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Subtropical Paradise

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[ TRAVEL ] Durban to St Lucia, KZN

Last year, I had the opportunity to take a brand new Volkswagen Caravelle and go camping for a weekend. It was fantastic, especially since our friends were joining us in their Type 2 model which they were busy restoring and converting into a motorhome.

Words & pictures by FRANCOIS HUYSAMEN

But, a weekend with such a fantastic vehicle is just not enough. So, when the opportunity came for my wife and me to go on a week-long trip in a new Kombi, I couldn’t wait to head out.

With the Kombi being such an iconic “road trip” vehicle in South Africa (and across the globe), we decided to plan our trip as such: heading up the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal, and looking for some good surf. A “surf safari”, if you will.

But, while you can plan the holiday down to a T, you can’t predict the weather…

After cramming as much clothing, equipment and gear as possible into our two suitcases, we boarded a flight to Durban, where we were to collect a VW T6 Kombi 2.0 Tdi Trendline, and a brand-new Jetstream Teardrop Trailer. From the second I stepped up into the driving seat, I knew we were in for a good time. Many years ago, when I was still in primary school, our family went on a three-week journey through Namibia in a Kombi. Two years later, it was Zimbabwe. I couldn’t help thinking back to those good times as I sat behind the wheel now, ready to head out on my own adventure.

Our first stop was Natal Caravans & Marine in Pinetown, where Geoff Courtis had arranged the Jetstream for us to tow along. With the recent increased popularity of teardrop-style caravans in South Africa, I’d had my eye on this brand for a while… but I was not prepared for what was waiting for me: something that looked as if it had been transported from Woodstock 1969.

Apparently, Jetstream has been selling their vans as soon as they came off the production line, and the unit lined up for us was already on its way to the buyer.

So, one of the owners of Jetstream Teardrop Trailers provided us with his personal caravan. The entire outside was covered in rock ’n roll imagery of bands such as Santana, Pink Floyd and BB King, as well as slogans like “Peace, love, music”. It seemed fitting to be towing this van with a Kombi, a vehicle that is an icon of the “hippie era” of the 60s.

Yeah, we were going to attract some attention on the road…

BLUFF ECO PARK
Since the first day of our trip was almost over, I decided we would stay in Durban for the first night before heading further north. With the caravan hitched, and with some extra camping gear from Natal Caravans (since I could not fly up all my personal equipment, so thanks, Geoff), we headed to Bluff Eco Park.

The caravan park is located in the south of Durban, and on our arrival we were warmly greeted by Melissa, with whom I’d been in contact prior to our trip − to arrange accommodation as well as to ask for some information about where we could rent surfboards, since we couldn’t fly boards up from the Cape. Bluff Eco Park is just 3km from the South Beaches where there are plenty of surf spots suitable for beginners and more serious wave riders.

It’s impossible to miss the entrance to the park, as there is a giant sign above reception with their signature chameleon logo on it. The reception building also houses a coffee shop, restaurant & bakery (open Tuesday – Sunday) that serves a pretty decent flat white. Behind the check-in counter there is a giant map of the park, and the staff will show you exactly where to head to get to the camping stands.

We were visiting during the off season, so we had our pick of where we wanted to set up camp. It’s clear that business is booming for Bluff, since almost half the sites and one of the ablution blocks were “off limits” while they were undergoing upgrades to get ready for the holidays. The work on the stands included putting down a brick paving section.

There are two sections to the caravan, camping- and motorhome sites in the resorts: either under the tree canopy, or on a big open area of grass (with a few trees). We headed to the tree sites, where I was surprised to see a couple of stands already occupied, even though it was the middle of the week and in winter. Long-term campers, obviously.

The camping sites are all of various sizes, and set in a terraced-like arrangement. Because of the thick tree canopy, there is no grass in this main camping area. It might have been the “dry season” during our visit, but Bluff was still a green paradise! A welcome sight for the couple from Cape Town, where our gardens have turned to dust.
Campers share electricity and water points, which are well-placed to allow easy access for all.
There are no braai facilities at Bluff, but the friendly staff arranged a portable unit for us. As we all know, the first thing you do after setting up camp is light the fire (and crack a cold beer)!

But, in this case, I first took a stroll through the resort. Bluff Eco Park has a variety of “Green Venues” for functions or events. About 30 metres from the camping area, there is a small outdoor area near the “Butterfly Garden” that is perfect for a wedding reception.

Heading on over the wide open grass, I found myself going towards the pool area. On my left was the resort’s self-catering accommodation: wooden Economy Cabins that sleep two to six people.
Before you enter the swimming area, known as Oasis, you pass a neat playground for the children. Bluff has two pools, set next to a big marquee tent (which can be used for functions). Despite the fact that it was low season, the swimming pool was immaculate.

Close to our stand was one of the renovated ablution blocks. They are stunning, and were very clean! I especially liked the power-saving mechanism on the lights, which switch on only when it is dark and when they detect movement. Bluff Eco Park’s motto is, after all, “Reduce, Re-use and Recycle”.

I had read that the monkeys (which you see all over this area of Durban) were a problem in the park, but we never experienced them. The park has some sort of deterrent system in the trees at night, which makes a loud beeping sound when the critters are near. It can be a bit annoying, but the long day of travel and a glass of red wine during dinner had me sleeping in the Jetstream like a baby.

We were up early the next morning, as we wanted to catch a quick surf before heading to our next destination, St Lucia, about 250 km drive away. Melissa, from Bluff, had arranged for us to hook up with Living The Dream surf school, where we could get some surfboards to tackle the Durban waves. Unfortunately, we awoke to a grey sky, and after a friendly chat with Kim from Living The Dream, we were told that ocean conditions were terrible for surfing. It was a no-go.

Still, we wanted to check Durban out, so we headed down to the Marina and walked down the beach. Not even a local surfer was to be spotted in the water…

SUGAR LOAF CAMP
Our next destination was St Lucia; we’d thought to head up to the far north, spend some time with the hippos in the wetland, and then work our way down the coast.
From Durban to St Lucia is an easy three-hour drive… (Easy, once you get out of the city).

The N2 highway is in great condition, thanks to the tolls, I suppose; and despite the traffic, the scenery as you head through the Dolphin Coast up past Richards Bay and further north gives you a great rural feeling, as the countryside turns to rolling hills.

After you’ve crossed the Mfolozi River and turned off on the R618, you finally enter the southern part of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, where you are truly in paradise.
The small town of St Lucia has a population of fewer than 2000, and it’s mainly a tourist hub for the Park. There is a multitude of guest houses, and the main road is lined with restaurants and tourist-activity companies. I can only imagine how busy it must get in high season.

We were heading all the way through town to Sugarloaf Camp. Even while just driving to this resort, you get a sense of calm, as the roads are lined with subtropical forest. Plus, the signs warning you to be careful of hippos walking around at night add a wild touch to the atmosphere.

Checking in at Sugarloaf, we were told to pick any site we wanted. So, as I always do, I took a slow drive through the resort. Man, this was a tough choice – I wanted to set up camp at almost every site I passed! In the end, it was a small deer that guided me to our spot.
I had to double-check that I was not missing something, because the site we chose was huge. I’m sure you’d be able to fit three caravans and vehicles on it, and still have space for kids to run around. It was adjacent to an equally large site, and both were bordered from the neighbours by the thick subtropical bush.

Not all the stands are this big, and there is a variety of choice: from big and open, to smaller and tucked away behind trees.
All 92 camping stand in Sugarloaf have electricity and water. There are brick braais, which are shared between sites; but please note that only half the camp has these built-in braais. (Numbers 1 to about 50).

Ablutions at Sugarloaf are shared, and offer flush toilets, showers, and dishwashing facilities. Although everything is functional and kept clean, they are still ablutions in a wildlife park, and nature tends to take its toll. The facilities are quite old, and I would actually love to see some upgrades; but, that said, unless you are a glamper, you wouldn’t need to complain about them.

The resort also has a big pool, surrounded by grass, with a few braai spots and small thatch lapas. This would be a splendid place to spend a long, hot, summer’s day!

ST LUCIA
We had three days to spend in Sugarloaf, so we had more than enough time to spend one just relaxing at the camp, and the others exploring and enjoying outdoor activities.
Obviously, a visit to the St Lucia beach is a must. There is actually a neat wooden walkway that runs from the campsite’s entrance to the beach. (Beware of the crocodiles… that’s what the sign reads.)

If you are looking for vast, unspoilt beaches, St Lucia is the place for you. Kilometre upon kilometre of white sand… and, best off all, no crushing crowds of thousands, as is usual at popular beaches in and around big cities.

An enjoyable day trip from St Lucia is to Cape Vidal, just over an hour’s drive north, deeper into the Wetland Park. Fishing at Cape Vidal is apparently fantastic.

We were planning to catch a wave, but some bad weather out on the ocean had made the waters too turbulent, and surfing was out of the question. Our “surf safari” idea was being washed away, it seemed.
But there is more than enough to do in this area, so we strapped on our hiking boots and headed for a walk in the wetland park. After asking around in town about where to go for a hike, we were directed to the St Lucia Crocodile Centre − a trail apparently starts there. When we arrived (it’s about 2 km outside town), we found a buzz of construction activity. It seems that they were also upgrading for the coming holiday season.

We finally managed to get some information on the hiking route from a site manager, and headed out. It’s a very easy walk, with no ups or downs: just a stroll through the park.
Then, you get a big sign warning you that you are leaving the game park, with some high steps leading over the fence. “You are now entering a dangerous area… you could encounter buffalo, rhino, hippo, elephant, leopard and crocodile…”
What’s life without a little excitement? So over we went. Of course, this was after we gave a vlakvark in our path a wide berth in order to get to the stairs.

Walking through the tall grass, we did spot buffalo in the distance, but they were far off and nothing to worry about. It wasn’t until I saw a giant animal jawbone lying in our path that I felt a little edgy about wild animals roaming about. And, when we arrived at a big pool with a hippo staring at us from the opposite bank, we decided it was time to turn back. A much safer way to see hippopotami is to take a boat cruise up the Mfolozi River.

Back at camp, it seemed that word about our funky caravan had been spreading. While I was lazing in front of our van, reading a book (and dozing off), more than one person walked over to take a look at the Jetstream. And they were not just friendly neighbours coming to say ‘hi’; there were no fellow-campers visible from our site, so they must have taken quite a stroll to inspect the caravan.

However, it seems that they were just as much interested in the Kombi! After a quick look at the Jetstream, visitors would look at the smart two-tone vehicle and then ask, “Is that the new Kombi?” Then they’d take a peek inside and admire all the space, while I enthusiastically explained what a comfortable long-distance ride it is, and how comfortable it is for camping.

Even when we went for a bite at the St Lucia Ski Boat Club Restaurant up the road one night, I got to chatting to the waiter about our road trip and the kombi, and he said, “Yeah, the new models are great… did you see there’s a new Caravalle in the parking lot?”

I just smiled and told him it was my ride; and, although it’s not the Caravelle, it’s still a fantastic vehicle.

ZINKWAZI
It was tough having to say goodbye to St Lucia after just a few days, but we had to head south to a campsite that I had never visited: Zinkwazi Lagoon Beach & Forest Resort, about halfway back to Durban.
Despite arriving in weather that looked like it was going to rain, I was stunned. Set in the nature Conservancy, the camp lies in a lush riverine forest with abundant tropical palms and flowering trees. From the moment that you turn into the resort to check in, the atmosphere that surrounds you is one close to nature.

The resort staff informed me that only half the campsites were available, as they were doing renovations. Another resort that is busy upgrading… it seems that KZN is gearing up for a big camping season this year.

The campsites at Zinkwazi are incredibly neat! As you can imagine, the forest plants throw down a lot of leaves, but these are often raked up, leaving the stands (nice and level) looking very inviting to park on.

Most of the campsites are of average size, with space for only one caravan, and separated by subtropical plants to give you reasonable privacy. There are a few bigger sites and non-separated adjoining options. I noted that there was a big family with a few tents for the couples and kids just a bit down the road from us.

Ablution blocks with scullery and laundry facilities are scattered throughout the camp. The section we stayed in still had the old ablutions, and while they were neat, clean and functional, I could see why they were in need of an upgrade. I took a walk through the resort to take a look at the new facilities being built, and they are as classy and modern as you can get!

Once they are in full operation, these ablutions will go from camping to glamping. They are spacious, and the black tiles give them an almost executive look. Very stylish.

Just note that although most of the sites have braai facilities, not all of them have electricity points. The sites with power are clearly indicated on the map of the resort you receive from reception.

Zinkwazi also has a central recreational lawn with pool, playground, games hall, communal braais and a dry pub. Part of the upgrades we saw was a new boma with pizza oven & braai area; and apparently they are building a proper beach bar with sand near the restaurant as well!

Just a few seconds’ walk from our campsite, you can get to the private jetty, where in summer the ferry departs for sundowners or daily trips to and from the beach.

Your other option for sundowners is the elevated Isifonya Pub & Sundeck. And, if you are hungry and not in the mood to prepare your own food, the Raffia Restaurant serves a la carte meals.

After a home-made snack on the jetty, we headed out to explore the beach. The sea off the swimming beach is equipped with shark nets, and there are life savers on duty during busy seasons… but, as luck would have it, it started pouring with rain when we arrived at the parking lot. Not that there was any chance we could swim or surf, anyway, since the beach was closed! It seems that the Natal Sharks Board was busy repairing the nets, and all swimming was temporarily banned.

The rain was short-lived, and by the time we got back to camp after a cruise through town and a quick stop at the small local shop for some firewood, it had let up.

BACK HOME (THE LONG WAY ROUND)
It had been an amazing couple of days in the subtropical beach climates of the north coast, but all road trips must come to an end.
Leaving Zinkwazi, we headed back south to drop off the Jetstream in Durban. We still had the Kombi for two more days, as we had to drop it off in Joburg. I had no complaints about this extra 600 kilometres, as I’d planned to overnight in Champagne Valley in the Drakensberg and spend a night at Lionsrock Lodge outside Bethlehem. The road trip was not over.

But, before we unhitched, we got good news: Kim (from ‘Living the Dream’) phoned, and told us that we had to pop by their stand on the Durban beachfront as there were some waves to catch! We rushed over – and, finally, after a week on the road, we actually found what we’d wanted. Admittedly, the waves were under two foot high, but we had a blast with Kim and her partner, Matt.

After an hour or so of riding small swells, we tackled the road to Berghaven Cottages in the Drakensberg. Then, after a quick sleepover, went on to Lionsrock Lodge – a true big-cat sanctuary which is run by FOUR PAWS; one that provides an appropriate, lifelong home for big cats that have been kept in inadequate conditions in zoos, circuses or private captivity. These people do amazing work.
I spoke extensively with the general manager, Islam Saadawi, and he let me in on a secret: They have acquired a new piece of land and he is planning to build a camping resort. He actually took me out to see the site; and, let me tell you, it’s going to be a great place to camp. So, watch this space! We’ll tell you all about it once it’s done.

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