St Lucia is tops for showing off

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iol travel feb 7 NM St Lucia Sunset 5

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Another spectacular sunset on the Western Shores of iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Pictures: EuroZulu Tours, Nibela Lake Lodge, & Advantage Tours

Durban - Living in Durban and having friends in Cape Town means that arguments about which province is the fairer of the two are a common occurrence. Typical differences of opinion range from something as arbitrary as to which rugby team is better to something as important as which province has the better tourist activities on offer.

A recent trip to Kwazulu-Natal by some of my louder Capetonian friends provided the perfect opportunity to set the record straight. Competitive travelling had just become an official sport, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

Deciding on which part of KZN to explore was always going to be a tough choice, but the combination of beaches, game parks and a reputation for being one of the last truly wild places in South Africa soon had our little car heading for the Zululand coast. Our destination was Nibela Lake Lodge, a small resort tucked away on the northern shores of Lake St Lucia.

It is a fairly long drive (290km from King Shaka Airport), but the tranquillity of staying at a place off the tourist track makes the trip well worth it. Within minutes of arriving guests will feel as though they’ve landed in a completely different world: chalets are connected by a treetop walkway with sunlight peeking through the greenery and monkeys chattering mischievously in the background.

Evenings can be spent on the chalet balcony admiring the moonlit views out over the lake, while by day there’s more than enough activity to keep everyone entertained. The young at heart will be kept busy with the swimming pool, trampoline and putt-putt course, while the game and bird trails (which can be done on foot, or on quads as an optional extra) are also worth experiencing. According to general manager Sarel van der Westhuizen, the best time to visit is between May and July when the temperatures aren’t as hot. Whatever time of year you plan to visit make sure you book early – because of the amazing value for money offered, all the chalets are normally sold around three months in advance.

A few days of calm serenity in the natural surroundings had us all feeling fresh and relaxed, and it was clear the Durbanites had impressed the Capetonian travellers and got the holiday contest off to a good start.

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Treetop walkways lead to the chalets at Nibela Lake Lodge.

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Sadly, I hadn’t realised quite how large Lake St Lucia was, so booking accommodation at one end of the lake and our activities at the other end (in the town of St Lucia) resulted in a few more hours in the car than planned. Arriving in the town of St Lucia our first adventure was the hippo and croc cruise with Advantage Tours, a wonderfully absorbing two-hour meander up the estuary.

The rainy weather (which made our guests from the Cape feel right at home) did nothing to spoil the experience: our guide Sean was fantastic at spotting all manner of birds, reptiles and mammals, and he shared an encyclopaedic knowledge about anything we came across.

A slight mix-up regarding the meeting time for the next activity meant we weren’t the most popular guests on board the whale-watching boat, but once we were out at sea that was all soon forgotten. Captain Berno and his trusty sidekick TK made a great whale-watching team, and they needed to be on top form to predict where the next whale would surface.

At one stage we had five all popping up for air at different spots – to me it all felt like a giant game of random roulette out at sea. Seeing and hearing these mighty beasts at close quarters in their own environment is an unforgettable experience and, as Advantage Tours have been legal permit holders for whale watching tours since 1998, they are the ones to contact.

Having seen our fair share of water-based animals we decided it was time to pay some attention to the land animals. We headed for iSimangiliso Wetland Park, third-largest park in South Africa (boasting over 250km of coastline) and South Africa’s first World Heritage Site.

We were visiting Cape Vidal, a beautiful corner of the wetland park right next to the town of St Lucia which offers a genuine bush and beach experience. Inland are plenty of game species waiting to be discovered (including the elusive leopard), while the beach is great for sun-tanning, snorkelling and picnicking. The lookout point, Mission Rocks, offers fantastic views out over the sea and estuary.

iol travel feb 7 NM St Lucia hippo 3

Get up close and personal with hippos and crocodiles in St Lucia.

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By this stage our guests were contemplating packing their bags and relocating to KZN, so we decided to deliver the killer blow and finish the trip on a special note. The Western Shores of iSimangiliso Wetland Park are only accessible through a concession, making it an easy choice to treat ourselves to a night game drive with Euro Zulu.

Night game drives are unique in that there is an increased chance of seeing animals such as aardvark, porcupine, leopard and owls. Despite hearing of leopard activity while on our drive they managed to avoid us, although we were lucky to see quite a few hippo out grazing on land.

All in all, the St Lucia region managed to beat all our expectations and proved to be a fantastic place to catch up with old friends. While driving home a spur-of-the-moment decision to make these holidays an annual challenge led to many exciting future trips being planned. The bar has been set: your move, Cape Town. - The Mercury

l Sam Bradley was a guest of Nibela Lake Lodge, Advantage Tours and Euro Zulu.

 

If You Go...

Nibela Lake Lodge: www.nibelalodge.co.za; 011 267 8300. Rates are R560 a person, including breakfast and a simple but hearty four-course dinner.

Advantage Tours: www.advantagetours.co.za; 035 590 1259. Hippo and croc boat tours are R170 a person (2 hours) and whale watching tours are R900 a person (two to three hours).

Euro Zulu Guided Tours & Safaris: www.eurozulu.com; 035 590 1635. Night safari drives are R350 a person (three hours)

Cape Vidal: www.kznwildlife.com; 033 845 1000. Entry to the reserve is R40 a vehicle and R35 a person, as well as a R5-a-person concession levy.

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