation and Lucky was an absolute champion. Ever upbeat, this dude was born for hospitality. He always seemed to be around, popping his head up all over the place at all hours of the day, constantly offering help with something or a sharing a great story or just flashing a wide smile. He made my stay. And thats why we backpack, right? To meet awesome people. That’s another thing I loved about Monkey Bay; there were enough nooks to cram yourself into if you wanted to avoid people, but there were so many inviting communal areas where you could engage with friendly travelers. Do both. In equal measure. And I did…
I actually had a conversation with a fellow guest containing the sentence, ‘and we hitchiked here from the Free State with a bird in my bag and it flew into that fan there and died instantly…’ And while I kind of wanted to back away slowly, I let her speak instead. And made a quirky new friend in the process. The kind you have for a short time. But that’s the soul of backpacking. Just don’t hitchhike across the country with Indian Mynas in your handbag. Please. That’s weird.
We just couldn’t control the weather during my stay at Monkey Bay. That’s one thing I’ve learned whilst working in the hospitality industry for so long. If you’re a lodge, or a guide, or anything other than a paying tourist, the weather is always your fault. Rain? Lodge’s fault. Cold? Why didn’t your guide cancel the game drive? So here’s where I have some real understanding. Really people, please stop blaming the place you’re staying at and the beautiful souls who work there. Please. They stress about bad weather the same way that you do. Even more so, because you’re stressing and that makes them stress. It’s a vicious cycle with no winners, so rather just chill. The rain we experienced during my time at Monkey Bay was the heaviest they’d experienced in nine years and was so important to relieve the awful drought we’ve been having. But I’ll be honest. It sucked. And while it devastated my tent and made my stay a challenge at times, the poor lodge had serious floods and damage and leaks and mudslides and all sorts to contend with. And they dealt with it with a smile. That says a lot about who they are. They get massive points for that.
Now if there’s ever an upside to having a tent buried by a small mudslide, it’s the fact that I had the opportunity to explore Monkey Bay’s other accommodation options. After two very wet nights in my small tent, I was upgraded to a night in one of their safari tents (love love love), followed by the exclusive treehouse the next night (ensuite bathroom – score!) and back to another safari tent the next night while I waited patiently for my tent to dry. Again, big thanks to Lucky for the help here.
I have to say I couldn’t get enough of that first safari tent. A bright, cozy space with a comfy couch was just what my spirit needed after a good soaking. It’s where I’d stay again the next time I return to Monkey Bay. Not that the campsites aren’t amazing. They’re all private and set up on a hill, with fun climbs to reach some of the higher ones. Mine even had an ocean view. Not only do you get your jungle gym, you can set up a tent in it…
Importantly, for a girl on my own, I always felt safe and comfortable at Monkey Bay. I didn’t feel compelled to ‘lock stuff up‘ and I’d often leave my little mobile ‘office’ complete with Macbook set up in a communal area and never worried about it. I’ve stayed at backpackers all over the country and while some have obviously had more money pumped into them, very few have had real heart pumped into them. Quirky. With soul. Love it. I’m going to be back.
The technical bits: Camping at Monkey Bay starts from as little as R100. The dorms are about R150. The safari tents cost a little more but are SO worth it, and the fancy treehouses are R500. All you need to know is here: http://www.monkeybaybackpackers.co.za
Hoofnote: I so want to hijack their ‘Landy Cab.’ That’s a horrible thing to admit, but that car is gorgeous. And you can travel around in it. And get picked up from the airport in it. And it’s epic. When it’s mine, I’ll take you on safari in it. Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, anyone?