Tag: KwaZulu Natal

:: snorkelling in sodwana ::

We snorkel. We swim. We even windsurf. But unfortunately without a PADI, we don’t scuba dive, yet.  This prevented us from fully enjoying the marine life in Sodwana Bay, but we were still treated to a few lovely water and beach experiences.

Sodwana is known as a world class diving site, with a series of reefs just off shore that provide full time homes to a huge collection of fish, turtles, eels and dolphins, plus transient whales. This huge collection of opportunities sees numerous dive and fishing operators launching from Jesser Point Beach. We were there at a quiet time, but there were still several hundred people diving each day.  It must be almost claustrophobic during holiday seasons.

Even though Sodwana Bay is a dive locale first and foremost, we had heard from numerous sources that there were also excellent snorkeling options so we wanted to check it out. Unfortunately the reefs are all more than 6 meters deep, which means that snorkelers have to look through close to twenty feet of water. Even with good visibility, that isn’t really ideal and doesn’t give you those magical close encounters with underwater creatures.

After speaking to several people when we arrived, we figured that snorkelling might be a lost cause and wandered up to the restaurant for a drink and dinner. It’s a simple affair, very much a beach bar atmosphere, but with nice views over the dunes to the ocean beyond and a very friendly manager. Warren used to live in Johannesburg, but packed in his previous life and wandered down to Sodwana to do a bit of scuba instruction and other odds and ends. He wound up managing the restaurant at Mseni Lodge, but also has plans to operate a unique snorkelling operation.

At Jesser Point, there are a series of rock pools that are suitable for snorkelling at low tide. Within these pools are a nice selection of fish, eels and even a turtle at times. It isn’t the same as open water snorkelling and a bump and a scratch off the rocks is almost guaranteed, but with his suggestion we explored these pools on our own early one morning as the sun came up. It wasn’t the most amazing snorkelling, but it was certainly different and offered a nice opportunity for those left behind on the beach by the dive boats.

The nice thing about staying at Mseni Lodge was its’ location down the beach from Jesser Point. We were able to walk down the one hundred stairs and several paths through the vegetation and pop out onto a fifteen meter high dune with the ocean below. Looking left and right, all we were able to see were the tendrils of dunes jutting out into the beach. Some were mere meters high, whilst others rose thirty meters high or more, leaving us feel like we were in our own private little paradise.

We sat on the beach, ran up the dunes, caromed down the dunes and generally enjoyed the ambience.

One evening we went for a run on the beach in the shadow of the dunes and were treated to thousands of ghost crabs lingering near the surf. It was amazing how many of these small red coloured creatures were out. Looking down the beach it was like a carpet of them along the water’s edge! In our thirty minute run we must have passed ten thousand crabs! Although these are the same crabs who pick off baby turtles as they try to make the long journey to the water when they hatch, we couldn’t help but appreciate their presence. It was an experience neither of us have had and was a wonderful microcosm of our trip up and down this enchanting coastline.

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:: tembe ::

The female lion languidly laid down right in the middle of the track, staring defiantly at us. It was clear that she knew this park was hers and we had no other options but to sit and watch or turn around. Of course when you are on a safari game drive, you are more than happy to sit and watch the magnificent animals, so we engaged in a lovely early morning photo shoot with the female lioness and two juvenile male lions. They were content that we posed no threat and went about their daily routine, wonderfully backlit by the rising sun.

This was a really special encounter during our two days of game drives at Tembe Elephant Park. Tembe is a large Big Five park run by South Africa National Parks all the way up in northern Kwa-Zulu Natal. It stretches through a variety of ecosystems, with the majority being sand forest. This dense scrub brush is perfect for large, tough hided animals, such as elephants, as it provides excellent food sources and plenty of cover. The drawback from a tourist’s perspective is that it provides excellent cover.

Tembe has over 250 elephants, including the only tuskers south of Kenya and Tanzania. Tuskers are elephants whose tusks weigh a combined 50kg or more. Between these modern day tusked mammoths and herds that frequently grow to 40 or 50, we thought we would be in elephant viewing heaven. Sadly, with the exception of a nice close encounter with a bull’s butt and a couple of bull elephants play-fighting near a water hole, we saw almost nothing of the herds up close.

We did come across Kwazi – a youngish male elephant who likes to wander into the only camp inside the park. He learned this behavior from Isilo, the granddaddy tusker who only recently died. The electric fence blatantly does nothing to stop him coming into the camp in the early evening where he rummages through the trees for food and occasionally drinks from the pool! It is such a common occurrence that they have had to minimally electrify the pool overnight to discourage him drinking it all!

The camp is lovely and rustic, and comfortable in a way that mixes bush and luxury camps. The tents are equipped with comfortable beds, outdoor showers and a nice little porch for reading, napping or sitting and listening to the bush. An evening fire in the middle of the communal bar and dining area is a magical place to relax with a drink and chat about the animals you saw that day.

It was actually at the fire where we had our closest animal encounter when a rather large hairy black spider decided to climb up my leg! One of the staff members saw it and swept it off my leg before I could even see it – but Cora saw it and warned me not to move seeing how large it was. We asked the member of staff about it and he said it was poisonous, but didn’t know the name. We aren’t sure whether that was true or not, but regardless it was a nice reminder that even when you don’t see the big animals, you are constantly on nature’s turf in these types of places.

We met some really wonderful people on our drives and around camp, including Scott Ramsay who is currently undertaking a year long project documenting many of South Africa’s protected places called Year in the Wild.  Scott’s incredible journey is taking him to close to 50 truly special places.  He publishes articles and photographs regularly of his adventures driving, flying, canoeing and walking around these magnificent reserves.  It took an immense amount of control to not drop everything and join him on these explorations and we hope to cross paths again with him someday soon.

We also met a lovely woman and her two adult sons on a long delayed trip of a lifetime. They shared our lion experience that one morning and we talked about life as an expat, travel junkie and photographer and how it leads you to these weird, wonderful and ad hoc experiences with people you would never otherwise meet. It is always so motivating and affirming to meet people who share such closely related passions as us.  Even if it is a fleeting encounter it still leaves you enriched about the human spirit to cast off the shackles of routine and experience something different.

So although we didn’t experience the majestic elephants of Tembe as we had hoped, we had a lovely time relaxing and appreciating the beautiful natural surroundings of this place.

Here are a few more photos from this wonderful segment of our adventures in KZN.

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:: the gateway ::

The sign in front of you shows a hippo grazing under a crescent moon and three stars. Beware Hippos at Night, it reads. Nothing makes you feel more welcome than to know that the mammal responsible for more human fatalities on the continent of Africa than any other roams freely on the streets of the town you have chosen to stay in!

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Though the hippos of St Lucia are moderately tame, they are still very large and skittish animals, and extremely aggressive when agitated. The idea of encountering one on the suburban streets in the dark as they graze on the grass is not to be taken lightly, but it is a very unique and memorable experience. Though we weren’t lucky enough to encounter them, we did hear that they had been engaged in a territorial battle just a few streets over from where we were wandering.

St Lucia is the gateway town to iSimangaliso Wetland Park. This thin strip of coastline and wetlands is home to close to 800 hippos as well as Nile crocodiles, rhino, leopard, water buffalo, zebra, nyala, warthog and numerous other land based species. The ecosystem is a mixture of the world’s highest vegetated sand dunes, marshy estuaries and open plains. Off the coast are excellent snorkelling and diving waters on the migratory path of humpback whales and whale sharks, while the beaches are known nesting grounds for loggerhead and green turtles.

iSimangaliso must be the only place on the globe where the oldest land mammal (the rhinoceros) and the world’s biggest terrestrial mammal (the elephant) share an ecosystem with the world’s oldest fish (the coelacanth) and the world’s biggest marine mammal (the whale) Nelson Mandela

 

There are two main ways to experience this area – either in your car or on the water. Driving up from St Lucia to Cape Vidal will take you right through the heart of the park. The key is to take every little turn-off loop from the main road which will take you past watering holes filled with hippos, up into the forested dunes and right to the edge of the inland estuary.

We were both extremely keen to see hippos so the signs everywhere warning visitors of them crossing the road made us even more excited. The idea of seeing something so large both on land and in the water was overly enticing and so we were thrilled when our first turn-off loop led us to a small pond filled with eight to ten hippos floating in the water!

At first all we could see were a couple of sets of eyes, some ears flapping away flies and the occasional snout. Before too long there were a couple of younger hippos play fighting, displaying their enormous mouths and sharp teeth. As the sun grew stronger the family of hippos made their way into the muddy shallows and spent hours basking in the warmth of the sun, laying so still they could have easily been mistaken for huge grey rocks.

One of the best ways to truly feel a connection to the hippos and get up close and personal with them is to kayak out on the estuary. St Lucia Kayaks will take you out for a few hours to look for hippos, crocs, birds and even sharks! Unlike the wildlife boat cruises, you have to do all the work, but it is something special to come across hippos in the water and to be at their level!

Within ten minutes of launching we spotted half a dozen hippos relaxing in the shallow waters. Much like the other ones, we could just see eyes, ears and snouts, but this time it was from fifty meters away across water. It was thrilling to momentarily be in the same water with these giants, steadily getting closer as the current pushed the kayaks towards the shore. Further up river we were treated to sightings of Egyptian geese, a kingfisher, herons and even a shark ever so briefly. As the temperatures of the water dropped headed into winter, the crocodiles were unfortunately well out of sight in the reeds trying to stay warm.

This little corner of KwaZulu Natal province is really quite special. Driving yourself up the coast and having close encounters with so many different animals is not necessarily unique in Africa, but the variety you can see here is special.

After a couple of hours watching hippo, and having up close encounters with a water buffalo, kudu and warthog, we popped out onto the huge expanse of sand at the top of Cape Vidal. There the warm waters of the Indian Ocean washed up onto smooth white expansive beaches nestled right up against the vegetated dunes.

It was the perfect place to poke around on the exposed rocks as the tide receded, looking for interesting crabs, mussels and other animals left in the rock pools. The waters were inviting, but as we looked north up the coast past the weekend tourists, we could see the desolate expanse of beach and knew we could wait for a more special swimming opportunities.

Exploring the park’s natural beauty, spotting wildlife in the wetlands and enjoying the warm humid air was a perfect way to spend a day in this hidden gem in the corner of South Africa.