Fish traps, hippo songs and Kosi Bay

2013-06-04 00:00

IT’S a bit of a drive to Kosi Bay, about six hours from Hilton, some of it unpleasant and some of it lovely, like the iSimangaliso Wetland Park that the R22 dips into.

Our party of nine met at uTshwyela camp (just north of the lakes and five kilometres or so from the Mozambique border), where we packed our luggage into a Land Rover for the transfer to Willis’s Camp, about 10 kilometres south of the lakes. Forty-five minutes later, in golden afternoon sun, we arrived.

Camps in the area are concessions; community owned, but operated by individuals on communal land. After leaving Manguzi, just west of the lakes, the road rapidly became a track and the homesteads thinned out. By the time we got to Willis’s camp, there were no obvious signs of other human habitation, save for the odd grazing cattle. Willis, young, enthusiastic and barefoot, welcomed us. We were introduced to his wife and young daughter, and then taken off down rabbit-run-like paths through the bush to our accommodation. Ours was reed walled on three sides and open on the other, with alfresco ablutions. The room had wide doors that opened to a pleasing view across a shallow valley, dotted with hippo wallows to a sandy bushy ridge. Off in the distance came the murmur of the sea.

Willis encouraged us to have a look at the hippo pools, but cautioned about getting back before nightfall: “Hippos you know — they move out of the holes to graze and don’t like to be disturbed. Even by people from Maritzburg.”

Dinner was served by Willis. An adept chef, his creations were simple and very tasty, with a generous decanter of “house wine”.

After breakfast, our guide, Agrippa, took us through a series of shallow valleys and over bush-covered ridges, past hippo pools and occasional Nguni cattle. He seemed unperturbed by the hippos, saying respect is important, but people need to know the right songs to sing while moving about after dark. Hippos are sticklers for the right songs and don’t like surprises. Apparently, they can easily range 15 kilometres or more per night in search of grazing. After climbing the third ridge, we were suddenly looking down at the ocean and Dog Point.

Agrippa led us to the beach and then south to Black Rock, a noted fishing and snorkelling spot. The beach was pristine. How did it escape the flotsam from passing ships? Seems it didn’t. After a few kilometres, we came upon a band of beach cleaners, cheerfully working their way north with bags full of plastic and other detritus.

Willis had lunch and snorkelling kit waiting for us at Black Rock, and after a few hours of eating and relaxing in the warm water, we wandered back to camp through lengthening shadows.

The following day, we left our luggage for Willis, said thanks and goodbye, and headed north to the lakes through country very similar to the previous days. Agrippa took us towards the sea, but a high wind made beach walking unpleasant, so after checking out the well-known Bunga Nek, we moved on to the third lake of the system (four all together). Here we met Steve and his boat, our guide and transport for the next 12 or so kilometres. Steve is a passionate fisherman, but is equally passionate about the environment, in particular the Kosi Lakes system. We couldn’t have asked for a better guide. We motored north across the expanse of Lake Three, taking time to check out hippos and some waterfowl, before entering the channels leading to Lake Two. Here we were almost taken out by a speeding Ezemvelo boat, but passed through safely into the fish–trap-bedecked Lake Two.

Apparently, sketches and descriptions of the traps made 500 years ago by shipwrecked sailors en route to Delagoa Bay (Maputo) suggest there’s been no change in design or construction since then. Steve explained how the traps are made and how they work. He said only certain families are allowed to set up the traps, which must be built according to well-understood regulations (e.g. no synthetic materials are allowed).

The wind seemed to have discouraged the bird life as it was not as abundant as we had anticipated, and the chop on the water spoilt the snorkelling along the mangrove channels, but it was a small quibble given the privilege of being in such unspoiled beauty (Kosi Bay has been described as both a wonderful aviary and marvellous aquarium).

Steve eventually dropped us on the northern shore of Lake One and burbled off towards the setting sun. We walked through sand forest along the lake shore, following hippo paths, before the climb up to Utshwayelo Camp to complete a large circle.

Utshwayelo has a camp atmosphere, but is far bigger and with more amenities than Willis’s. (Sitting in the bar, we watched Roger Federer take another tennis title). The next morning, we headed north through sand and dune forest with Enoch Tembe, our new guide. He is a part owner of the camp, guide extraordinaire and a Tongan prince to boot. He wanted to know our interests — birds, plants, fauna, history? We replied: “The lot, but please keep moving, we’re not twitchers.”

He was good with all subjects, but excelled with the struggle/war years of the seventies and eighties.

The Tonga, like so many ethnic groupings in Africa, had found themselves straddling an international border. It was more an inconvenience than anything else, until the wars against colonialism and apartheid began. People were stopped from walking where they wished and were required to take sides. Families and friends found themselves divided and distrustful. Enoch talked of nights hiding out in the dune forest, watching machinegun tracers hosing across the sky, as one side lambasted the other. Mostly, it was important to keep out of the way of soldiers, particularly if you happened to be on the wrong side of the border. Nationality was established by looking at the location of a person’s vaccination marks (forearm or shoulder).

We arrived on the beach after scaling a giant dune and then turned south for the Kosi estuary.

Once again, we snorkelled the mangrove edge, ate a packed lunch and whiled away a few hours on the undeveloped and consequently unspoilt beach before heading back up the hill through the sand and dune forest to Utshwayelo, for our last night in Tongaland, lingering over the occasional vistas of the lakes and fish traps, bemused that so little had changed in 500 years.

Development has touched Kosi Bay lightly over time. Perhaps, like the Wild Coast, it has been protected by its relative inaccessibility, with Sodwana Bay, Sibaya and St Lucia bearing the brunt, while Kosi Bay sails on almost pristine — a sparkling jewel to be cherished.

Sarah Drew of Active Escapes arranged our four nights of comfort and three days of relaxed walking. The distances were never challenging and the country was always beautiful and varied, in what was to us a new and intriguing environment.

We were there in the middle of the year, the best time weather-wise (no guided tours are offered in summer as it is too hot). Sarah tailored our walk to our pockets, our interests and the time available, but there are many variations and options to be had.

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