Zululand & The Elephant Coast

We came to St. Lucia to see the Elephant Coast and hook up with our friend Cameron, who attends Columbia University in New York. After the conference, he headed to Durban, but found it menacing. This confirmed what I heard from a man in a Cape Town bar who was from Durban—it's no Cape Town. We planned to be a threesome for the Elephant Coast, and we talked about remaining together in the Drakensberg Mountains too.

Our route to the Elephant Coast

Our route to the Elephant Coast and around Zululand.

We found the place where Cameron was staying: BiB's International Backpackers, a hostel at the end of the main road in St. Lucia. The accommodations were, in a word, crude, and I'm not embarrassed to admit that they challenged my sensibilities. I have no problem with primitive conditions—I love camping under the stars—but if we're gonna have walls and a roof, then why not live up to the expectations that arise from them. Oh, and the water was not potable.

This place was clearly on the hostel side of things. Although Jackie and I were able to get a private room, the place still has that hostel feel, with game rooms, a pool, and towel rental. The only redeemable aspect of our room was the air conditioning. (Up to now, South Africa has been fairly dry and not too hot. However, the farther east one ventures, the more humid the climate is—it's similar to the U.S. in this regard.)

St. Lucia is on the Indian Ocean coast, about 100 miles south of the Mozambique border. We essentially spent the last two days on the road in order to reach this place. Given that, we decided Kruger National Park was out of reach. It's too far north and the shortest route requires a trip through Swaziland. Our next step will take us back in the direction of Cape Town, but for now, we will spend a couple of days in Zululand.

Map of St. Lucia, South Africa

Map of St. Lucia, South Africa.

Once Jackie and I sorted out the accommodations and rented our towels, we set out to see the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, an untamed, 200-kilometer long park that begins at the Mozambique border and stretches south to St. Lucia. This unique park is designated a Unesco World Heritage Site and contains five distinct ecosystems, from off-shore reefs to coastal forests. Africa's largest estuary forms the wetlands, where crocodiles and hippos are abundant.

We drove the road to Cape Vidal, and took some of the loop roads along the way. It was about 4 o'clock when we entered the park, and the gates closed at sundown, so we did not have a lot of time—it's the equinox, so the Sun sets around 6 o'clock.

The road spans the land between the coast and the estuary, but standing between us and the beach is a ridge of bush-covered sand dunes.

We made it out to Cape Vidal, where we explored the beach for a few minutes. We were beginning to lose our light, so we did not stay long.

On our way back, we took the long Grassland Loop, which encircled the Mfabeni Swamp. The beginning of the loop road is somewhat intimidating, with warnings of crocodiles, periodic flooding, and a stern notification demanding that we not turn around for 18 kilometers. In other words, once you start, there's no going back. This is because the beginning of the road is merely two, narrow cement strips for each side of the car, with marsh or thicket surrounding the parallel tracks. To the west are the Ezibomvini, or red dunes, where we watched the sunset before racing out of the park. No sign of any hippos or Nile crocodiles.

We made it out of the park by closing, barely, and headed back to the hostel to see if we could track down Cameron. I found him in the reception area and we walked down the street and tried a restaurant called Braza, which boasted a fusion of Portuguese and Mozambican cuisine. We got two Ponta Platters, which consisted of grilled calamari, piri-piri chicken, half ribs, and grilled prawns, along with potatoes and some greenery. Jackie and I shared one along with a couple of beers.

After dinner, I thought I might check in with Mel so I walked all over town searching for a pay phone. There must be one, but I cannot find it anywhere. Finally, I asked some people in a restaurant and they directed me back to the other side of town, where the one phone in town was tucked out of view.

As I was on the phone, I saw a large group of kids walking down the sidewalk toward town. Once I got back to the hostel, I was told the entire hostel went out to a bar, and that made sense. Hostel living means partying. Some people take that to heart, others are more moderate. I don't think for a second that I've come halfway around the world to get soused; I'll have a few drinks with dinner, but I have no desire to party—I can do that at home if I like.

Today Cameron, Jackie, and I will go see the iMfolozi Game Reserve, which is a short drive from St. Lucia. But, first, we need to muster the strength to use our filthy shower. At first, Jackie was adamantly against it, but the stifling humidity here demands it. Say 'hi' to the lizard, I said.

Dust-covered car

The car developed a thin layer of fine dust that stubbornly stuck to some surfaces.

The car was coated with dust, with a thick, powdery layer caked on all the flat surfaces. We stopped off at the Spar, a South African grocery, to pick up some food for the day. It's probably about an hour to the park, and like other wildlife parks, you're prohibited from leaving your car, so we wanted plenty of food on hand.

iMfolozi Game Reserve has a storied history. It was once a royal hunting ground for the Zulu Kingdom and is where Shaka and his entourage safaried. Established in 1895, it is one of the oldest parks in South Africa and its purpose was to preserve the white rhinoceros, which was then an endangered species. The park boasts a wide variety of game, including lions, elephants, black and white rhinos, leopards, giraffes, buffalos and wild dogs, along with an assortment of antelope and boks.

We stopped in the entrance station, where we talked to the rangers about the park. There is an extensive system of roads over a large area, but the roads are all gravel. The park closes at 6 o'clock—after that you are fenced in with the roaming lions and leopards.

Our first sight, which will be repeated throughout the day, was a mixed herd of impala, zebra, buffalo, and warthog. They seem to like one another's company.

We had the most remarkable experience when we stumbled upon an elephant in the road. As we descended toward the bridge over the Black iMfolozi River, an elephant was in the road eating from the trees. There were steep banks on either side of the road and we quickly pulled over and stopped.

As we watched, the elephant began walking up the road in our direction. Because of the hills on either side, it had no choice but to pass us or go back toward the bridge. As it approached, its huge ears were flapping—something elephants do for intimidation—and it began shaking its head and trunk from side to side. I sensed he wanted to walk by us, but was putting on a show to put us in our place. Of course, this was completely unnecessary, we knew our place with absolute certainty.

I turned the car into the bank slightly, yielding to the giant beast, and he interpreted my intentions positively. He walked by our car, about 10 feet away. Each of us felt great reverence, but I also had a deep sense of uneasiness.

We passed the Mpila Camp, where they have the Big Five sign, and continued on until we passed a small, parched waterhole.

I found the zebra to be a surprisingly social creature. We found many couples who were hugging and playing with one another.

Finally, we spotted some giraffes. Still elusive, but with a telephoto lens we can see some necks.

It's almost 4 o'clock, and we are starting to head toward the exit. I think we are all ready to get out of the car. The trouble with these parks is that you are confined to your car, and after some time you just want to get out and walk around.

As we headed toward the exit, we took stock. Giraffes. . . check. Elephants, zebra, and the customary warthog, impala, kudu, and buffalo. . . check. But, we'd not yet spotted a rhinoceros, and I'd be lying if I told you we weren't disappointed. But, as luck would have it, we came upon a group about an hour or two before we left. They are awkward creatures, with huge, barrel-shaped bodies perched atop stubby legs and a face that is... well, peculiar, to say the least.

We stopped off at the Bekapanzi Pan, a small waterhole. There we encountered an aggressive bachelor elephant. He was drinking when he looked over toward us. We were some distance away, but he stopped guzzling and began to walk over toward us. He was also rather aroused, if you get my drift. It was practically dragging on the ground, and we were all dumbstruck.

As the sun grew closer to the horizon, the light began to change. Here are some zebras eating a final meal before nightfall. And, another rhino grazing before bed.

We did a little grazing ourselves.

With about 20 minutes before the gates closed, we stopped to take some photos of the hazy, blood-red sunset over the rolling bushveld.

We drove back to St. Lucia, which is more difficult at night with all the people walking on the roads. At Mtubatuba, we got some gas, then drove the 26 kilometers to St. Lucia. Apparently, hippos roam the streets in town, and I hoped we didn't encounter one, in the car or on foot.

We made it back to BiB's—depressing BiB's—and walked down the street to find some food and a cold beer. It's still bloody hot and humid, and I still appreciate the air conditioning of our bleak hovel.

We all decided last night to remain a threesome, at least for awhile, in the Drakensberg Mountains. That was our next stop, and Cameron was interested in going there too. He went off to kayak with the crocs this morning, while we slept in and got our stuff together.

We packed the car before taking a morning walk. Jackie was eating some food in the car with all the doors open while I was putting some bags in the trunk. I looked up to see the vervet monkeys assemble in the tree above the car. They could see Jackie bringing hand to mouth and began to descend out of the tree. I told Jackie to quickly shut the car doors and I did the same on the opposite side of the car. Within seconds, we had monkeys on the car playing with the windshield wipers. That was a close call.

Jackie and I walked the short trail at the south end of town, which winds through thick forest and eventually ends at the estuary. From this spot, we are not too far from the point where the tide meets the stream. All the signs warning us of hippos and crocodiles has brought about a touch of concern. What lurks in that brush by the river's edge? Then, we came upon a small monument to a young woman who was killed by a crocodile in the same grassy field where we stood.

We rendezvoused with Cameron and we headed to the Drakensberg Mountains, which have some of the highest peaks in Africa. We're all looking forward to escaping the semitropical environs of the Elephant Coast.