One of South Africa’s most remote destinations may very well be the North Eastern corner of Kwazulu Natal. Bordering Swaziland and Mozambique lies a hardly populated land with scenic yet less famous game parks and a unique ecosystem of four lakes where Tsonga fishermen have passed down their sustainable traditions for more than a thousand years. A land where world’s largest leafs can be found, with rare bird species and different types of mangrove trees. Waters with bull sharks, hippos, manta rays, and whale sharks border South Africa’s most stunning and desolated beaches, on which the only visitors are endangered sea turtles laying their eggs in season.
Join us to explore the best of Kosi Bay in 4 different adventures!
1. Boating on the four lakes
Kosi Bay is most famous for its four lakes interconnected by narrow and shallow channels and its estuary. 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. As our boat leaves the fourth lake with the lowest salinity to enter the third lake, local fishermen are busy maintaining their ingeniously built traps made of only natural materials, such as branches and sticks. Strategically located where fish are pushed into these traps by the current, they have proven to be a sustainable way of fishing. 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 while the small and young ones can find their way out, giving them time to grow and mate.
As we get off and push the boat into the very shallow outlet channel to the second lake, cormorants and kingfishers lead the way as an African fish eagle circles in the bright blue sky above us. 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 in front of us! A hippo family curiously observes our boat. A few minutes later, we are swimming in the lake, keeping a safe distance and an eye on the hippos…
2. Observing endangered sea turtles nesting
The wind picks up as I put on my jacket. It has been a hot day but as the sun has set about an hour ago and as the sea breeze has picked up, the African air cools down rapidly. On the moonlit beach a dark creature struggles its way up the sand: an endangered sea turtle is on her way to where she was born more than 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, as well as the smaller green and hawksbill turtles lay their eggs here between November and February.
Tonight, it is moving to observe the efforts of this green 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 these sea turtles are vulnerable on land. Once they have reached the spot where they were born at least 25 years ago, they start digging a hole that is about 70-centimetre 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 of eggs resembling ping-pong balls fall into the hole, one by one – a female lays between 100 and 200 eggs. They are soft so that the shells won’t break. As soon as she is done, the prehistoric animal starts kicking her four fins clumsily but nonetheless efficiently to cover up the nest. Only once the nest is fully hidden does the turtle stop its exhausting task that requires her to pause several times before returning back to the ocean. Her lacrimal glands that help get rid off the salt in her eyes make it look like she is constantly crying adding drama to the scene. If the nest is not disturbed by honey badgers or other predators it will take 45 to 90 days for the eggs to hatch. The average temperature in the nest defines the sex of the new-borns. If it is less than 28°C for more than 19 days the offspring of this turtle will be mostly males, if it is greater there will be more females.
The small turtles will open the shell around them with their beak, dig themselves out of the sand and run to the shoreline. Only one of the hundreds will return 25 years from now, finding this specific beach back after having navigating for thousands of kilometres thanks to their built-in compass. Since turtle tours have been running and since KZN Wildlife has been protecting and patrolling the beaches, the number of turtles laying eggs has significantly increased. Still, turtles are under threat due to terrible amounts of plastics (in which they suffocate as they confuse it for edible jellyfish) and habitat loss.
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 prehistorical animals.
3. 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 last remaining sand forest in the world is protected.
At the waterhole two massive bull elephants quietly drink without paying attention to us as we observe them from the wooden platform. Casually smelling us with their mouths open and their trunks up in the air, they now start bathing in the mud to cool down. A stork has spread its wings and seems to dry them in the sun which reflects the shiny colours of its mock skirt. 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 other four of 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. Black Rock
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 amount of visitors and retain the quietness in this part of the National Park. Accessible by a long scenic drive through the dunes on challenging 4×4 tracks, only the experienced South African drivers reach Black Rock with their own vehicles and no public transport goes to this desolated area of South Africa.
We hold on tight in the back of the roaring Land Cruiser pickup truck as its wheels move the loose sand in its battle up. Driving here is not for the faint-hearted!
A few more dunes, and Black Rock is at sight: from the soft white sands and turquoise waters that are ideal for snorkelling, a massive volcanic rock rises and waves splash into it. If the beach is stunning, maybe it is the way to reach it that is even more unique.
Claire & Marcella
- Stay at the well located Kosi Bay Lodge and inquire for their boat tour on the lake and turtle tours (Nov-Feb).
- Reach out to Mufasa for a safari through the Tembe Elephant Park or a great day at Black Rock.
- 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!
- 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.
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