KwaZulu-Natal: A country of miracles

19 August 2016 - 02:00 By Staff reporters

Shelley Seid discovers a place where wonder and beauty meet.

The TOMSA/Sunday Times Finders Keepers team and Thandi Shabalala at Mission Rocks.
The TOMSA/Sunday Times Finders Keepers team and Thandi Shabalala at Mission Rocks.
Image: THULI DLAMINI

We’d walked a steep path to the top of a dune on the eastern shores of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. To my left was the lake, to my right the sea, in between, five different ecosystems. The cinemascopic view took my breath away.

“iSimangaliso means the place of miracles,” said Thandi Shabalala, the park’s tourism information officer who had led the trek and would later lead us down a windy path to the rocky shore and pounding waves.

It is said that Jeqe, Shaka’s body servant, fled here in 1828 when the great  king was assassinated, and settled here in the land of the Tonga people.

“To this day, we Zulus have a saying: ‘If you have seen miracles, you have seen what Jeqe saw’. It is the place of ultimate wonder and beauty,” said Shabalala.

 We rode horses on the beach and took a boat ride on the  lake that borders the little town of St Lucia. This, the opportunity to spot hippos, crocs and myriad birds, may be a perpetual tourist haunt but it’s also an activity that locals themselves cannot get enough of. 

The type of tourists coming through is changing, said  skipper Dennis Roberts. “These days it’s more about eco-conscious families who have an appreciation of our natural heritage.”

We wandered around the Mlalazi reserve whose thick coastal forest is home to the rare Spotted Ground Thrush, Southern Banded Snake Eagle and  a small  population of palmnut vultures that live in the crowns of the giant raffia palms. There’s an estuary for swimming or boating and vast stretches of empty beaches.

As with Isimangaliso, the area has strong links with its past and also has its champions like Bruce Hopwood, landscaper and member of the uMlalazi Tourism Association.

Hopwood showed us the famous Milkwood tree — the “Indaba tree” — on the river bank where King Cetshwayo’s “white chief” John Dunn held court with tribal elders in the mid-1800s. 

In Eshowe, like every other area we visited, links to the past are ever present.

Walking the 10m-high  boardwalk through the treetops of the lush 250ha Dlinza forest with the whisper of the trees and the calls of the birds about you, it is not hard to imagine Shaka’s wives taking refuge here in times of war.

We returned to Durban and  the clamour of modern life. But we had had a glimpse of Jeqe’s miracles and wonders — and urge you to go  and see them for yourself.

 

WHAT IS TOMSA?

TOMSA is the 1% tourism levy collected by tourism businesses with the aim of contributing to the promotion of South Africa as the preferred tourist destination locally and internationally. The levy is added to consumers' bills for their use of various travel and tourism services in South Africa such as accommodation, car hire, tour operators, travel agencies and tourism experiences. The levy is applicable for both local and international tourists.

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Call to adventure

Claire Keeton found new ways to visit some wet and wild attractions

The heritage of Zululand, the battlefields and the wildlife of the northern KwaZulu-Natal game parks are well known but less celebrated is its adventure travel potential — from mountain biking through coastal forests and game parks to kayaking on Lake St Lucia.

iSimangaliso Wetland Park in the heart of Zululand is a wild, wet and wonderful place.

To experience its attractions up close I set out by mountain bike from St Lucia on my first day  and, like a spectacular route I rode around Mtunzini with Steve Untiedt, traversed mangrove swamps and pedalled through coastal forests, where I saw a red duiker.

Cycling is a unique way to experience the beauty of northern KwaZulu-Natal and meet the hospitable people who live there.  Xolani Theo Gina of Theo Tours, the first mountain biker I met, rode the 1.5km iGwalagwala loop in St Lucia with me to point out the way forward. Hippos wander there at night, so evening rides are a no-go!

But I did not stay on dry (or swampy) land all day, swapping my pedals for paddles to go on a canoe trip guided by Bheki Sithole on Lake St Lucia. Initially I launched into the lake with Thandi Shabalala, the dynamic tourist information officer for iSimangaliso Wetland Park. This was to allow our photographer to follow us in a stable boat with Sithole at the helm.

Once he dropped her off, I joined him in a canoe and we steered into the deeper waters of the lake in choppy conditions. The strong wind blew us backwards if we stopped paddling but above us fish eagles were soaring on the gusts.

We saw crocodiles lounging in the shallows and the ears of hippos above the swells. Occasionally they would rise above the surface and their bulk was enough to keep us battling the wind to get back safely to shore.

With diverse habitats and big-game viewing, it is no wonder the Big 5 Zululand Mountain Bike series is increasingly popular among active travellers to KwaZulu-Natal. If you like active holidays, this one’s for you.

• St Lucia Kayak Safaris offers kayak trips lasting from 2.5 hours (R295) to full-day adventures (R775) on Lake St Lucia. To book call 035-590-1233 or 082-463-3253, e-mail anton@kayaksafaris.co.za or see www.kayaksafaris.co.za.

• The iSimangaliso mountain bike tour takes place from 18-21 August — see www.isimangaliso-mtb.co.za.

 

HLUHLUWE-IMFOLOZI PARK

A white rhino crossing the road after sunset was a ghostly sighting in this Big 5 park, where the roadside game viewing is exceptional. On a previous trip to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, I saw elephants, lion, buffalo and white rhino within half an hour. Now, while driving around the park in the TOMSA/Sunday Times Finders Keepers van  — sponsored by Europcar — we saw herds of buffalo, three white rhinos, five nyala ewes, 20 zebras, nine male impalas, two giraffes, 10 blue wildebeest and four warthogs in record time.

DETAILS: See www.kznwildlife.com

 

SCULPTURES AT ST LUCIA TOURIST INFORMATION CENTRE

Dazzling sculptures in metal, resin, wood and skin from the Ugqozi Lwentambende (spirit of the long rope) exhibition stop visitors to the St Lucia centre in their tracks, while under their feet is a mosaic of a map of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

The works were created by local artists who joined the iSimangaliso art programme. The artists mingled the themes of their ancestors, conservation and gender in their original and provocative pieces. Take Iqhawe (the warrior woman) by Nokuthula Gumede: she has a man’s face, six arms, wings to soar, the abdomen of a (symbolically busy) bee and hen’s feet representing how women as breadwinners scratch for a living and protect their children.

DETAILS: See www.stluciasouthafrica.com

 

TOAD TREE COTTAGE & NURSERY, MTUNZINI

Fever trees glow golden among the yellowwoods in the indigenous forest that Bruce Hopwood has planted amid plantations of sugar cane. Aloes  and trees that are home to monkeys and bushbabies surround his arty Toad Tree Cottage B&B, which lies between a nursery and the original 100-year-old farmhouse where he lives. He has rehabilitated streams on the farm where he was born and has become a conservationist, inspired by Ian Garland from Mtunzini.

Garland personally planted tens of thousands of indigenous trees from hundreds of species, pioneering the rehabilitation of the Siyaya coastal cachment area, as well as starting the Twinstreams Environmental Centre.

DETAILS: See www.mtunzini.co.za/toadtree.htm

 

VUKANI ZULU CULTURAL MUSEUM

Dumisani Mthethwa has created beaded beasts from Zulu mythology such as the lizard bride and the five-headed snake. This  is just one of the captivating exhibitions at Vukani in the Fort Nongqayi museum village at Eshowe.

“We want to keep the old crafts from dying out and we have massively talented artists,” said the museum’s Zama Mbatha.

Curator Vivienne Garside has collected some 3500 artworks including woven baskets and elaborate pots for Vukani.

DETAILS: See www.eshowemuseums.org.za

 

FORT NONGQAYI

The three-turreted fort housing the Zululand Historical Museum is the dominant feature in this  complex, which also has a missionary chapel. Built in 1883, the fort was the headquarters for the barefoot Zulu police (known as nongqayi), but now it displays artefacts dating from the Iron Age to the present. Walk past an imposing wooden carving of King Mpande in his wheelchair into the living room of the white Zulu chief, John Dunn, and be awed by this wonderful collection.

DETAILS: See www.eshowemuseums.org.za

 

THE BUTTERFLY DOME

The indigenous butterflies were resting in their leafy beds because of the cold when we wandered through the geodesic dome, escorted by  Americo Bonkewitz, who created this flowery habitat along with another at Tembe. Species include local high flyers from the forest, such as  the Emperor Swallowtail, SA’s biggest butterfly.

Bordering on the complex is the Dlinza forest where these butterflies can be seen soaring above tree tops from an aerial boardwalk — the first in the country — imagined and created by conservationist Jane Chennell.

DETAILS: See www.butterflyroutes.org

 

HORSE RIDING ON THE BEACH

Some were game for a gallop, others were hot to trot. For me, a walk alongside gently breaking waves on St Lucia’s endless kilometres of beach was more than enough to sooth my urban soul. I was perched on the back of Assegai, a rescue horse, who was keen to lead but thankfully — for a beginner like me — had no interest in any speed above a saunter.

Bhangazi Horse Safaris offers rides along the beach or among game on the eastern shores of iSimangaliso Wetland Park — past chilled zebra, feeding giraffe or skittish impala. It’s a popular pursuit but the horses are restricted to four rides a day and work in a rotation to prevent fatigue.

Groups are kept small, usually to a maximum of six riders, with two guides so that both experienced riders and novices are catered for.

DETAILS:Bhangazi Horse Safaris, phone 083-792-7899 or e-mail info@horsesafari.co.za

 

TAP TAP MAKHATHINI’S TAVERN

In a corner of the Zululand Route 66 Heritage route map is a listing for the Tap Tap Tavern. 

We popped in mid-afternoon and found the legend, South Africa’s super-middleweight boxing champion, Elijah “Tap Tap” Makhathini, casually leaning against the wall of his tavern and spaza shop. He retired in 1980 and opened the tavern, shop and boxing gym two years later.

He is an imposing, rather regal-looking, figure; he certainly doesn’t look like a man in his mid-70s and he is no worse for wear for being a world-famous champion for a decade.

He’s also easy going and generous with his time. I can’t imagine how many times the “southpaw Zulu” has been asked to throw a punch for a photo but he gladly indulged our requests, and happily showed us around, taking us into the gym he has built at the back  where he trains scores of local youngsters.

We were too late for lunch and too early for a drink, but his Uphuthu no Su (phutu and tripe) is apparently delicious. For R4 you can add in a fat slice of jeqe (steam bread).

DETAILS: The Tap Tap Tavern is off the P230, the old main road from Eshowe to Empangeni.

 

TOUR A PINEAPPLE FARM

Hluhluwe is home to the supersized, super sweet Queen pineapple, supplying about  90% of the country’s demand. Carefully curated displays of the fruit on makeshift roadside stalls are a common sight on the N2 from Hluhluwe — so stop and support the local economy and, while you are at it, throw in a straw mat and a handcrafted wooden fruit bowl.

We met farmer Casper Badenhorst whose 2000ha of farmland makes him the second-biggest pineapple farmer in the country. He  loves the product and  tells us a pineapple a day keeps all manner of illnesses away. We leave with half a dozen of the biggest, sweetest pineapples, plucked straight from the plant.

DETAILS: For information on tours, e-mail badenhorst@futurenet.co.za

 

EATING ON THE RUN

One of the highlights of our food adventure was eating at the Ayoba! Mexican Cantina (pictured above) at the Fairmont Zimbali resort (www.fairmont.com/zimbali-resort, below). Overlooking the beach in the distance, Ayoba delivers on its promise of “Bienvenido!” with its signature Nacho di Gringo dish baked in the pizza oven, a wonderful Taco di Mare soft shell taco (prawns, calamari, lime dressing and cilantro) and Acapulco prawn salad.

 

The TOMSA/Sunday Times Finders Keepers team also sat down to dinner in  a private dining room at the trendy and excellent  Grill Jichana at the Southern Sun Elangeni & Maharani Hotel (www.tsogosun.com/grill-jichana) in Durban where we were treated to such delights as  prawn salads, a perfectly done rump with peppercorn sauce and their famous “Five  Chocolate vairhona chocolate ball”. Apparently jichana means “eating good” in Swahili so if you’re a carnivore, this should be on your hunting ground.

If you’re spending the night, give yourself a couple of hours if you are going to take on an Elangeni breakfast in the Ocean Breeze Restaurant (phone 031-362-1300) on the pool deck overlooking the  promenade. This is Nirvana — lovely fruit,  smoothies, local artisanal health breads and, of course, a fine, hot full English breakfast.

Other delights on the trip  included generous, thin-base pizzas at the marvellous Clay Oven in Mtunzini (32 Hely Hutchinson Street, phone 035-340-1262) and a pint of the iconic Zulu Blonde lager at  the Zululand Brewery Tap Room in George Hotel in Eshowe (36 Main St, phone 035-474-4919).

 

WHERE WE STAYED

HILLTOP CAMP, HLUHLUWE-IMFOLOZI GAME RESERVE

 

Established in 1895, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is the oldest game reserve in the country with Hilltop Camp the site of its original accommodation. It’s a nobrainer why the spot was chosen. It sits — obviously — at one of the highest points in the park and offers the most awe-inspiring 360° view from the hotel veranda. Even if you are not staying over, stop for refreshments and take in the full sweep of this magnificent reserve.

The chalets and rooms are spacious and clean and the surroundings and the vistas from the rooms are magnificent. Service at Hilltop also gets top marks. We found staff members patient, obliging and endlessly cheerful, and there is a staff dance performance every night at dinner, presented with verve, energy and much hilarity.

Dinner at Hilltop Camp is buffet-style — hearty, homely with a variety of dishes. Accommodation is in a range of chalets that include standard units, self-catering chalets and rondavels with communal ablution and kitchen facilities.

DETAILS: Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, phone 033-845-1999 or see www.hilltopcamp.co.za.

RATES: From R1,200 per person per night or R1,600 per couple, including breakfast.

 

UMFOLOZI HOTEL CASINO CONVENTION RESORT

4 stars

 

I’ll bet this is the most vividly colourful hotel in the country. And if you want to place any other bet, then this is the place to stay on your way through Zululand. On offer are 300 slot machines as well as roulette, blackjack and poker tables.

This four-star establishment is convenient — just off the N2 at Empangeni — is well priced, comfortable and has complimentary wi-fi. There’s plenty of entertainment too — musicians, bands, DJs and stand-up comedians. For dinner we had the option of buffet or à la carte. We went à la carte so that we could help ourselves to both the lamb curry and the roast chicken — and we all managed to fit in a healthy serving of pudding on top of it.

DETAILS: 2 Copper Drive, Kuleka, Empangeni, 035-787-8200 or see www.umfolozicasino.co.za

RATES: From R1,350 per person per night or R1,460 per couple including breakfast

 

ELANGENI

4 stars

 

From my sea-facing eyrie on the 20th floor of the Elangeni I had a lofty view of the Durban beachfront. The attention to detail, simple elegance and spaciousness of rooms of the four-star Southern Sun Elangeni on Durban’s Golden Mile makes it a luxurious place to stay. The sound of the waves floats up through the wide, open windows and the sweet ocean air is enough to clear any weary traveller’s head. The food is fantastic too — see "Eating On The Run".

DETAILS: 63 Snell Parade, phone 031-362-1300 or see tsogosun.com/southernsun-elangeni-maharani

RATES: From R2,760 per room per night

This article was prepared in partnership with the Tourism Business Council of South Africa for the Sunday Times’s Finders Keepers competition.