Article updated on March 10, 2022
Text & photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
The north eastern corner of KwaZulu-Natal is one of South Africa’s most remote destinations. Bordering Eswatini and Mozambique lies a hardly populated land with scenic yet less famous game parks and a unique ecosystem of four lakes flowing into the Indian Ocean where the Tsonga people have passed down their sustainable fishing traditions for over a thousand years. A land where world’s largest leaves can be found, with rare bird species and different types of mangrove trees. An ocean with bull and whale sharks, rock salmons, hippos and manta rays, wetting South Africa’s most stunning and desolated beaches, on which endangered sea turtles lay their eggs in season and turtle hatchlings run for their lives into the ocean. Join us to explore the best of Kosi Bay in five different adventures!
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1. Boating on the four lakes
Kosi Bay is most famous for its four lakes interconnected by narrow and shallow channels and its estuary with excellent snorkelling possibilities. The closer to the Indian Ocean the greater the salinity of the lakes, creating a very unique ecosystem that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site and which is carefully monitored by the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. As our boat leaves the fourth lake, also known as the brown water lake with the lowest salinity, to enter the third lake – or reed lake – local fishermen are busy maintaining their ingeniously-built fish-traps. Made exclusively of natural materials, from hardwood to ropes made of wild banana trees, the traps are strategically located where fish are pushed by the current. This millennium-old tradition passed down from father to son is based on a careful selection of the fish being caught, as only the big ones are trapped on their return to the ocean after laying eggs while the small and young fish can find their way out, giving them time to grow and mate.
These crystal-clear waters are also home to a much bigger inhabitant. A dark spot in the distance seems to be moving below the surface. As we get closer, a few inquisitive eyes, some pointy ears, and rounded hairy noses break the surface of the water, just in front of us… A hippo family curiously observes our boat!
Only a few minutes later, we are snorkelling in the warm waters of the lake observing the many fish finding shelter amongst the roots of the mangroves while we keep a safe distance from and an eye on the hippos. Despite their bulky appearance, they are extremely fast on land and in water, and are known to have a bit of a temper towards anything getting into their territory.
Shortly after, we get off and help push the boat into the very shallow outlet channel from the second lake back into the third lake. Cormorants, trumpeter hornbills and kingfishers lead the way as an African fish eagle circles in the bright blue sky above us and woolly-necked stork searches the ground amongst reeds. High forested sand dunes separate the lakes from the ocean shore which will be the stage for the next adventure…
Insider’s tip: Should you explore the four lakes by boat, make sure to spend the whole day doing so, and not only half-a-day as it really enhances the whole experience.
2. Observing endangered sea turtles nesting
The wind picks up as I put on my jacket. It has been a hot day on the lakes but as the sun has set about an hour ago, the sea breeze has picked up and the African air cools down rapidly. On the moonlit ocean shore a dark creature struggles its way up the sand: an endangered sea turtle is visiting the beach where she was born probably about 25 years ago.
The beach of Bhangla Neck has been protected since the 1960’s as a turtle nesting area. Massive leatherback and loggerhead turtles lay their eggs here between November and February.
Tonight, it is humbling to observe the efforts of this loggerhead turtle as she summits a steep dune. Our guide explains: “These turtles lay about 5 times in the season with about two weeks in between. Coming on shore is an exhausting and dangerous mission for them as they are vulnerable on land where they dig a hole that is about 70-centimetre (30 inches) deep with their rear fins.” As soon as she is laying her eggs in the deep cavity we are allowed to quietly observe from closer by. Slowly, dozens what looks like ping-pong balls fall into the hole, one by one – a female lays about 100 eggs. They are soft so that the shells do not break. As soon as she is done laying, the prehistoric-looking animal starts kicking her four fins clumsily but nonetheless efficiently to cover up the nest and confuse potential predators. Only once the nest is fully hidden does the turtle stop her debilitating task before returning to the ocean. Her lacrimal glands that help get rid of the salt in her eyes make it look like she is constantly crying adding drama to the already moving scene.
If the nest is not disturbed by honey badgers or other predators it will take 45 to 60 days for the eggs to hatch. Then, the turtle hatchlings – mostly males should the average temperature in the nest be less than 28°C for more than 19 days, mostly females otherwise – will open their eggshell with their beak, dig themselves out of the sand and run to the shoreline (to witness this rare spectacle, check out this article). Only one in a thousand will return about 25 years from now, finding this specific beach back after having navigated for thousands of kilometres around the Earth thanks to their built-in compass.
Witnessing the astonishing process of the turtle laying her eggs is a humble experience on one of South Africa’s most beautiful beaches and makes one reflect on the disastrous impact humans have on these fascinating prehistoric animals. It is only since these turtles have been monitored and protected that the number of turtles laying eggs has significantly increased on the Maputaland beaches, but they still face many threats in the oceans between fishing lines and terrible amounts of plastics (to learn more, check out this article)…
3. Spotting the Big 5 at Tembe Elephant Park
The humming engine of our 4×4 steadily motions our vehicle up the winding sandy and narrow dirt track of the Tembe Elephant Park. Home to South Africa’s largest elephants who roam through the thick bush of the reserve, the Tembe Elephant Park is also where some of the very last remaining patches of sand forest in the world can be found (for a more exclusive experience of the sand forest, check out this article).
At the waterhole two massive bull elephants quietly drink without paying attention to us as we observe them from the wooden observation platform. Casually smelling us with their mouths open and their trunks up in the air, they start bathing in the mud to cool down. A stork has spread its wings and seems to dry them in the sun which reflects its shiny feathers. A giraffe graciously approaches to then back off quickly: a lion or maybe a leopard must have scared it!
Rather small, the Tembe Elephant Park is inhabited by the Big 5, and is one of the only places where the rare suni, world’s smallest antelope, and species endemic to the fast-disappearing sand forest can be spotted.
4. Snorkelling Black Rock Beach
The mysterious Black Rock Beach remains a secret gem and is hardly ever visited by foreign tourists. Only a very little number of permits are distributed on a daily basis to limit the number of visitors to retain the quietness and preserve the environment of the secluded beach of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
Once the permit obtained, only experienced 4×4 drivers can reach Black Rock after conquering a challenging track through the dunes and scenic and green landscapes.
A few more dunes and the white sandy beach, backed by a high forested dune that can reach heights of over 100 meters (300 feet) is in sight. The turquoise waters are ideal for snorkelling, as some rocky headlands host colourful corals, the perfect nursery for the abundant sea life. Simply sunbathing on the beach is also an excellent way to enjoy Black Rock.
5. Canoeing the brown water lake & exploring the birdlife of the raffia forest
The fourth lake, or brown water lake, may not bear the most appealing nickname. However, the dark water offers unforgettable canoeing opportunities.
After a short walk through the dense raffia forest, to the barking calls of the turacos, the perfectly still waters of the lake are reached. If birdlife may be difficult to observe on land, gliding on the lake allows for a more open view. It is common to see the rare (in South Africa) palm-nut vultures that breed in large nests high up in the trees. Given the small patch of raffia forest left, and the fact that 60 percent of the diet of an adult palm-nut vulture is made of palm-fruits of Raffia palms, their distribution in South Africa is very limited and we are in the perfect location to admire them fly majestically over the canals. Rarer, the Pels Fishing owl also inhabits this coastal area.
Fully immersed in the forest, taking in the reflections of waterlilies and vegetation in the dark water, we are fully enjoying the orchestra of bird sounds in this unique ecosystem that is hardly toured, making it all the more special.
- Stay at the well-located – and most luxurious accommodation in the area – Kosi Forest Lodge where all these activities can be set up from. If a 4×4 is required to reach most of these places, including the lodge, all transfers can be arranged by the lodge while your car is parked securely.
- To learn more about sea turtles, visit the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town with its excellent turtle rehabilitation centre.
- Check out the live camera to see what is happening at the waterhole of the Tembe Elephant Park from where you are seated now! And for more virtual safaris: check this out!
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.