South Africa: St Lucia Wetlands

11th June - 22nd June 2002


The minibus I had boarded in Manzini, Swaziland crossed the border into South Africa at the Golela border post and continued south on the N2 passing the Pongolapoort Dam and many game reserves along the way to Mtubatuba. Mtubatuba was a little way off the N2 and I was the only passenger getting off here. Everyone else was heading all the way to Durban, another couple of hours drive along the road. The driver went out of his way to help me and turned off the N2 and drove into Mtubatuba and to the busy, hectic minibus park and showed me where the minibuses for St Lucia departed from. For most of the journey from Manzini I had been chatting with the other passengers on the bus and when I left it felt like I was saying goodbye to old friends. They all waved goodbye as they drove back out of the bus park and onwards to Durban. I climbed aboard another minibus and waited for it to fill, which didn't take long and I was soon on my way again for the final 20km to St Lucia on the coast. Beside the road and stretching into the distance were huge plantations of tall eucalyptus trees, marching across the landscape in long straight lines. I later found out from a plantation owner that these trees are used for pulp rather than construction, as the timber is too flexible.

It was when I satyed in Beira, Mozambique that the owner of the Biques restaurant and bar first recommended to me that I should make St Lucia my first stop in South Africa while on my way to Cape Town. The Greater St Lucia Wetlands stretch for 80km along the coast from Sodwana Bay in the north to Mapelane Nature Reserve at the southern end of Lake St Lucia. The park encompasses five interconnected ecosystems that consist of marine, the coral reefs and beaches; the shore, the barrier between the sea and the lake; swamps, lake and the grasslands and forests. In 1999 the greater wetlands area was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognising the areas unique ecosystems and wildlife habitats. The area is well known for it's large populations of hippo and crocodile. I was still on a mission to record a soundbite of a hippo for my website, the main reason I came here, after failing to find any of the elusive hippos at the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary in Swaziland the previous week. This would be my last chance to find any hippos on this trip.

It was almost dark when I arrived in St Lucia and the driver dropped me off outside the Bibs Hostel on the main street; it had been a long day travelling and I felt exhausted. I found the staff at Bibs excellent, especially the ladies at the reception desk who showed me to a dorm room, which was just a room with two single beds in it rather than a room packed with bunk beds. The hostel was a huge thatched barn divided into separate small rooms with a kitchen, dining and lounge area at one end. The outdoors bar was still being constructed beside the small swimming pool and the whole set up had a sociable, laid back feel to it. The manager Sean was very informative and every day organised free activities for the guests. One morning I went on one of his free guided walks through the grasslands and alongside the lake. We didn't see much game on the walk, mostly zebra and impala but Sean definitely knew his stuff and pointed out trails and animal prints that we would of otherwise have missed. The walk took us alongside the lake and through the mangrove swamps on the shores. I was beginning to worry as we carefully walked through the swamp, crossing over hippo trails in the mud that were more like gullies. I kept my eyes peeled on the mangroves for any hippos or crocodiles that may be lying in wait for us. We came to an inlet where we disturbed a couple of hippos, a mother and her calf, which luckily for us headed out into the lake and not towards us. The walk took just over three hours to complete.

This was the first large hostel I had stayed at in South Africa and at first I was shocked at how many travellers were staying here after being in the relative back of beyond of Mozambique. It soon dawned on me that the whole backpacking circuit in South Africa had become extremely commercialised and that backpacking was big business. All along the major tourist routes were a network of hostels, and all these hostels were linked together by the Baz Bus, a bus service specifically designed to ferry backpackers from one hostel to another. This was not the kind of travelling I wanted to do. A lot of the people at the hostel had extremely little contact with the South Africa that they were travelling through and spent their whole time either in hostels, on tours or staring at Africa through the window of the Baz Bus. I wanted to have more contact with people outside the backpacking circuit and decided that I would travel through the country on local black taxis (the minibuses), hitchhiking and trains. There was an Australian girl, Rebecca, who arrived at Bibs the day after me who also had the same idea and wanted to travel with the locals. It turned out that our plans were very similar, we were both travelling towards Cape Town and we both wanted to visit the Drakensberg Mountains to do some hiking. We planned to travel together from St Lucia. Rebecca was on her way from Australia to Europe and had flown into Johannesburg at the start of the month for a month long trip across South Africa.

I stayed in St Lucia longer than I originally planned. I went on a few early morning and evening walks down to the estuary in search of the hippos. One morning I found them and tried to record them but found that the microphone on my recorder could not pick up such a low frequency; my mission was over. The weekend that I was in St Lucia was a holiday weekend in South Africa, celebrating Youth Day on 16th June. This small resort town came alive with visitors pouring in from all ariund the country. There was also a Harley Davidson rally in town over the weekend and the streets echoed to the sound of motorbikes burning up and down the main street. In the World Cup England were playing Denmark on Saturday afternoon. There were a lot of other English travellers staying at the hostel and one lone Dane. Nearly everyone at the hostel ended up at the local bar in town, Key West, to watch the match where the beer was flowing freely. Unfortunately there was a rugby match on the same afternoon and at half time we all decamped back to the hostel where Sean (the barmen, not the manager) kept us supplied with cold beer. England won the match 3-0 and the party continued into the evening and through the night, at one stage gate crashing the biker's party at a private venue in town. I eventually got home at just past two in the morning.

On Sunday, everyone including myself woke up with a slightly sore head. This morning Rebecca and I planned to start our journey to Winterton near the Central Berg of the Drakensberg Mountains. Being a Sunday and a holiday weekend I guessed that it could take a while to reach our destination as there weren't many people travelling. Sean, the manager, put on some music first thing in the morning at the now almost completed outdoor bar. I walked out to settle my bill at the reception and found Sean dancing at the bar, the builders dancing and the lady at reception dancing behind her desk. It is the one image of Bibs Hostel that will stay with me for a long time; everyone was happy and full of life.

Rebecca and I left Bibs at about 09.30 and walked to the bridge at the far end of town to wait for a passing minibus to Mtubatuba. We didn't have to wait long until a battered old bus came past and within a quarter of an hour we were back at the much quieter Mtubatuba bus park. My guess was right, there weren't many people travelling on this Sunday in the middle of a holiday weekend. We waited for just over three hours for a minibus to Durban to fill up, by now any ideas of reaching Winterton in one day were doubtful. Instead we aimed to get to Pietermaritzburg by nightfall. Once we left Mtubatuba it only took just over two hours to reach Durban and the driver dropped us off at an intersection were minibuses to Pietermaritzburg departed from. At last today, luck was on our side and we took the last two seats on a Pietermaritzburg bound minibus and after being in Durban for not more than twenty minutes we were travelling again, north along the N3.

It was a fairly short journey and soon the driver dropped us off in the centre of Pietermaritzburg from where we walked the short distance to the Sunduzi Backpackers on Berg Street. Tied to the gate was a notice saying that they had moved and a phone number where we could contact them. There are not many budget places to stay in town, the other being Earthwalkers Backpackers, which had recently closed down. We walked around the corner on to Chapel Street and phoned the number; half an hour later Grant turned up and gave us a lift to the new lodge. It was way out of town to the east, a good fifteen or twenty minute drive. Grant was still renovating the building and officially the place was closed as it was low season, but he put us up for the night and cooked us dinner. I had a horrible feeling that it may be a mistake for Grant to move the hostel right out of town, as I guess most travellers would be just passing through and a central location would suit a lot more people. Nevertheless, if the Baz Bus stops at his door then maybe he won't have any worries.

In the morning Grant drove us back into the town centre from where we took a minibus across town to another bus park where we waited for a bus to Estcourt to fill up. Today was a holiday Monday and the town was quiet with not many people travelling anywhere. After a while we were back on the road heading north. To our west we could see the dramatic Drakensberg range of mountains, the tops capped with snow. On seeing the mountains I felt excited about our upcoming hiking expeditions. After another long wait in Estcourt we finally departed for Winterton. The minibus was full of locals returning home from shopping in Estcourt and as they were dropped at their homes along the way to Winterton they said goodbye to us and waved as we disappeared down the road. Everyone we had met on this trip from St Lucia had been helpful and friendly, just like everyone else I had met on this journey down this continent. Every white South African I had met before I embarked on this trip, and while I was on the road, warned me not to travel in the black taxis. It now dawned on me that all these people offering their advice had probably never travelled on this form of transport in their lives. I didn't get mugged, robbed or murdered like I was lead to believe by these people, but only made new friends.

At Winterton I phoned the Inkosana Lodge, a place recommended to me by another traveller a long time ago, to see if they would pick us up as they were about 25km down the road towards the mountains. They only did pickups for Baz Bus passengers so we hitchhiked instead, but not before crossing the road to The Keg for a pint of beer and a late lunch. It took us two lifts to reach the lodge and we arrived at around 16.00, our last lift dropping us off at the front door. Ed owns the lodge and knows just about everything about hiking in the surrounding mountains, he's also famous for his huge breakfasts and dinners, which is just what you need to sustain yourself for a long days hiking. The legend of Ed's homemade bread has also travelled a long way. The lodge is in a beautiful setting just 9km from Monks Cowl and the escarpment of the mountains, the peaks of Sterkhorn 2,973m, Cathkin Peak 3,148m and Champagne Castle 3,245m towering above the lodge to the west.

Continue reading this journey: Hiking in the Drakensberg