Jen and I have just returned from a week at Nibela Lodge on the northern shore of Lake St Lucia. My last time at the Lake was some 20 years ago when I officiated at a wedding at Fanie’s Island on the south side. It was held under a marula tree while bush pig wandered among the guests.
We were a little nervous about Nibela Lodge. We applied very late and found, even at that late stage, that there were still two options available. The price was more than reasonable and, we discovered, included dinner and breakfast. There had to be catch. What did everyone else know that we didn’t? It’s very hot up there in summer; it’s a malaria area; it’s a long drive. But such things are part of the deal in Africa. We set off on what we thought would be a five hour trip from Pietermaritzburg, wondering what we would encounter that no one else wanted.
We stopped off at Mtunzini, on the coast some 120 kilometres north of Durban for lunch with our delightful niece and her husband. The road was so good and relatively clear it only took us two hours to get there. Schools closed for the holidays that day, but the bulk of the traffic had not had a chance to reach the coast from inland. Beyond Mtunzini through the industrial developments of Richards Bay and Empangeni, the road ran straight as a die. Well, a great deal straighter than it was 20 years ago. The road that I remembered meandered left to right crossing the innumerable rivers, each bridge a unique experience: some causeways, some single lane, wait-for-the-oncoming-traffic-to-clear hazards, some washed away entirely necessitating long detours. On this trip we hardly noticed the rivers we crossed, or the road, or the scenery, until we turned off the highway at Hluhluwe onto the Sodwana Bay road, thence onto dirt and down towards the lake. Overall travel time was, in fact, only four hours—not bad for 400 kilometres, with about 30 on dirt.
At the end of the road we found what no one else seemed to want: a little piece of paradise. Boardwalks led from the car park over the dune-forest floor to the thatched huts on the way to the main lodge. We were the last hut before the lodge. It has the advantage of being closest to the dining room but it is also farthest from the car. Jen and I are not light travellers. We take our coffee pot and pillows into the African bush. We took a year’s supply of mosquito repellents—I had strict instructions from Jen’s sister not to let any mosquito (let alone a malaria-bearing one) within a mile and a half of Jen. We brought salad ingredients for lunch, and chocolate of course; books to read and writing equipment. All had to be carried from car to hut. But once there we were ensconced in our own private world.
Only two mosquitoes emerged during the week and we were assured that there is no malaria there at present. Perhaps the drought has sent them underground or to wetter climes—Pietermaritzburg, perhaps?
Sitting on our private balcony, human noises reached us occasionally, but most of the time it was the sounds of nature. Unseen birds called to one another from the bushes and trees that surround-ed us. A bush pig sounded off to the left. The shy but ubiquitous Piet-my-vrou (the red-chested cuckoo that spends the northern winters in our part of the world) sent its three clear notes relentlessly through the trees while the cacophony of insect noises provided a rich ambience. It’s a small lodge catering for about 20 or so dinner, bed and breakfast guests and about the same number of self-catering guests. We met an American couple from Indianapolis and South Africans from all around the country. Mostly quiet and gentle, there to enjoy a break from the noise of the city.
The service is excellent, with few, but friendly and attentive, staff on duty at the desk and in the dining room. We didn’t meet the chef (although we tried); Busi is her name. Why she is there and hasn’t been snapped up by the more expensive resorts or hotels, we do not know. She is very good with a creative flair. We decided not to say anything, at least until our week was over. A drumbeat along the boardwalk announced breakfast at eight (an eminently civilised time) and dinner from six. One had two hours to saunter in and enjoy a leisurely meal. Sandwiches and other fare may be purchased for lunch, but we had our salads and fruit (and chocolate of course) so our intentional human interaction was limited to mornings and evenings. There was intermittent wireless internet, so I could also indulge in some blogging without the guilty feeling that I should be doing something else.
Butterflies of various types and colours danced on the breezes among the trees. Most common are small white ones with black veins visible when they rest for a while, and pale yellow ones with a deep yellow border (jumping bean moth, Melanobasis). Such delicate creatures, they expend such enormous amounts of energy flitting around for no apparent reason. Yet what a delight to behold. Could it be all, entirely for our benefit. Probably not, but we’ll enjoy it nonetheless. A bush baby greeted us from the branches of a marula tree on our first evening and we saw another on our last. We saw a couple of forest (or dark-backed) weavers and a red-capped robin chat (Natal Robin), as well as the ubiquitous vervet monkeys and a couple of red tree squirrels. But for the most part the forest creatures remained elusive like the zebra who simply left their droppings on the boardwalk overnight.
There was Zulu dancing on the lawn on Monday morning. At breakfast we were told, “You have to go down to the beach at ten. For Zulu dancing.” We dutifully obeyed. Local children and young adults entertained us, while some littlies from one of the cabins joined in to general delight.
Jen and I love to holiday with family, especially when we get a chance to visit my children and grandchild who are so far away. Visiting coffee shops in cities and villages is a treat and spending hours in second-hand bookshops is a pastime in which we delight. But for a real break, when no family or friends are available and a rest is required, our natural laziness and lack of energy kicks in. Then, all we want to do is get away from the crowds, somewhere that the food is good, the space is private, and there is nothing to do but read, relax, rest, and eat. The problem with game reserves, which we love to visit, is that there are expectations. We would expect to join the game drives. These, unfortunately, are at the most inconvenient times: early in the morning (not our time of day) or late in the evening. Animals have not evolved sufficiently to hunt or approach water holes at times suitable to the lazy tourist. A matter of great inconvenience to us. The advantage of our St Lucia hideaway was that there was nothing to do. (Although we did get up for the dawn picture from our balcony above.) There are bird walks and fossil walks; there are quad-bike rides (sufficiently far away not to be heard or seen during our stay) and, when there is water in the lake, much fishing and water-sport activities. Apart from the bird and fossil walks nothing else interests us so we are able to relax without feeling guilty that, having come all this way, we really ought to be doing something. Soaking up the sounds of the forest, is just exactly what we are here for, and that we are well equipped to do, and have done, with great relish.