"Let me out!" begs David Bowie and Freddie Mercury in their famous song Under Pressure. And this is exactly how I feel after a week of intense traffic, meetings and people, people everywhere...
So it’s with a tremendous sigh of relief that I take to the road with my trusted photographer at 5:30 a.m. on a Friday in March, destination Rocktail Camp on the Kwa-Zulu coast of South Africa. This much vaunted camp, part of the Wilderness Safaris Portfolio, has been getting exceptionally good press so I have been meaning to check it out for myself for a while now. We leave Pretoria while only a sliver of light is visible on the horizon and as the day awakens properly, the landscape changes from dry and dusty to the bucolically verdant hills Kwa-Zulu Natal is famous for. The car eats up the miles and time flies as we pass through tiny towns lost in time.
The dastardly GPS leadeth us not through green pastures, but instead onto a hair raising dirt road for 70 km which could easily have been avoided had we followed the road signs instead! So a good tip here is to NOT to follow the Sodwana Road, unless you have a powerful 4x4 SUV and rather go over the mountain at Jozini.
We arrive almost to the minute of our calculations at our destination. The trip takes about seven hours from Pretoria, stops included.
Rocktail is set back in and shaded by the sanctuary of the lush Maputaland Coastal Forest covering the ancient dunes that make up the edge of South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal coast. We are in time for lunch - delicious pizza in their own wood burning oven - and we take in the peaceful surrounds. All meals are served on the wooden deck besides the rustic pool and though very tastefully decorated, the Camp can hardly be described as luxuriously or elaborately opulent.
But then such an idea would be completely out of place in this beautifully untamed environment. Rocktail Camp is a classified as a Wilderness Safaris’ Adventure Camp. Larger and more convivial than the rest of the Wilderness Collection, adventures camps comprise units that are generally tented and there is a particular emphasis on keeping everything eco-friendly and disturbing nature as little as possible.
The lovely management couple Jacques and Tish introduce themselves and after lunch Tish escorts us to our "lodgings." The tented family unit is huge and extremely comfortable with en-suite bathroom and all the amenities to make you feel at home. Each of its 17 rooms is en-suite with an open-feel indoor shower with magical views of the forest. Even though we don’t have a sea view, we can hear the soothing sounds of the waves. Seven of the tents are family units with a shared bathroom and two bedrooms for two adults and two children. A honeymoon unit has wonderful views over the ocean and dune forest. There are no mini-bars, air conditioning, splash pools, pillow menus or luxury robes but again, these things would feel out of place here. The hackneyed phrase "communing with nature" actually makes a lot of sense here and the peace is truly enveloping. There is no WiFi either unfortunately for me, but as a guest, you should welcome it! The main area boasts a central dining room, bar and lounge with large wrap-around veranda, a raised viewing deck, wine cellar, large pool, curio shop and children's playroom. At approximately $170 per person per night, including all meals, coffee and tea and some activities, the camp is remarkably affordable, considering the quality of the food and accommodation, not to mention the location.
Life is a beach
With the Maputaland Marine Reserve just offshore and the beach a brisk 20-minute walk from the camp (in my case 30 minutes), there are plenty of seaside adventures just waiting to be experienced. The beach is pristine and I feel like the only person on earth as I dip my toe in the warm Indian Ocean with the lonely coast stretching for miles and miles. The reef systems are prolific with soft and hard corals, and abundant fish species such as butterflyfish and triggerfish, rockmover wrasse, various eels, sharks including the iconic whale shark and ragged-tooth, dolphins and of course turtles. Back at the tent as dusk nears, I have a wonderful shower and then it’s off to dinner.
Jacques is the chef here and together with his local staff, they produce fine fare in the form of a nightly buffet.
The starter is plated and we order the prawns, which could not be more delicious. On the buffet side things as a bit of a hit and miss. The fish is a tad dry, but the steak fillet is simply superb and expertly cooked, medium to rare.
The service is very good and the natural hospitality of the local people shine through.
We have a night cap on our spacious veranda much later, listening to the restless ocean and the night sounds of the forest.
I further indulge in this pristine environment by sleeping very late the next morning. We laze about the pool like sloths before a lovely lunch of beer battered hake. Every night the following day’s activities and times are written on the blackboard and these include snorkeling, forest walks with trained guides and trips to the nearby Lake Sibaya, the latter of which we decide on. The coastal forest reserve around Rocktail is not a traditional game viewing area, but still abounds with a variety of life providing a natural contrast to the bush. Red duiker and reedbuck roam about and the birding is outstanding, with a number of special coastal forest species.
Flaura guide extraordinaire
Gibson is to be our guide and what a wonderful guide he is! "We will take about 45 minutes to the Lake but that is because we will stop to look at some plants," he informs us.
Look at plants? The understatement of the year. This man knows almost everything about this environment as it is possible to know. We spend the next 40 minutes or so learning about the astounding plants and shrubs of the area and their magical healing, nutritional and cleaning properties. Gibson knows not only the Latin names of the plants but also their English and Zulu names. This from a man who worked as a petrol attendant in Johannesburg for 30 years...
He tells us amazing tales of how the local people utilize shrubs and roots. "The rural areas had no shopping centers," he says. "They put their wet clothes here (on the flat crown tree) because these leaves have a natural detergent in them." We also learn that the water berry can treat kidney failure, how to make a tooth brush from the stem of a plant and which plant to make tea with to stimulate milk production in a new mother. Truly fascinating stuff, delivered with mirth and insight from the Incredible Plant Man, Gibson.
We eventually arrive at Lake Sibaya in the late afternoon and what a sight for sore eyes. The Lake, located in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, has a wild, raw beauty. Humans have never impacted heavily on this place and you can sense it. The number of bird species in a small area and the water clarity reveals the natural health of the ecosystem.
It is home to no less 22 species of frogs and eight reptiles and it is the largest freshwater lake in South Africa at around 70 square km in size.
Surrounding it is the thickly vegetated iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Although its clear blue waters may look calm, cool and appealing, Gibson warns us that crocodiles and hippos paddle about in startlingly large numbers. And indeed, as we drive along the beach, we spot two hippos cavorting in the deeper area.
The lake has had little development pressure, and is considered near pristine, with over 100km of unspoilt shoreline. For birders, Lake Sibaya is paradise. Here you can find 279 species of rather special birds, including that rare vegetarian bird of prey - the palmnut vulture. You might also see the elusive Pel’s fishing-owl, the pygmy goose, bat hawk, yellow white-eye, the rufous-bellied heron and Woodward’s batis.
We get out and just bask in the scene. The setting sun peers through the brooding clouds and hits the gun metal grey waters in patches like a silver spotlight. A Caspian tern lazily flies across the water, cutting a lonely figure and as if on cue, a fish eagle is heard somewhere in the distance...
Back at camp, we have another buffet feast for dinner before retiring, happy and exhausted.
The next morning brings some disappointment as snorkeling and diving is cancelled due to too many blue bottles in the water. But this is why one has to book at least three or four nights here at Rocktail Camp to account for any eventuality since the sea has her vagaries.
It is with sad hearts that we say our goodbyes at Rocktail Camp, but, like so many of the other guests we have encountered here, this place will lure you back for sure!
· One of the best places in the world for scuba diving and snorkeling
· The pristine golden beaches are a perfect family playground
· During summer, sea turtles come ashore at night to lay their eggs in the sand
Activities at Rocktail Camp:
Snorkeling; Snorkeling in the tropical waters of Lala Nek reveals magical tidal life in the bay. Lala Nek boasts an emerged sedimentary rocky reef with a safe shore entry, and brims with diverse marine life, making it ideal for guests of all ages.
Scuba Diving*: Rocktail is considered the premier dive site in South Africa, with pristine coral reefs that only Rocktail guests have access to. The incredible variety and abundance of fish to be seen range from huge numbers of reef fish to manta rays and placid pregnant ragged-tooth sharks; whales, dolphins and turtles are also seen. Please be aware that divers must bring dive cards to participate and log books are also recommended.
*This activity is at additional cost and weather and sea condition dependent. For more information please visit http://www.mokarrandivecharters.com/
Forest Walks (Guided & Unguided): Wander along a beach and forest trail with one of our guides and learn about the fauna and flora of the Maputaland Coastal Forest. Catch a glimpse of birds like green twinspot, green malkoha, purple-crested turaco, and a number of small antelope.
Cultural Village Visit*: Authentic aspects of Zulu and Tonga culture and tradition can be observed through architecture, food and traditional lifestyles in the local village.
*This activity is at additional cost.
Tembe Elephant Park Morning Safari*: Situated only an hour from Rocktail, Tembe has big game including some of the largest tuskers in southern Africa. Depart 7am for breakfast at Masizwane Lodge, then a 2.5 hr game drive in the Park before heading back to Rocktail in time for lunch.
*This activity is at additional cost.
Air China offers direct flights between major centers in China and Johannesburg. Once in Johannesburg, the best and quickest option is to fly to Richard’s Bay and Rocktail Camp will organize transfers.