Nothing quite prepares you for the enchantment of St Lucia. Driving north of Richards Bay across a fertile alluvial plain, with carefully cultivated sugar cane and forests, the only clue to what lies ahead is a shadowy, mountainous ridge along the coast, which is finally revealed as a series of giant forested dunes. These, the highest of their kind in the world, provide an appropriate backdrop to a fascinating mosaic of lakes, rivers, freshwater pans, swamp forest, grasslands and long, empty beaches. All this adds up to what is popularly known as Lake St Lucia, although it is actually an estuary that parallels the sea for 61 km.
Shaped something like a battle-axe, St Lucia as a vital wetland is watched over by the Natal Parks Board. The public territory operates as four reserves: the lake with its 360 km² of water was proclaimed St Lucia Game Reserve in 1895; the land within 800m of the lake shore (encircling St Lucia village and including the mouth of the estuary) became St Lucia Park in 1939; the western edge of False Bay became False Bay Park in 1944; and the wedge of land between lake and coast was proclaimed the Eastern Shores Nature Reserve in 1978. Jarring somewhat, the north-eastern portion of the complex is designated a missile testing site and areas in use signposted as temporarily closed to the public.
Mfolozi Flats and Mtubatuba
The N2 north from KwaMbonambi noses between eucalyptus plantations and sugar cane, and passes west of the small (and as yet undeveloped) Lake Eteza Nature Reserve shortly before crossing the Mfolozi River. Most of the time, the Mfolozi is well-behaved, meandering across a swampy plain before pouring into the sea almost within metres of the St Lucia Estuary. But the river's muddy mildness is deceptive. By the time it flows beneath the highway, its strength has been doubled because of the convergence of the White and Black Mfolozi rivers (named for the different coloured soils through which they flow) on the boundary of the Umfolozi Game Reserve.
The river thus has the potential to become a tempestuous torrent, sweeping all before it when in flood. Major damage was caused in 1984 when cyclone Demoina hit the KwaZulu coast, and again in 1987 with the region's worst floods in living memory. Roads and bridges were damaged out swept away, and valuable farmlands were lost. The river course has changed several times in the past, and although the Mfolozi Flats are considered among the most fertile in the world for sugar growing, the river gave early sugar pioneers severe headaches. A mill built injudiciously close to the river was damaged in 1917, and again in 1925, with many lives lost. Hence the site of the present mill at River View (between the river and Mtubatuba) and the development of an extensive system of drainage canals.
The R620 turns east about 7 km form the Mfolozi bridge, and within 2 km reaches Mtubatuba, which means 'he who was pummelled out'.
This small town is a thriving regional centre, and with its hotel, shops and garages, it provides a pivotal point for motorists travelling both coastwards and inland.
Nature has the upper hand at Mapelane, southernmost camp in the cluster of Natal Parks Board resorts at St Lucia. Turning right from the N2 north, opposite the KwaMbonambi signpost, a rough, narrow road snakes for 45km towards the sea. The road is so awkward in places – especially when it starts climbing the forested dunes close to the camp – that there is a size restriction on vehicle traffic and boats. The effort is worth it, however, for Mapelane has an entrancing, hideaway atmosphere, with the camp situated on the southern bank of the Mfolozi River mouth. Log cabins and camp sites are almost hidden in thick bush, and behind them towers one of the giant dunes of the St Lucia coastline, with a dizzying expanse of sandy beach sweeping past.
The massive hill Mjakaja, situated a short distance to the south, looms 182m high and looks, from a distance, like part of a small mountain range. Although the bustle and resources of St Lucia Resort are within virtual hailing distance on the other side of the estuary, Mapelane is quite cut off: no petrol is available and running out of groceries could mean a two-hour drive to 'civilization' and back! But the attractions of excellent surf and powerboat angling, rich bird life and walks through 9 km of unique coastal forest keep visitors coming back for more. Hutted camp bookings and inquiries are handled by Natal Parks Board reservations office in Pietermaritzburg, and camp site booking by the officer-in-charge at St Lucia.
St Lucia village and resort
The hop from the N2 to St Lucia village is on a level, tarred road that passes first through the Dukuduku plantations, then coastal forest. The jade depths of the state forest are off limits, although a wooded spot about 13km from Mtubatuba has been designated a picnic area. Three short, self-guided walking trails are marked out from here. Another 16 km on is the first encounter with the estuary, spanned by a bridge that rises imperceptibly at its seaward end to allow dredgers to pass beneath. Turning right at the T-junction after the bridge takes you into the village of St Lucia. Its single business street is festooned with signs advertising a wide variety of holiday accommodation, which is swamped during the peak holiday seasons.
Operating independently of the village (and completely surrounding it) is St Lucia Resort. This is Natal Parks Board territory and includes caravan parks, a game park, walking trails and the Crocodile Centre. The centre, which besides its crocodile pools is a mine of information, is a useful starting point for first-time visitors to the area. The three caravan parks are Eden Park, with the short Loerie Trail starting next to it; Sugarloaf Camp, closer to the beach and complete with swimming pool; and Iphiva Camp in the St Lucia Game Park. Visitors can walk unguided through this small reserve, or choose between three marked trails, The 4 km Hippo Trail leads to a hide on an estuary bank which provides excellent viewing, and all the walks allow you to get pretty close to the reserves antelope, zebra and wildebeest.
All boating and angling in the vicinity of the mouth takes place from Parks Board ground, with jetties and parking lots at intervals around the southern bend of the estuary. Launch tours leave from the Parks Board jetty and visitors' boats must be registered at the office. Aluminium fishing boats can be hired by anglers with their own outboard motors. Beach Road gives vehicle access to the mouth with its invitingly wide beach. It is here that the surf anglers crowd, every dawn and dusk, while behind them casuarine groves provide shelter from the wind, as well as picnic and braai sites. A boardwalk over the swampy Shark's Basin takes pedestrians back towards Sugarloaf Camp. An unprotected swimming beach (with showers and toilets) lies at the end of Beach Roads northern limb. No vehicles can pass through this 400 m length of beach.
Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve
Inland but within pleasant driving range from St Lucia Estuary is one of the oldest and largest game reserves in Natal. The Umfolozi Game Reserve, proclaimed in 1895 and covering almost 48 000 ha of rugged African savannah, is famous for its Operation Rhino programme of the 1960s which helped save the white rhinoceros from extinction. Over a thousand of these square-lipped beasts now wander through what was once a hunting ground of Shaka's together with shyer black rhino, elephant, lion giraffe, buffalo and zebra, as well as thousands of blue wildebeest, impala and nyala.
The White and Black Mfolozi rivers almost double back on themselves as they twist and loop through the reserve, converging on the eastern boundary, south of the Mambeni entrance gate through which the visitor from the coast would arrive. (The reserve is reached from R618 which turns off the N2 about 3 km north of Mtubatuba. Signposted to Nongoma, this tarred road heads into the heart of KwaZulu for some 22 km before a turn to the left leads to the reserve.) A detailed map is available of the roads, camps, picnic spots, viewsites and hides in the reserve.
Wildlife experts are unenhusiastic about rushed day trips, but recommend instead soaking up the wilderness atmosphere by staying at least one night in a hutted or bush camp, and being primed to look for all manner of fascinating features in the environment. If, however, a day outing is all you can manage, the gates are open from sunrise to sunset, and the 67 km Mosaic Auto Trails is recommended. It takes about five hours to complete, and is best enjoyed with an illustrated booklet available from the shop at Mpila Camp. Booking for accommodation and trails through the reserve is done through the Natal Parks Board reservations office in Pietermaritzburg.
Eastern Shores Nature Reserve
This reserve, controlled by the Natal Parks Board, fills the strip of land between Lake St Lucia and the sea s far north as Sodwana Bay (about 13 000ha), and is partly traversed by the gravel road to Cape Vidal. The high water table in the region requires that the road be packed with stones to prevent subsidence and, heading north beyond the Crocodile Centre, you are soon jolting along between pine plantations and grasslands teeming with reedbuck.
The forested areas are a source of ongoing controversy. Conservationists claim that the hectares of towering exotics reduce the fresh water available to the lake and threaten the wetlands. The timber producers, on the other hand, claim the trees are preventing dune erosion and that indigenous plants do flourish as forest undergrowth. The height of the water table and the fact that the ground is below sea level account for the numerous freshwater pans in the reserve. It is here that waterfowl flock in profusion, that the animals come to drink and the crocodiles to breed. They are not easily viewed from the road, however, so it would be worthwhile to contact the Natal Parks Board about guided tours.
A rigorous alternative exists in the form of the self-guided Mziki Trail. This starts out from the Mission Rocks outpost (14 km from the village), and can keep hikers busy for three days, crisscrossing the reserve through a remarkable variety of habitats – from seashore and grassland to dense forest and along hippo paths. Overnight accommodation is in the Mount Tabor base camp, a Royal Air Force observation camp during the Second World War. The narrow dirt road to Mission Rocks provides views of Catalina Bay, with more wartime memories as this was used as a base for flying boats.
At Mission Rocks, picnic sites have been laid out beside the parking area, while a few steps aways green dunes collide with a tumble of rocks that becomes a fascinating marine shelf when the tide recedes. The energetic can clamber south to Perriers Rock, or north – at low tide – to Bats Cave. This huge cavern is wall-to wall bat, one of the few nesting colonies in South Africa of the large, migratory fruit bat.
Lying about 35 km from the St Lucia village, Cape Vidal, with its log cabins and camp sites nestling in the shelter of forested dunes, is a popular powerboat and surf angling spot. The sea looks bluer and the sand whiter than further south, and a reef-sheltered beach allows fairly safe bathing and excellent snorkeling. As with all the other St Lucia resorts, Cape Vidal is rich in bird life, and strolling through the dune forest is likely to bring you in sight of samango and vervet monkeys, red duiker, bushpig and bushbuck. The St Lucia Wilderness Trail starts at Cape Vidal, and for three days a ranger leads a small group through a wilderness area where you can spot big game and magnificent bird life.
Less arduous is the self-guided Mvubu Trail, which, in a few hours, takes in the freshwater Bhangazi Lake and follows hippo paths through the forest. Camp site bookings are handled by the officer-in-charge, and trail and cabin booking by the Parks Board in Pietermaritzburg. Firewood and petrol are obtainable, but all other supplies (including bait) must be provided, and precautions should be taken against malaria. The coast north of Cape Vidal is a marine reserve, and still further north – beyond Leven Point – is marine sanctuary area where vehicles are allowed access but stopping, fishing and boating forbidden.
On the western shore of Lake St Lucia, about in line with the halfway point between Mission Rocks and Cape Vidal, is the resort of Charters Creek. There is no direst road access form St Lucia village, but it is reached rather from the N2, about 34 km north of Mtubatuba, where a tarred road swings east through the plantations of the Nyalazi State Forest. The camp gates are 13 km from the highway, followed by another 5 km of dirt road to reach the lakeside retreat. The small camp with its thatched rest huts and cottage stands in attractive grounds, looking out over a vast expanse of usually tranquil water.
It has great family appeal, with the big attraction again being the good lake fishing. The gates are open for day visitors from sunrise to sunset, but keen salmon fishermen are known to arrive before dark, fish the night through, and depart early the next morning. All fishing is done from boats rather than he banks of he lake; crocodiles could by lurking in the shallows. Other attractions include a daily jet boat tour around the nearby islands with their hippo colonies; walks and birdwatching; and table tennis and a swimming pool for residents. The self guided Umkhumbe or Red Duiker Trail requires about an hour's walking, winding through coastal forest and along the lake shore.
You can get a good look at the powderpuff tree, a member of the mangrove family with breathing roots and bark that can be powdered for use as fish poison. The longer Isikhova Trail (7 km) also penetrates the coastal forest, where the layers of trees shelter shy woodland creatures. A leaflet explaining the trail markers adds an extra dimension to the walk. Although hippos generally graze in th forest at night, keep an eye out for them by day as well. Petrol and oil are sold at the camp, and visitors provide their own food, which is prepared by resident cooks. Accommodation is reserved through the Parks Board in Pietermaritzburg, and day visits and launch tours through the officer-in-charge at Charters Creek.
Also on the water's edge, a short drive north of Charters Creek, is Fanies Island, another favourite angling haunt. With the island of the same name almost with casting distance of the shore, the self-catering resort comprises a cottage and rest huts, and camp and caravan sites. Visitors launch their boats (which must conform to Parks Board regulations) from the lakeside camping ground, and can roam between Charters and False Bay in search of spotted grunter and salmon. Bait, petrol and outboard oil are sold at the camp office. Picnic spots have been layout beside the water, and the two-hour Imikhova Trail is a self-guided walk along the shoreline.
To get to Fanies Island, turn off from the Hluhluwe-Charters Creek road and drive a distance of about 13 km on gravel to the camp entrance. Tent and caravan bookings are done through the officer-in-charge on site, and hutted accommodation is booked through the reservations office located in Pietermaritzburg.
The N2 from Mtubatuba is almost completely straight, through a landscape beginning to sprout fever trees and spiky sisal plants. After about 50 km the road reaches the village of Hluhluwe, with a hotel, garage and handful of shops. This is a handy reference point for the couple of popular private game ranches close by. Bona Manzi Game Park, 8 km south of Hluhluwe station, is distinguished by its novel accommodation: guests sleep in cozy, wooden, A-frame tree houses, complete with hot and cold water! Visitors are expected to supply their own food and drinks, and are free to drive or walk along the park's game trails.
The Ubizane Game Ranch, west of the highway, promises good game viewing and guests have a host of drives and walks to choose from, including a night safari. The ranch takes a maximum of six guests who stay in a camp on stilts overlooking a fever tree forest. The Zululand Safari Lodge is located on the ranch's 1 200 ha, with the Kwa Umsasaneni Kraal and Zulu Museum (depicting a village from the 1870s).
Hluhluwe Game Reserve
With an entrance about 17 km from Hluhluwe, the 23 000 ha Hluhluwe Game Reserve is linked to Umfolozi Game Reserve in the south by an 8 km wide game corridor. Although the two reserves are so close, they are quite different in look and feel. Situated at a higher altitude (the Hilltop Camp and shop stand at 650 m), Hlulhuwe is blessed with good rainfall, so its deep river valleys and grassy hillsides are greener and easier on the eye than the stark and dramatic Umfolozi landscape.
Hluhluwe is also a lot cooler, even is summer, and April and May are rated among its best game-viewing months. Hluhluwe provides habitats for more than 400 bird and 84 mammal species. Approximately 87 km of drives wind through the reserve, punctuated by picnic spots and view sites and a waterhole hide at Munyawaneni. For advice on the best game viewing, talk to the ranger at the Information Centre, or arm yourself with an explanatory booklet from the Parks Board shop and take your chances with a leisurely drive along one of Hluhluwe's two planned car trails. The scenery from every elevated point gives that top-of-the-world feeling, and cameras and binoculars are essential equipment.
The hutted camp of cottages and rest huts is perched on the ridge of a hill with built-in, panoramic views over the Hluhluwe valley. Guided walks lasting three to four hours set off from here every day, while a self-guided walking trail takes you into the nearby Mbhombe Forest. This type of semi deciduous forest (growing on the south-eastern slopes of the surrounding hills) is becoming rare in South Africa. En route, look out for the white stinkwood, cabbage tree, strangler fig, and the thorny climber Dalbergia Armata. Called umHluhluwe by the Zulu people, who have traditionally used the monkey rope as a muzzle to wean calves from their mothers, the plant has given its sibilant name to the area as a whole. Accommodation is reserved through the Natal Parks Board in Pietermaritzburg.
False Bay Park
Form Hluhluwe village a tarred road after about 19 km to the gates of False Bay Park. This self-contained reserve of 2247 ha runs along 23 km of lake shore, and with its somewhat remote location in the north-west of the St Lucia complex, it has frequently served as a breeding ground for the pink backed pelican. Accommodation is limited to camp sites on the lakeside – usually filled with dedicated fishermen – and a couple of thatched wooden huts in the Dugandlove Rustic Camp.
The latter is tucked into the bush, about 8 km south of the camp entrance, and provides the bare minimum (including an outdoor bucket shower) for birdwatchers and walkers who are happy to rough it. A 'tree house' platform provides a sweeping view over lake and pans, and there are numerous small mammals in the surrounding forest.
In addition to the Mphopomeni Trail, which offers a 7 or 10 km walk form the main camp, there is plenty of more casual walking available, with numerous picnic spots. The dry forest of False Bay is home to game such as nyala, porcupine, bushbuck, suni, spotted hyena and vervet monkey. Bird species abound, as do butterflies in the late summer. Of further interest are the remains of ancient fossil beds, which can be seen stretching a good 50 m inland from Lister's Point. These coral ridges are crusted with shells and mollusks, slowly fossilized in the thousands of years since the sea fell back from this level.
Visitors to False Bay Park should be fully equipped with supplies and fuel. Camp site bookings are handled by the office-in-charge, and other accommodation and trail booking by the Parks Board in Pietermaritzburg.
Mkuzi Game Reserve
From the lower Mkuze region, just north of Hluhluwe, the N2 (which has followed the coastal fairly closely from Durban) veers off inland. Access to this remote stretch of coast is still via the N2, but now you follow little-used, fairly rough gravel roads over ever-increasing distances before reaching the sea. The first real landmark in this region is situated inland, edging against the Ubombo Mountains. The recently enlarged Mkuzi Game Reserve (30 000 ha) is sometimes overshadowed by the more southerly Umfolozi and Hluhluwe reserves, but with water lilies, a river gorge embedded with marine fossils, dense acacia forest, red sand ridges almost 2-million years old – Mkuzi offers a scenic and distinctive treat to outdoor lovers,
Here summer temperatures and humidity soar to enervating heights, while winters are mild and dry. You can enjoy the reserve by traveling the 84 km of hard dirt roads, which include a 41 km- long Auto Trail. A highlight of this self-guided drive is the Nsumu Pan with its birdwatching hide. Mkuzi has recorded more than 380 bird species (including fish eagles, kingfishers, stilts and a host of duck and waders), may of which can be seen around Nsume. The fig Forest Walk along the pan's southern shore winds through all that remains of a sycamore fig forest that was swept away by cyclone Demoina in 1984. The wide variety of soil types in Mkuzi has produced over 700 plant species that in turn shelter more than seventy mammal species as well as dozens of reptile and amphibian species.
Four game-viewing hides provide discreet windows on animals such as rhinoceros, giraffe, zebra, nyala, blue wildebeest, kudu, impala and even leopard coming to drink. Walks include the half-hour River View Trail, daily three-hour rambles with a game guard, and in winter the guided Nsumu Walk and three-day trails through the wilderness. Adjoining the reserve's southern boundary is a 4200 ha controlled hunting area, established in 1987 by the Natal Park's Board.
Excess animals, which would otherwise have had to be removed from Mkuzi, stock the hunting ground, as part of the reserve's game management programme. Accommodation at Mkuzi includes cottages, bungalows and rustic huts at eMantuma Camp, picnic sites for day visitors, and a camping and caravan site near the Emshopi entrance gate. (The entrance is about a 19 km drive through aloe-stubbled mountain pass after turning off the road between Hluhluwe and Mkuze village.)
Mkuze, Ghost Mountain and Ubombo
Lying in the lee of the Ubombo Mountain, and with cultivated plains stretching inland, is Mkuze village. This small but busy trading and transport centre is a useful base between mkuzi Game Reserve and Ndumu further to the north. The legendary Ghost Mountain, a jagged 529 m peak to the south-east, towers over the Mkuze River and is said to be haunted. A taboo cave near its summit was for centuries the burial place for chiefs of a Ndwandwe family who clashed, bloodily, with Shaka.
More bloodshed followed during the Anglo-Zulu War when a fierce battle took place in the river gorge at the foot of the mountain, and strange noises and lights have been reported on its slopes ever since......
A short distance north, a gravel road twists up into the Ubombos from Mkuze. Very narrow in parts, it provides stunning views over the plains before leveling out into the dusty trading post of Ubombo village. Form this cloud-brushing eyrie, the road descends slowly along the eastern flank of the mountains before meeting up with the Jozinii-Tshongwe -Mbazwana road.
Jozinii Dam and Maputaland
A huge dam on the Pongola (Phongolo) River provides a majestic entrance to Maputaland. The Jozinii or Phongolapoort Dam lies in a dramatic setting between the Ubombo and Lebombo mountains, overlooked by Jozinii village, which originally housed the dam's construction workers. Its waters teen with freshwater fish such as tilapia and tigerfish, and slipways near the wall are used by anglers to launch their powerboats. (You need a permits from the Department of Water affairs to use the official slipways.) Once over the dam wall, a good tarred road strikes north through the usually steamy Pongola floodplain with the equally swampy Makathini Flats to the East.
As with the plains to the South, this sandy, tree-studded expanse was sea floor when waves broke against the sides of the Lebombo Mountains, 100-million years ago. The north-flowing Pongola river system now supports a rich diversity of freshwater fish, and is important to the existence of many species of waterfowl. The Tembe-Thonga people living on the plain have adapted their subsistence to the river's resources. Fish is the staple food, and a colourful feature of daily life is the fonya or thrust fishing basket used by groups of women and boys wading through the pans, driving fish before them and finally trapping them in their conical baskets.
The largest freshwater lake in South Africa is located about a 15-minute drive north of Mbazwana, and its unspoilt delights are now accessible to visitors. (Though not essential, four-wheel drive is recommended for the journey through the ordered ranks of Mbazwana State Forest and then over grassland tracks.) Falling under the jurisdiction of the KwaZulu Bureau of Natural Resources, a small wedge of the lake shore has (in conjunction with the local tribal authority) been developed into an atmospheric rustic camp. At Baya Camp thatched, comfortable cabins nestle under splayed umdoni trees, and a wooden boardwalk links them to a communal eating lodge and sundeck. From here – as well as from the cabins – you look out over a sheet of water that barely ripples against reed banks and powdery, white sand. The counterpoint of hippo grunt and fish eagle cry underscores the beauty and tranquility of the area.
The lake once flowed into the ocean but is now landlocked with a narrow ridge of forested dunes separating it from the sea. Sea fish trapped in its clear, chill depths (averaging 13m and believed to be fed by an underground source as well as generous rains) have adapted to fresh water. The raggedly shaped lake, which was first mentioned in rerecorded history when shipwrecked Portuguese were killed here in 154, covers an area of 18 km². Its myriad coves and channels are home to flamingo flocks and over 250 other bird species, and these can be enjoyed by boat (which can be hired by camp residents) or from walking trails.
Maputaland Marine Reserve
This reserve extends from a beacon 11 km north of Sodwana to the Mozambique border, and access to these clean, empty swathes of gleaming sand and sparkling surf is very tightly controlled. Guardian of the reserve is the Natal Parks Board, and permits for day visits (the only access is from inland) must be obtained from the KwaZulu Forestry Department at Mbazwana. (Beach permits for Mabibi are obtainable from the Natal Parks Board at Sodwana.) From Sodwana Bay, twenty vehicles a day are allowed to drive between Nine Mile Point and Mabibi (Hully Point) and Kosi mouth, the beach is reserved for the turtles (and their researchers), with pedestrian access at only three points.
The forestry office at Mbazwana issues limited permits for Island Rock and Black Rock. Visitors have to travel back roads through the plantations, park off the beach, and walk onto the sand. Permits for Bhanga Nek and Kosi mouth are issued only to residents at the Kosi Bay Nature Reserve. (Local residents may fish in the area.) Bhanga Nek, focus for the turtle monitoring programme, is a boat ride and short walk from the reserve camp site. Kosi mouth can be reached by boat (as fas as the top of First Lake) and then on foot (3km); by walking the full 12 km from the camp; or by a slow four-wheel drive along 17,4 km of spine-jarring sand track.
Five vehicles a day (seven passengers each) many drive to Kosi mouth. From the small parking and braai area, you reach the beach on foot – either around the edge of the lagoon or, if the tide is out, across its sandbanks. Surf fishing at the mouth is good, and a coral reef in the lagoon is a snorkeling delight (but there are no shark nets here and there is also a stonefish population). Wandering more than a kilometer or two north of the mouth is courting trouble: the Mozambican border post of Ponta do Ouro is a short distance beyond.
Kosi Bay Nature Reserve
The northernmost bush resort on South Africa's east coast is Kosi Bay Nature Reserve, a small camp on the shores of Lake Nhlange. This is the third, and deepest, in a chain of lakes known collectively as Kosi bay. The reserve was taken over by the KwaZulu Bureau of Natural Resources in 1984, who strictly control the estuary and beach. The camp consists of a few tent and caravan sites, and picturesque, thatched lodges. The appeal of this secluded camp is primarily fishing, with boating on the three central lakes bringing in good catches. The pristine Kosi estuary and lake system system also offers a seasonal feast for wilderness lovers. Fringing the shoreline are marsh forests, five species of mangrove, and a profusion of ferns and orchids beneath giant swamp figs and umdoni trees.
The Sihadhla River, its banks covered with reeds and water lilies, hosts hippo, crocodiles and waterfowl in its shallows. The famous turtle nesting beach is a dip in the dunes away at Bhanga Nek, and just a comfortable walk away (with a guide) are the raffia palms and their palmnut vultures at Lake aManzamnyama. To the south, a cluster of Thonga-style huts on the Sihadhla River is the base camp for a four-day walking trail. Getting to Kosi Bay is a long haul, and the easiest route is inland via Mkuze and Jozinii. Once across the Jozinii Dam wall, keep heading north over the Pongola floodplain on almost dead straight road. About 40 km from the dam you reach a T-junction, where you turn right towards Phelandaba and Manguzi.
As you draw closer to the coast, look for the stripped clumps of lala palms being tapped for their potent wine. Manguzi/Kwangwanase is the last stop for supplies and petrol. After 13 km on hard dirt road, you reach the reserve gate.
Ndumu Game Reserve
With its camp of thatched huts 6 km south of the Mozambique border, Ndumu Game Reserve is one of the more remote Natal Parks Board spots and until the road Jozini was tarred, its outpost situation tended to discourage all but the most ardent bird and bush disciple. The reserve's breathtaking variety of trees, mammals, insects and birds gives the place a special atmosphere. The terrain shades from riverine forest and lakes to acacia thicket and floodplain grassland, all adding up to a sense of unspoilt Africa. All four walks in the reserve (one for game-viewing, two for birding, and an enchanting one for trees along the Pongola River) are guided, as are daily four-wheel-drive tours. These meander through some of the thickest bush on the continent and linger at freshwater pans that are home to countless birds.
Almost 400 species have been recorded on Ndumu's 10 000 ha – almost as many as the Kruger National Park which is nearly 200 times larger. Nyamithi Pan, its fever tree forest wreathed with early morning mist, is what wilderness memories are made of. Many of the reserve's 500 crocodiles and 300 hipo are safe here, and feeding nonchalantly among them are white pelican, black heron, hamerkop, spoonbill, blacksmith plover and common sandpiper. A lookout tower near the entrance provides a panoramic overview of the whole reserve, and is one of the stops on the self-guided Auto Trail. This includes a sweep through grasslands south of the Usuthu River where game such as giraffe, rhino, reed buck, buffalo, zebra, kudu and nyala may be sighted.
Closer to the camp, the sandy woodland with its marula, silverleaf and black monkey-thorn usually shelters skittish bushpig, the solitary grey duiker, and suni. To reach Ndumu, turn right at the T-junction of the Jozinii and Ingwavuma-Phelandaba roads, then left onto a signposted dirt road, a few kilometers on. From here, the run is about 15 km to the entrance gates, passing a small military camp and a shop selling petrol en route.
Things to do
The reserve status of this coast (St Lucia Marine Reserve stretches – for three nautical miles out to sea – from 1 km south of Cape Vidal to 11 km north of Sodwana, and Maputaland Marine Reserve continues from there to the Mozambique border) means certain restrictions apply. While no bait may be collected, fishing is permitted (except in the demarcated sanctuary areas), and only game fish may be fished from powerboats.
Beach combing and shelling
The reserve and sanctuary status of the shore between Sodwana and Kosi Bay means that only dead shells on the beach may be collected. But some beautiful specimens – including cowries – can be picked up off almost pristine sands when the tide goes out, and there is many a vivid rock pool to admire at low tide.
This chunk of coast with its tapestry of floodplain, mountain and dry thorn scrub is surely one of the most exciting birding area in the country. Ndumu Game Reserve is rated a birding paradise but Mkuzi comes a good second, and each has several viewing hides and walks geared to this purpose. A reed (Phragmites australis) that grows around Ndumu pans provides one of two known South African breeding spots for the rare openbilled stork, while flocks of whit pelicans, which usually breed at Lake St Lucia, frequently feed on the Pongola pans. The Kosi lakes themselves have long been described as a 'gorgeous aviary' with over 250 species sighted.
Camping and caravaning
Mkuzi, one of the few game reserves with camping facilities, can accommodated sixty people in tents and caravans, while the mammoth 600-site camp at Sodwana Bay takes up 25 ha of dune bush. (contact the Natal Parks Board.) Kosi Bay Nature Reserve has caravans.
The marine reserves here contain the southernmost coral reefs in the world, drawing divers from all over the country. Marine life at Two Mile Reefs is intact, and its inhabitants – especially a moray eel named Monty and a potato bass called Archie – are fearless and friendly. A dive shop and school are planned for the camp, to provide tuition, equipment and boats for all levels of scuba diver. Keep snorkel and flippers handy for any of the deeper rock pools north and south of Sodwana.
Drives and view sites
Both Mkuzi and Alundum game reserves have self-guided Auto Trails that, with the help of trail booklets, become leisurely conservation classes on wheels. From Mkuze , it is possible to make a round trip through the mountains that takes in Jozinii Dam as well as a hair-raising, gravel road climb to Ubumbo. Perched at an altitude of 610m, this dust-shrouded hamlet has views over the plains reaching east and west.
A tiny provincial library is located in the camp office at Ndumu Game Reserve.
Power boating are to Sodwana Bay what skis are to Alps – you can enjoy the place without them, but why bother! The boats launch from the beach at Jesser Point, and petrol and oil are available at the camp. Most of the fishing in the Kosi lakes is from powerboats, and camp residents must bring their own craft.
Survivors from the Portuguese carrack Sao Thome are thought to have come ashore in the vicinity of Lake Sibaya, following a dramatic voyage from India in 1589. The vessel, laden with its pumps clogged by pepper, when the Maputaland coast was potted. Officers and crew together with aristocratic passengers, clergy and a few slaves set off in the only longboat, abandoning everyone else on the sinking ship. Several longboat passengers were tossed overboard to lighten the load, and a handful eventually survived the trip to Mozambique.
Surfers often manage a good wave around Jesser Point and off the beach in the bay at Sodwana.
This line of coast has no shark nets but swimmers venture into the shallow, sheltered waves at Sodwana Bay and at the mouth of Kosi Bay. The prevalence of crocodiles and hippo in the inland lakes and pans rules out even padding.
Tennis and squash
The Mkuze Country Club welcomes guest from the Ghost Mountain Inn in the town.
Three- and four-day trails set off from Mkuzi Game Reserve and Kosi Bay Nature Reserve. These entail overnight stays in rustic huts or tents, and are led by experienced rangers, Ndumu Game Reserve offers a selection of guided game, birding and tree-spotting walks, and there are several interesting beach and bush walks in the vicinity of the camps at Sodwana Bay, Kosi Bay Nature Reserve and Lake Sibayi.
Illustrated Guide to the Southern African Coast.Pages 256-269. AA The Motorist Publications (Pty) Limited for The Automobile Association of South Africa. 1988. ISBN 0 947008 47 0
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