What is so special about Thonga Beach Lodge in South Africa?
One of our Destination Experts travelled to Thonga Beach Lodge, in iSimangaliso Wetland Park on South Africa’s Elephant Coast, to discover the appeal of this remote and wild corner of the country
Thonga Beach Lodge has a prime location on South Africa’s Elephant Coast, a region in KwaZulu-Natal that stretches from Lake St Lucia in the south to Kosi Bay in the north, which is virtually on the Mozambique border. Lying within iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa’s third largest protected area, the 3,320sq-km park contains three major lake systems, eight interlinking ecosystems, most of South Africa’s remaining swamp forests, Africa’s largest estuarine system and 25,000-year-old vegetated coastal dunes, which are among the highest in the world. Therefore, it was not surprising to hear from our guide Sthembisa that, in 1999, iSimangaliso was listed as one of the first World Heritage Sites in South Africa.
After a five-hour drive north from Durban, we came to a halt at ‘Coastal Cashews’, a dubious-looking cashew nut factory that serves as the parking spot and collection point for guests who are going to Thonga by car. On our way to the lodge, it was clear why we had been advised not to drive all the way there. Although it was only three miles away, the sandy road was in poor condition and it also served as a pathway for wandering cattle. An hour later, after a good ‘African massage’, we came to the top of a hill and caught our first glimpse of the golden sands and crashing waves of this remote corner of South Africa.
The eco-lodge has just 12 Zulu-inspired thatch cottages, all immersed in the surrounding dune forest to ensure minimum impact on the environment. Some of the rooms have stunning views of the sea below and have a plunge pool, making them a good option for both families and honeymooners. Others are engulfed by the trees and offer more privacy. All of them sit behind the vast dunes and the lodge is invisible from the sea.
On the other side of the undulating dunes and coastal bush, Mabibi Beach disappears into the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. As my feet sunk into the soft, white sand, I understood why we had travelled so far off the beaten track to this magical paradise. This unspoilt, golden shore was one of the cleanest, most beautiful beaches in the world, and for as far as I could see, there was not another person in sight.
There is plenty to do at this wonderful wilderness retreat. The turtle-breeding season is from November to February and, depending on the tide, it’s possible to traverse the length of the beach searching for females and hatchlings. Scuba-diving is at its best in the South African summer (December-May), when average visibility is 15-20 metres, with a June-September average of 10-15 metres. The waters off Mabibi Beach are regarded as one of South Africa’s best snorkelling sites, home to dolphins and sharks. The coral reefs along this protected swathe of coastline are home to thousands of species of tropical fish, and when we went snorkelling in the rock pools, we were lucky enough to see an octopus.
For those who do not wish to brave the ocean, you can simply relax at the lodge, go for long walks along the beach or visit a local homestead, school and clinic in order to experience how the Tsonga people, a Bantu ethnic group, go about their daily lives. On our final evening, Sthembisa took us 20 minutes inland to Lake Sibaya, where we found a pod of hippos and I watched the African sun sink into the horizon with a gin and tonic in my hand.
So was it worth the journey? Absolutely. Many of our clients are drawn to this far-flung place for its seclusion, the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, some of Africa’s finest snorkelling and diving, and the abundant marine life; but for me, its real allure was the endless, empty Mabibi Beach. In our opinion, South Africa’s wild Elephant Coast really is an escapist’s dream.