Paradise lost and found

2011-09-30 10:00

In travelling terms,“best-kept secret” can be a cliché. Usually it is just marketing speak used to sell an area. For some locations, however, the sentiment is genuine.

iSimangaliso Wetland Park is an authentic “best-kept secret”, a place that you selfishly and secretly hope stays under the radar so you can continue enjoying it all to yourself.

A four-hour drive north of Durban and seven south of Gauteng, the northern stretch of the KwaZulu-Natal coast is a glorious conglomerate of natural beauty.

Saltwater lagoons mix with freshwater lakes that border a unique tapestry of forest, savannah and beach.

Protected habitat that supports healthy populations of elephant, leopard and hippo overlooks the teeming currents of the Indian Ocean.

In recognition of its distinctive and remarkable tropical biodiversity, the 280km of shoreline south of the Mozambican border that comprises iSimangaliso was designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1999.

On paper then, it should be a staple destination overrun by tourists, but it isn’t. Instead it has become known as an underwater mecca for local divers.

The jewel of the iSimangaliso crown is the Kosi Bay area, inconspicuously tucked away south of the Mozambican border.

Here, a break in the imposing sand dunes allows a tidal flow into a series of lagoons and lakes.

As seawater pushes further into the interior, a chain of estuaries and banks filter out the salt until it’s fresh enough to support crocodiles and hippos in the final pool.

It is this twice-daily flow back and forth, as old and regular as time itself, that has led to permanent man-made structures being erected in the lagoons.

The Tonga clan has lived in this area since the Bantu migrations from Eastern and Central Africa 700 years ago.

Since then, they have passed on an effective way of subsistence fishing from generation to generation.

The Tonga Fish Traps are large fences that protrude in wave-like lines from the banks, deep into the centre of the various lagoons.

The incoming tide brings fish from the open seas, and as it retreats the unfortunate ones get shepherded by the fences into cages with small openings.

For the fishermen, it is then literally as easy as “shooting fish in a barrel”, as they saunter up and spear the trapped fish at their leisure.

Visually the traps are stunning, an example of construction that blends with its surroundings.

From a high viewpoint, it is possible to appreciate the entire lagoon system complete with traps, and often the fisherman wading through and plying their trade.

At water level, with a fisherman’s permission, you can splash into the traps themselves to admire their simple engineering and even spear dinner if you fancy.

The break in white sandy beach where the tide enters and leaves is known as Kosi Mouth.

The first lagoon from the beach, though a headache to reach, is stunning. No traps are set here, and it’s a perfect place to swim, play in the currents and enter the empty beach.

In various nooks and crannies of the lagoon, adolescent tropical fish shelter from predators before heading out to larger reefs.

The constant tidal flow keeps the water clean and visibility is excellent, so bring a snorkel and mask.

As the mouth is the focal point of the tidal surge, currents can be strong and water depth swiftly alters.

Sand banks that poke from the centre of a lagoon, like a breaching whale, can vanish in minutes. If you feel unsure about crossing the lagoon, there are attendants on guard.

One clear reason this area isn’t that well known is that it is difficult to get to.

Maps are vague, roads are spine-crunchingly difficult to pass and the last few kilometres are sandy track only navigable by a four-wheel drive.

Organising the permit to enter the park is unnecessarily difficult too. Unless you are prepared to pay over the odds to gain access with a tour company or lodge with a concession, then you’ll have to organise it yourself.

A beautiful destination that is difficult to get to is, of course, a double-edged sword, and possibly the main reason this area is still relatively undiscovered.

If roads were good, maps made sense, signs stayed up and obtaining permits was easy, the northern tip of iSimangaliso would be commercialised, overrun in months and never be the same again.

Scuba divers tend to gather at Sodwana Bay, a few kilometres south of Kosi Bay and still in the safeguarded areas.

The diving community has annexed Sodwana, primarily as it hosts the warmest South African waters and is the closest place to dive near Mozambique without actually crossing the border.

As the national park extends into a marine park, underwater life – both indigenous and visiting – is protected.

In season and if lucky, nesting turtles can be seen scurrying on to the beach, as well as pelagic visitors off it such as the sedate whale shark and giant manta rays. There is a wide range of coral reefs to visit off the coast.

Kosi and Sodwana are only two destinations within iSimangaliso. Just remember to kept the secret. We wouldn’t want this unspoilt and magnificent area to become anything else than a “best-kept secret”.

» General Motors South Africa kindly offered a Chevrolet Captiva for the trip. It was comfortable to drive, roomy and reliable on and off road. Thanks, GM

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