South Africa conjures up so many famous images in the mind; the majestic Table Mountain in Cape Town, the mighty 7523 square mile Kruger National Park game reserve and the magnificent Drakensberg mountain range that snakes its way through the nation. All these are without doubt must-visits on your bucket list, however Absolute have taken a trip off the beaten tourist track and want to share a beautiful little secret with you….
South Africa contains so many hidden treasures that it would take a lifetime to explore and discover them. A place that is known and loved by South Africans, but not really known at all outside the international world of the diving and fishing communities, is located in the north-eastern sub-tropical province of KwaZulu-Natal, the fabled home of the noble Zulu warrior tribe.
This hidden gem is called Sodwana Bay. Sodwana in Zulu means ‘the little one on its own’; a perfect description of this solitary paradise, located within the Isimangaliso Wetland Park, which spans 175 miles of coastline from the Mozambican border in the north, to Mapelane in the south. It is South Africa’s first World Heritage site.
Easily reached from the UK by air to either Johannesburg or then internally to Durban. There follows a 6.5 hour drive from Johannesburg or a 3.5 hour drive from Durban, (a quick run out in the car to most South Africans), and paradise awaits you, making every moment in the car worth it.
After endless fields of sugarcane and pineapples, turn off the N2 at Hluhluwe (Shloo -Shloowe), the last town of any real size before your destination deep in the bush. Sodwana Bay is then just an hour away. Be careful, this isn’t the A23. Cattle, goats and dung beetles have right of way here and one small 10 mile section of the road is an open reserve, so watch out as a giraffe or a rhino’ may cross your path.
All approaches to settled villages and homesteads en route are made safer for the pedestrian (but alas, not for your car) by quite fierce speed bumps, so don’t drive anything resembling a sports car. Hiring an off road 4×4 is advisable, but not essential. They make sure you slow right down as there are very few pavements and definitely no traffic lights.
You will see girls and boys as young as 5 years old herding cattle and very proud uniform wearing children walking along the roadside to attend school, sometimes 5 miles away.
This is an area where the infra structure is fast progressing and ever changing. New houses are constantly being erected, dirt roads are now tarmacked, another school built and a few more shops appear, but paradise is not lost.
If you want the true African experience, this is where you will find it.
Fifty miles later, when you reach the town of Mbazwana, you are almost there. It is a bustling little town with a supermarket, a petrol station, a few other outlets, a daily street market and of course a bottle store (an off licence to you and me) – most important for ‘sundowners’, but more of that later.
Only 17 years ago, after leaving Hluhluwe, the only way to get to Sodwana Bay was on an undulating dirt/sand road through the bush. Between Mbazwana and Sodwana Bay, parts of the old road are still visible, but it is now used mainly for quad-biking through the pine and eucalyptus plantations. Looking at the track you might well ask the question: “How did anyone get to Sodwana Bay before the tarmac road was laid?” The answer: ‘Very, very carefully and with great difficulty’. The end result is worth it. You have finally arrived in ‘the little one on its own’.
The Sodwana Bay Lodge resort itself was originally created for the scuba diving and deep sea fishing community. It is a gated complex and sits between the only road into town and the shores of Lake Shazibe, which is flanked on the far side by the most ancient vegetated sand dunes in the world, hiding the shoreline. The wooden lodge complex contains a hotel, comprising two person chalets and family sized time-share lodges. Within the lodge grounds is a restaurant and bar complex, a swimming pool, a helipad, a 5 star PADI dive school, boat lockers and a hair and beauty salon.
If you really want to treat yourself, there are the privately owned lodges to rent. These lodges are ideal for both families and larger groups of friends. They are staffed, but give you the independence and freedom to do what you want, when you want.
Nyala antelope roam through the grounds and sightings of mongooses, bush-babies and monkeys are a daily occurrence. Fish eagles soar over the lake and hornbills call in the trees.
Outside the resort are a number of colourful local shops for essentials, local bars and restaurants plus other smaller resorts with backpacker accommodation for the more adventurous.
The beach is a 2.5 mile drive through the bush from the lodge and is gated as the area is a protected reserve. Passing the colourfully dressed local ladies tending their wares, the beach market is full of woven mats and baskets, Zulu jewellery, wooden carvings and pineapples on a stick are peeled for you while you wait. When buying, a bit of bartering and a lot of laughing is the norm and part of the sale and generally, all are satisfied with the final figure.
If part of a dive school or fishing company, you will be taken straight onto the beach in a tractor pulled trailer, which for first-timers, is breath-taking – the view that is, not the tractor!
For others, there is a car park and a three minute walk to the beach. On reaching the crown of the access road, the warm surf of the sub-tropical Indian Ocean lies before you. A small area of the Bay can be accessed by vehicles and boats for the diving and fishing concessions. The rest is off limits to vehicles and is only for the visitor to roam, as far as the eye can see. There are secure rock pools for youngsters to play in safely. Further round the headland, heading south, is one of the most glorious and beautiful beaches in the world, with maybe a couple of shore fishermen, the odd crab and sandpipers being your sole companions.
Sodwana Bay is classified as one of the top dive sites in the world with a magnificent thirty mile coral reef complex with over 1200 species of tropical fish. It is also here in the deep off Sodwana Bay that the fabled living fossil, the coelacanth, is found. Whale sharks, a variety of sharks, bottlenose and spinner dolphins, giant manta rays and rare leatherback turtles are all regular visitors. Humpback whales migrate through here during the winter and spring season and orcas are also occasionally sighted.
A little wooden beach café sited on stilts above the sand offers a delicious selection of toasted sandwiches, burgers, milkshakes and refreshments to satisfy the appetite after a great dive or a long beach walk.
So that’s the morning taken care of.
Sodwana Bay is one of the few places where you can swim with whale sharks in the morning and see the Big Five the same afternoon – the Big Five being lion, buffalo, elephant, leopard and rhino.
Within a maximum of a 75 minute drive, you can be in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Reserve, which is the only state run park in KZN and the oldest game reserve in the world. It covers 600 square miles and owing to it’s conservation programme, is home not only to the Big Five, but the world’s largest white rhino population. A very popular destination for day drives.
For total luxury and overnight stays there are the local game resorts of Phinda and Thanda, the latter being the furthest at around a 75 minute drive. An evening game drive is made all the more unique, when, as the heat is going off the day and the sun is lowering in the sky, the safari vehicle stops in the bush and the back panel is flipped open and out comes ice-cold champagne and canapés and the traditional local delicacy, biltong or dried meat.
Tembe Elephant Park is just a forty five minute drive north of Sodwana. Its two hundred square mile reserve’s northern edge is capped by the Mozambique border. Naturally the name says it all, but it also is home to the Big Five along with over 350 species of bird life.
Crocodile and snake parks are also in the region as are big and small cat conservation parks.
Kite-surfing, micro-lighting and quad-biking are some of the other activities in the area, but there is nothing quite like returning to your lodge just before sunset, sitting on your deck overlooking Lake Shazibe, watching the cormorants flying in formation to their roost, listening to the night animals awakening as the sky changes through a multitude of pastels and just as the first star of the millions in the Milky Way appears and taking a sip of something very chilled…
That’s a Sundowner – a revered South African tradition, usually followed by a braai, or BBQ.
There are a lot of flight deals to South Africa, especially if you are happy to take a little longer and travel via a European or Middle Eastern hub. Otherwise Virgin Atlantic and BA fly daily direct, a pleasant eleven hour overnight flight arriving early morning. There is no jet lag as in the British summer SA is just one hour ahead and in our winter, two.
The exchange rate at the time of writing is excellent at around 19 ZAR (Rand) to the GBP. A good bottle of wine would be in the region of £2.00 and accommodation for eight in the private lodges starts at around £150 a night.
Sodwana Bay is hugely popular with locals during holiday season, so whilst the major holiday times coincide with the UK’s it is always best to check when they have their public and school holidays. Summer runs from October through to March. The sub-tropical summer temperatures can be high and humid and the winters in Sodwana can often reach 25-30 degrees with cool nights. The sea temperature doesn’t drop below 18 degrees, perfect for winter diving. Winter is also ideal for game drives as the grass is low and game is easier to spot.
Sodwana Bay captures the hearts of all who are lucky enough to visit. Whilst its fame is growing and it is getting busier and ever more popular, it hasn’t lost its inimitable magic and offers some of the best holiday experiences you will ever enjoy.
For further information regarding our accommodation availability in Three Lodges at Sodwana Bay Lodge, please contact the Manager Jen Smart of Odysea on +27 832555717 or email firstname.lastname@example.org