Turning off the R22 from Hluhluwe, I engaged four-wheel drive as we headed down a corrugated dirt track towards the Kosi Bay Nature Reserve. My husband grumbles something about breaking the trailer as he finishes up some last-minute work crisis he’s managed to beam in from his cellphone. Mercifully, the signal fades, and he closes his laptop. It was time for our much-awaited four-day camping adventure to Kosi Bay.
The track disappears into a dense swath of pristine bush. After checking in at reception, I navigated our vehicle towards the campsite which is located on a choppy expanse of crystal-clear water: kuNhlange or lake three of the intricate Kosi Bay lake system.
Here, just below the border with southern Mozambique in the upper reaches of the celebrated iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Kosi Bay is a complex estuary system comprising four tidal lakes connected by a series of channels. They range from sea water at the mouth to fresh water in the fourth lake or Amanzamnyama. Flanked by wild raffia palm forests, white sandy beaches and some of the world’s highest vegetated dunes, it’s home to some of the continent’s most iconic species including flamingos, fish eagles, the Nile crocodile, hippos and the rare palm nut vulture. It’s also the stronghold of the Tonga people who’s ancient fishing kraals or ‘utshwayelo’ are the hallmarks of the area.
We spilled out of the car to greet our weekend camp buddies and the children made a beeline for the water. Shoes off, they waded in ankle and then knee deep and I glanced around, worried. Where were the crocodiles? Our hired guides or ‘gillies’, Alex and Themba, assured us there are no crocodiles in lake three due to the high salt levels. Nevertheless, I stood watchful on the shore until I was sure there was no danger. While Alex and Themba took the kids off for some fishing, we cracked open a beer and set about putting up camp. The day finished with leisurely sundowners on the jetty before feeding and then herding the children into bed.
If I was taken with lake three on arrival, I was completely disarmed by it on day two. As is normally the case in the Zululand winter, the wind had dropped and the sun shone warmly on what now looked like a mirror. Without hesitating, the children bailed in – pyjamas and all – while adults dipped rusks into their coffee and planned the day’s activities. Fishing was on the cards and we were in our gillies’ hands for the morning.
Alex and Themba guided us to a spot further north on lake one or Makhawulani. We stared at the water as they pointed out a sand bank in the middle of the lake – our fishing ground for the day. Wading out among the fishing kraals with our coolbox precariously balanced on a boogie board, we gathered on the sandbank and settled into the day’s fishing.
Needless to say, not much can be said about the fishing but a lot was said about the fishing kraals which surrounded us. The Tonga people use this 700-year-old fishing method to catch saltwater fish which breed in the fresh lake system. They run along a palisade fence which curves into a fish trap which, like a one-way valve, lets the fish in but not out. Because smaller fish can escape, the system makes no impact on the thriving fish population. Our valiant fisherman would beg to differ though with the lack of bites on their line that day. Not to be disappointed, my highlight was the flock of flamingos which flew straight over our heads.
Day three arrived in typical sun-drenched fashion while we hurried about preparing for our boat adventure with Shengeza Charters. Our guide, Chad Els, explained the lake system to us and how the locals use their fishing kraals. The fishing was dismal with one lone sand fish being caught but the picnic on a spit between lakes one and two was just what the doctor ordered. We watched as locals came and went, some with their catch of the day, others on their way through to the nearby towns of KwaNgwanase and Manguzi. On the way back to camp, Chad stopped along one of the channels for a spot of snorkelling in the mangrove trees. The children squealed in the cold water but according to my husband, the water beneath the trees was teeming with rock salmon. Back on board we headed slowly back to our camp soaking in the warm sun and marvelling at the pristine beauty surrounding us. That night we were treated to a fabulous lamb curry before collapsing into bed for an early night.
The next day we said goodbye to our fellow campers as they packed up camp and headed back to Durban. We’d opted for a fourth night and so trekked off, in four- wheel drive, to Kosi Mouth. The drive is bumpy and good vehicle clearance is needed to negotiate the tracks, but we arrived excited to see how the lakes roll out into the ocean. We grabbed our gear and headed across the winding body of water that snakes out to sea. The water is beautiful and clean as it washes out below the headland that marks the mouth. It felt good to be near the sea and the kids and I hunted for shells while my husband tried his luck with his rod. He pulled out a couple of small moonies which he threw back in to live another day.
Cold in the wind we passed up the snorkelling at the famed Aquarium Rrock vowing to return when the weather and water warmed up. After a picnic lunch of chip rolls, dried wors and Super Cs, we drove up to a higher viewpoint from where we could see the sea and three of Kosi’s four lakes. Blue water and blue skies for days – this view really did put into perspective the enormous natural beauty of this unspoiled setting. I couldn’t help but feel immensely privileged to have it right on my doorstep. Seriously though – where were the crocodiles?
INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT KOSI BAY
- Kosi Bay is one of two places in South Africa where raffia palm forests occur naturally. Because of this, the area is also home to the rare palm nut vulture which feeds on the tree’s palm-fruits.
- Also known as the Kosi palm, the raffia palm boasts the biggest leaf of any plant and locals use the leaves to build their canoes.
- Endangered loggerhead and leatherback turtles return to Kosi Bay’s beaches every year to lay their eggs. Nesting and hatching occur from October to February. The same hatchlings will return to these beaches two decades later to lay their eggs.
- Kosi Bay’s ancient fish traps are passed down through the generations and the fish caught are an important source of income for these families.
- Five mangrove species occur naturally in the Kosi Bay area and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park in general has more mangrove species than anywhere else in South Africa.
- There are some 40 fish species in the lake and most are of marine origin. Young fish migrate to the lakes returning to the sea when mature.
- Research shows that approximately 100 000kgs of fish is the annual harvest taken by sports fishermen and the fish kraals. According to the research this off-take is at a sustained yield level and poses no threat to Kosi’s fish populations.