In South Africa’s first World Heritage Site lies a hidden resort nestled in rich forest vegetation just a few steps away from the ocean. Here you can enjoy the tranquillity of Mother Nature’s work around you
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park (previously known as the Greater St Lucia Wetlands Park) in KwaZulu-Natal’s Maputaland was declared South Africa’s first World Heritage Site in 1999. It comprises beaches, coral reefs, lakes, swamps, wetlands, woodlands, coastal forests and grasslands stretching from Kosi Bay, virtually on the Mozambican border, to Cape St Lucia in the south.
Our destination is Thonga Beach Lodge, just two hours’ drive from Durban. The iSimangaliso area has a long and rich history of exploration and discovery that dates back as far as the Later Stone Age and was home to the Tsonga people, who had made this land their home for more than a thousand years. Here, you get to learn about the impact that the lodge has on the local community and how it benefits the community, motivating them to protect the precious resources.
Thonga Beach Lodge have 12 thatched eco-sensitive rooms, and each is positioned to ensure maximum privacy and minimal environmental impact. The rooms are built on raised platforms among indigenous forest and undulating dunes and have expansive glass windows and doors to let in the ocean breeze and sounds.
The lodge offers an exciting array of experiences for the adventurer, nature lover or max relaxer. Where can you swim with dolphins, scuba dive in a treasure trove of marine life, canoe on a shimmering lake and watch turtles lay eggs all in one day? At Thonga − the list of activities is endless.
If you just want to relax, you can spend lazy days on the beach or next to the swimming pools with the light breeze of the ocean in your hair and the sound of waves in your ears.
You can start your day early with a walk on the beach or go scuba diving with experienced guides. Afterwards, you can enjoy a scrumptious breakfast made from fresh local ingredients – something the chef prides himself on. He likes to discover top local produce, and you will taste the very best that the region has to offer − from sweet tropical fruits, fresh local food and healthy modern culinary delights to decadent baked treats. Meals are served al fresco on the deck in the shade of giant milkwood trees.
Depending on when you visit, low tide would be around 11:00, so this is the perfect time for a swim in the sea or snorkelling in the rock pools.
The water temperature is perfect – it doesn’t chill you to the bone but is cool and refreshing after the warm African sun. The lodge set up tents on the beach where you can sit and feel the sand between your toes, or you can chill on the wooden veranda overlooking the expansive ocean and shoreline.
This is one of the few places in the country where you can witness the wonder of turtles nesting from November to February. Under the cover of darkness, you can follow mother turtles as they return to the same beach where they were born, just to begin the cycle all over again. It’s mesmerising to watch a mother turtle digging a hole and then going into a trans-like state while laying her eggs before returning to the depths of the sea.
The lodge is a haven for both birds and birdwatchers. The lush coastline and shady forests make a perfect habitat for a wide variety of species such as the Livingstone’s and purple-crested turaco, green twinspot, grey waxbill and green coucal. A variety of waders and the palm-nut vulture are also regulars. Guided birding is available to guests at no extra cost.
When you’re at one of the best snorkelling sites in South Africa, this activity should be on your to-do list. The coral reefs along the protected stretch of coastline are home to thousands of species of tropical fish. The rockpool snorkelling area just 400 metres from the lodge is home to primarily juvenile fish, but octopus, firefish, moray eels and electric rays have also been spotted here.
Diving at Thonga Beach is phenomenal, with reefs only a short distance from the lodge. Guests often encounter shoals of game fish, sharks and bottlenose dolphins. And everybody is welcome – from beginners to veterans. Scuba training is available at the PADI dive centre.
Sundowners at Lake Sibaya
To say goodbye to a beautiful day at the lodge, you can visit Lake Sibaya for a spectacular sunset. The lake is a 25-minute drive from the lodge, and you can enjoy your favourite drink and tasty snacks as dusk welcomes the wild’s night shift. En route you will be taken on a tour of the local village where you can experience the uniqueness of the local people.
Kayaking on Lake Sibaya
More adventurous guests can go kayaking on the lake. You will be driven to the lake where you can enjoy an early morning paddle while the waters are calm and you have a fair chance of spotting hippos and crocodiles. This is also an excellent opportunity to spot birds.
Open ocean experience
At Thonga they think of their ‘open ocean experience’ as an ‘ocean safari’ or ‘game drive on the sea’. It’s a wonderful activity that offers guests a rare opportunity to experience marine life along the Elephant Coast. After an exciting launch through the surf in front of the lodge, you will be taken beyond the breakers where you can spend an hour experiencing the beauty of the ocean. If you’re lucky, you might see bottlenose or spinner dolphins, mantra rays and giant sea turtles.
Spa at Thonga
After relaxing in one of the most tranquil places in our country, you can rejuvenate yourself with a treatment at the spa with its wide variety of treatments, facials, massages, manicures, pedicures and reflexology. Considering the pristine surroundings, it is only natural that your body would want to return to its natural and biological best.
Guided forest walks
Or take a walk on the wild side and explore the area on foot: you’ll enjoy the natural wonderland of coastal forests, unspoiled sandy beaches and grassland. With over 296 bird species, 2 200 flowering plants and 282 butterfly and 228 spider species, you will be in for a treat. The forest is also home to localised arboreal mammals such as the tonga red squirrel, thick-tailed bushbaby, rare samango monkey and Setaro’s dwarf chameleon. The walks usually take 1–1,5 hours and if you’d like to spend more time in nature, that can be arranged.
No matter how you choose to spend every precious second at Thonga Beach Lodge – you will have an unforgettable experience. And the best part is that you will know that you travel with purpose, discovering and helping to preserve one of the last undeveloped wilderness beaches on the African continent.