The day I fell in love with a river
Durban - There is a bend on the Umngazi River where the thick brown water touches the lower branches of the trees on its banks and, if you look up, at the green slopes of the hills beyond, the wild beauty is so breathtaking you cannot help falling in love.
Fish eagles and yellow-billed kites swoop low and fast, snatching silver fish from the shallows, pied kingfishers hover and dive and, in the wake of boats, even the spotted grunter become playful and seem to leap for joy.
The Umngazi flows into the sea about 10km west of Port St Johns on the Wild Coast. At its mouth, which cuts across a wide white beach, are the Umngazi River Bungalows, built on the hillside that overlooks river and ocean.
For decades this has been South Africa’s premier honeymoon destination. Remote, private and so wonderfully romantic, one can only smile at the joy and happy memories this place must have given to so many people.
Although I was a first-time visitor to the resort, there were memories here for me too.
My granny recovered here after my grandfather died in 1972 and I imagined her writing letters under the Umdoni trees and watching the big-horned ngunis on the far bank make their way to the beach to bask all day in the sun.
When a friend heard we were making the trip she told me that 25 years ago she and her husband, who died recently from cancer, had spent their honeymoon at the bungalows.
“It was the best week of my life,” she said, “maybe it’s time to go back.”
This is a place with special meaning for people. A visit leaves memories that last a lifetime and, when I was eventually on the river for a sunset cruise, I understood why people left their hearts on the Wild Coast.
The drive to Umngazi from Durban took almost six hours. Old hands say it is best to leave early to make it through the villages of Bizana, Flagstaff and Lusikisiki before they get busy. They are intimidating at 3pm on a Friday at month end. The Eastern Cape roads are pot-holed and slow with cattle, goats, donkeys and dogs constant hazards. After Port St Johns the journey to the river mouth is still a good way along a winding tarred track. This is not a trip to be rushed but should be seen as part of the adventure.
Each cottage at Umngazi feeds off a footpath and all are tucked away behind the coastal vegetation. Some have been designed with outdoor showers which tickled my nine-year-old son who delighted in the cool sea air on wet skin.
The public areas include a TV lounge, inviting book-reading couches, a pub, a gym, a games room, a kiddie play area, a pool and, the best of all, a huge old-fashioned dining room and deck where meals are served.
Food is the focus of life at the Umngazi River Bungalows for many guests and, I think, a big part of why so many come back year after year. The first evening we enjoyed a set menu of soup, mussels, lamb chops, baked apples, cheese and coffee. In the morning the breakfast buffet was overflowing with home-baked bread and pastries, sweet fruits, crispy bacon and good coffee. And then followed lunch: rollmops, cheese, biscuits, salads – burgers if you could find the space. On Saturday evening, not even a flutter of a breeze disturbed the candles flickering on tables set up under the stars. The seafood buffet started with a clam chowder that was enough for me but it was impossible to resist the fresh prawns, prawn curry, fish and the biggest side of roast beef I have ever seen. Afterwards there was sticky toffee pudding and custard or fruit and a coconut tartlet. It wasn’t possible to taste everything but it was lovely to see the enjoyment on guests’ faces.
After all the eating, lying next to the pool is tempting but there are a lot of activities available. A walk to the nearby village with a basket weaving demonstration was ideal for moms with little children or the elderly who didn’t want to undertake anything too strenuous. For the very fit there were hikes along the ridge overlooking the ocean or trips to see the Blow Hole.
If we had had the energy we could have gone dune boarding or canoeing, mountain biking or horse riding. Instead I took my book and sat by the pool, half reading and half people watching until I was summonsed inside for coffee and cake. My child was taken off by a “Gillie” to the river to learn to fish for a small fee. Had he been younger there are a team of women from the nearby village eager to babysit for extra cash.
In the afternoon I visited the spa for a massage and facial. The young beautician, a local lass who did her training in Durban, was amused at my reaction to the sensational view from the therapy room. She gave a very satisfying massage and facial and I returned to my spot next to the pool feeling like I had been on a three-week holiday.
Ours was a short stay but even so there were tears when we had to leave. “Promise me, promise me we can come back,” my little boy begged.
Without a doubt we will make the journey again. Umngazi has to rate as one of our country’s loveliest holiday destinations. - The Mercury