On the wild and untrammelled northern KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) coast, you’ll find some of the most breathtaking beaches of anywhere in Africa: beautiful swathes of sand flanked by estuaries, subtropical jungles and forested dunes. Yet it is difficult to think of anywhere that could be called a beach resort. No, this is a region tailor-made for the kind of traveller who gets itchy feet within a few minutes of pulling up a deckchair. Do your ears prick at the thought of a bouquet of outdoor activities ranging from kayaking and snorkelling to long nature walks and some of the finest terrestrial and marine wildlife viewing in Africa? Then read on…
It can be summed up in one (admittedly tricky-to-pronounce) word: ‘iSimangaliso’. Literally, this means ‘miraculous place’, a name reputedly coined 200 years ago by King Shaka Zulu and now given to the vast protected area that stretches north from St Lucia Estuary to the border with Mozambique. This is the 3320sq-km iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that not only incorporates some 220km of pristine subtropical coastline, but also hosts three major freshwater lake systems, South Africa’s largest extant swamp forests, the continent’s largest estuary, the world’s most southerly coral reefs and a vertebrate checklist comprising 2000 species, including 130 mammals and 526 birds.
Best places to stay
St Lucia Village Set on the jungle-swathed peninsula that divides the Indian Ocean from the eponymous estuary, St Lucia is South Africa’s wildest urban settlement, a birdwatcher’s paradise whose streets are routinely patrolled by nocturnal wildlife, including hippo, warthog and porcupine. It is also the most tourist-friendly town on the north KZN coast, with accommodation to suit all budgets, a good selection of restaurants and shops, and specialist operators offering everything from whale-watching excursions to day safaris inland.
Cape Vidal A whale-watching hide, self-guided day trails and walking safaris can all be found at this attractive and isolated camp set below massive forested dunes some thirty minutes’ drive north of St Lucia.
Sodwana Bay Whether you camp in the coastal forest, occupy an affordable beach cabin or kick back at one of the smarter beach lodges, Sodwana Bay is widely recognised as offering the best snorkelling and game fishing in South Africa. However, be warned it can become uncomfortably crowded during school holidays.
Thonga Beach Lodge A contender for the most chic bush-meets-beach lodge in southern Africa, Thonga combines organic architecture with a breathtaking location on an isolated beach hemmed in by forested dune mountains rattling with birdlife. Activities range from rewarding beachfront snorkelling to kayaking between the hippos and crocs that inhabit nearby Lake Sibaya, South Africa’ largest natural freshwater body.
Kosi Bay Comprising half a dozen interconnected lakes that drain into the Indian Ocean immediately south of the Mozambican border, Kosi Bay is notable not only for its scenery and wildlife but also for the mosaic of organic fish traps that have allowed the local Tsonga people to harvest it sustainably for 700 years. Facilities include an upmarket bush lodge and an affordable community camp.
Top wildlife experiences
Whale-watching Several registered operators based in St Lucia Village offer weather-dependent boat trips to look for the dozen-odd cetacean species in the area. Bottlenose and spinner dolphins are resident throughout the year, but whale-watching peaks between June and October, when humpback whales migrate along the continental shelf between Antarctica and Mozambique, along with smaller numbers of southern right, sperm and dwarf minke whales.
Diving and snorkelling Sodwana Bay is home to Africa’s southernmost coral reefs, as well as several hundred species of colourful reed fish, including the spectacular devil lionfish, a foot-long predator adorned with brilliant red stripes and thirteen long venomous spines.
Turtle tours iSimangaliso is one of Africa’s last nesting sites for the endangered loggerhead and leatherback turtles. Licensed operators offer nocturnal trips to the protected nesting beaches between November and March.
Umlalazi Nature Reserve Several short self-guided tours can be undertaken in this low-key coastal reserve, which supports South Africa’s only breeding population of palm-nut vultures. Don’t miss the mangrove walkway, which offers a rare opportunity to glimpse species unique to this intertidal habitat: the beautiful mangrove kingfisher, the asymmetrically-clawed fiddler crabs and the amphibious mudskipper fish, which ‘walks’ on its modified pectoral fins.
St Lucia Estuary Boat Cruise Affordable launch trips on this 400sq-km estuary frequently yield close-up sightings of hippos and crocodiles, as well as being a veritable showcase for the rich aquatic birdlife that includes the mighty African fish eagle and jewel-like half-collared kingfisher.
Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Only 45 minutes drive from St Lucia Village, the 960sq-km Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve is one of South Africa’s premier Big Five safari destinations, whether you explore it in your own vehicle or book a guided safari in an open-sided 4WD. Home to the world’s densest wild rhino population, this green and hilly reserve also supports plenty of elephant, giraffe, zebra and antelope — and lucky visitors might even encounter lion, leopard, cheetah or African wild dog.
Ongoye Forest For dedicated twitchers, this is famous as the only stronghold of the endemic Woodward’s barbet. But the forest is also a good place to see birds such as the Narina trogon, spotted ground thrush and African crowned eagle. The presence of several other endemics, including a squirrel and two chameleon species, underscores its unique ecology.
Tembe Elephant Park Some of South Africa’s largest tuskers reside in the coastal thickets of Tembe, a little-visited reserve tucked up against the Mozambican border inland of Kosi Bay.
Dlinza Forest Reserve Set in the small but pretty town of Eshowe, a 125m aerial boardwalk through this mistbelt forest offers lovely views into the lush canopy, and an opportunity to look for the diminutive blue duiker.
Shakaland Built on the original kraal of King Shaka Zulu, this iconic theme hotel provides a variety of Zulu cultural experiences, such as spear-throwing demonstrations, exuberant drumming and dancing shows and visits to traditional healers, for both day and overnight visitors.
• Getting there Though many countrywide coach tours pass through the region, the northern KZN coast is a perfect self-drive destination, ideally located to break up the otherwise long drive between the Kruger National Park and Durban.
• When to visit You can visit all year round but, climatically, this is one part of the South African coast best visited during the cooler, drier winter months of April to September.
• How long to stay A genuine nature lover could easily dedicate a fortnight to this ecologically diverse region. But just three nights based in St Lucia Village would allow you to enjoy most of the more accessible highlights.