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Discovering an African paradise

Discovering an African paradise Look, forgive me. I don’t get to Natal much. I’m from a farm where it never rains, and it’s easy to forget that ‘Tropical’ is a…

Discovering an African paradise

Discovering an African paradise

Look, forgive me. I don’t get to Natal much. I’m from a farm where it never rains, and it’s easy to forget that ‘Tropical’ is a word that isn’t just from bad shampoo ads. But beyond that, I honestly didn’t know paradise like this existed in South Africa. It’s literally monkeys-eating-bananas-and-jumping-between-palm-trees kind of tropical.

Kosi Bay lies roughly 500km north of Durban and for the general South African it’s a bit of a mission to get there. It is so worth the drive. Up there, past the pineapple and sugarcane fields in the top right corner of KZN, Kosi Bay is part of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park – South Africa’s first natural UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s everything and that little bit more that you’d expect from an African paradise: turquoise waters, endless sandy beaches, giant palm forests, unique wetlands, and of course, crocodile infested swamps.

There’s a lot of driving on sand to get there, so the all-wheel-drive Forester is a great comfort.

Subaru Forester Adventure

Some detail for the uninitiated – The Kosi Bay area surrounds four lakes (with cool names like the Amanzimnyama, Nhlange, Mpungwini and Makhawulani). The lakes are connected with winding narrow channels before Makhuwulani runs into the Indian Ocean through a shallow mouth. This is a very nice snorkelling spot, but there are many more.

The best way to really see the lakes is to go on a boat cruise. We were lucky enough to hitch a ride with a Ivan Smith from Hleke Imvubu boat cruises, who invited us along after meeting us at a braai the night before.

Ivan and Kim where the boats dock

Slowly cruising through the (UNESCO recognised) mangroves the water is so clear that you aquarium-style see fish, otters and all sorts of creatures swimming beneath you. ‘What’s this big path through the bushes’ I ask Ivan who is steering the boat. “Oh that’s a hippo highway” he says with a cheeky grin, “they’re everywhere!”. Hmm. There’s more beneath this surface than I thought.

We meander through a thin channel to the 3rd lake and suddenly the sky turns pink as we close in on a flamboyance of flamingos. Drops the mike. Man! I’ve always wanted to use that phrase in a sentence!

As we enter the last lake we see a man walking through the water to check on his fish kraal. No luck yet it seems, but he flashes a bright white smile and waves at us with both arms. I guess he’s not too worried, there’s plenty of fish in this sea.

The Thonga people have worked these cleverly woven fish kraals for more than 700 years. They build the kraals to curve in, which allows fish to easily enter and then the big ones can’t get out. The little fish exit easily, so the impact on the fish population is really minimal – almost non-existent. The local Thonga tribe  live on the dunes inside iSimangaliso Wetland Park. It is the second biggest ‘dune population’ in the world. I think Ivan told us the biggest one is in Australia. The only way to get to the village is by foot and there’s a little boat that takes kids across the lake to the village bus that takes them to school.

What a life.

700 year old Fish Kraals at Kosi Bay

After the boat cruise we hop in the Forester to get some supplies in town. It was a cold and wet boat ride, but apparently the Forester seats are dog proof so we worry not, and turn up the heat and the beats as we drive over the sandy 4×4 road to the park exit. The closest town to Kosi Bay is Manguzi, about 13km away. A sign next to some jolly looking people reads ‘Shisa Nyama’ and we decide that this is an important pit stop. Crocodile is the first thing on the menu and apparently it’s the best in town. No eyebrows raised. A guy drives in and orders a braaied crocodile steak takeaway. He waits in his car. They braai it and take it to him in a polystyrene bakkie.

Nothing to see here.

Braaiing crocodile at the local Shisa Nyama

Back in the park we drive on the lake edge towards the beach. The roads are challenging and we are all  a bit nervous when we have to cross a wooden pole bridge right next to a Hippo Highway – it’s the kind of place where things can really go wrong. Luckily the all-new Subaru Forester is made to step up to these kinds of challenges and we hop along over the rickety bridge and head to the ocean. Someone must have just left the beach because a log is still glowing in the sand and we see fish bones next to their smouldering fire.

Chilling out and reflecting

Yup, plenty of fish in this sea.

Favourite things to do in Kosi Bay:

  1. Themba Mtembu’s birding tour.  Themba is a local guide with an extensive knowledge of birds. He knows all the LBJ’s and can imitate over 250 bird calls. We spent a day with him on his tour both inside the park and also near Thembe Elephant Park where he does a birding tour through the communal land. Themba is a TripAdvisor travellers choice winner and among their top 10% of attractions world-wide. We highly recommend taking his tour and just enjoying a day out with him. Email thembabirdingtour@gmail.com for more information.

    LTR Danielle, Themba and Kim

  2. Snorkel at the Aquarium Reef at the Kosi Bay mouth – some of the best snorkelling I’ve ever seen. With Ivan’s tour you can also snorkel in the protected mangroves in the lakes where you can see an abundance of life in calmer waters.
  3. The Thonga people. One day we saw a group of locals drive inside the park and we followed them to the beach. It turns out they were performing a Sangoma Graduation ceremony and they invited us along. This was one of the most exhilarating and interesting experiences of my life. Any chance you get to do an activity with the local community: take it! I will never forget the strange and wonderful experience of sitting on the beach, listening to them playing their drums and  seeing their ritual performed right in front of me.
  4. Experience the Kosi Bay lakes on a boat cruise with Hleke Imvubu Boat Cruises. It’s such a different experience to driving next to the lakes and a great way to see how the Thonga people live in harmony with nature. It really makes you step back and reconsider how it is actually possible to live with such a small ecological footprint. Email info@kosimouth.co.za for more information.
  5. From November to January you can watch the leatherback and loggerhead sea-turtles come ashore and nest on the beaches. Unfortunately we were there in July, but apparently (obviously) this is an incredible life experience.