Durban - The mundane metronome of the nine to five work week had begun to get to us. We wanted out and only a remote beach would do.
The lot fell on Maphelane, the southernmost campsite in iSimangaliso Wetland Park and South Africa’s first World Heritage Site, and we were incredibly glad it did.
Maphelane means “Big Hill”. The name was inspired by its most noticeable feature: the largest dune in iSimangaliso (183m) which supports a rich variety of life in its lush forest. The size and angle of the dune gives the impression that the forest dove into the beach epochs ago and is now stuck there.
This prominent feature is contrasted by the vast open beach and yawning iMfolozi Estuary to the north. The tranquil beauty of the estuary is deceptive and you should only be lured into the waters if you enjoy swimming with hippos and crocodiles (which I do not recommend). The beach is also deceptively spectacular as there are no shark nets in the bay (it is a reserve after all). This restricts your movements to splashing in the shallow waters at low tide.
We arrived on Friday via the single sand track that leads to Maphelane from KwaMbonambi.
The shift from barren plantations, flanked by a dune mining operation harvesting ilmenite for titanium production, into paradise was heavenly.
The thick, green multi-storeyed coastal and dune forest (with its full complement of vines, creepers, figs, red duiker, wild olives, mangroves, bushbuck and mahoganies) was breath-taking. After driving through this Eden for a few kilometres my wife said: “I realise I’ve been smiling this whole time.”
Once we had checked in, we headed for our campsite. Maphelane has 40 camp sites and five wooden cabins. The camp sites are sheltered by large mahoganies and coastal silky oaks and are patrolled hourly by opportunistic vervet monkeys, who are masters at raiding food supplies. We merrily unpacked and set up our home for the rest of the weekend, under the watchful gaze of the mischievous monkeys.
According to Maphelane’s official brochure, ablution and shower facilities are “modern”, but we suspect the brochure might have been printed in the 1930s.
The warm water proved an erratic dribble and the smell of sewage and heavy rust on anything vaguely metallic did not help the cause. That said, this was the only negative experience of our entire stay.
As evening approached we headed down to the beach to have a look at what Maphelane had to offer.
Emerging from the vegetation, only 50m from our camp site, we found ourselves staring at the immense expanse of ocean in front of us and long stretches of beach to the left and right. We had arrived.
Night descended, bringing with it its calls: insects chirping slowly and intermittently in the distance and frogs rhythmically squeaking and croaking, no doubt commenting on the day’s events. These sounds, along with the crackle of the fire and laughter between the 10 of us, made the week’s stresses and worries melt into oblivion. This was the medicine we needed.
On Saturday morning we decided on a walk. Maphelane has two trails: one of which climbs up the towering dune and offers stunning views of the beach and estuary; and another that hugs the estuary and meanders through a Tarzan-like setting under towering fig canopies and criss-crossing vines. We chose the latter (the Umphafa Trail) as we were planning to spend the majority of our carefree hours on the beach.
The forest transformed us into children again. We climbed trees, hung on vines and marvelled at all things bright and beautiful. Hours skipped by in the rich cool air and eventually our stomachs reminded us it was time to return to camp.
After lunch we scampered off to the beach. Some of us chose to take leisurely walks to the mouth of the iMfolozi Estuary to the north, others jogged to a shipwreck about 7km to the south, and the rest went fishing at the estuary.
Despite Maphelane’s reputation as a Mecca for fishermen, our attempts proved fruitless. This was anything but disheartening as the stunning views of the beach and estuary more than made up for their lack of fish.
We lay there watching grunting hippos making their way up and down the estuary; while two fish eagles soared and called above us as the sun set over the mighty iMfolozi.
After our nightly braai and laugh session, we returned to the beach to look at the stars. The sky was on full HD display and we 10 stargazers stood there enchanted, trying to spot shooting stars against the backdrop of the Milky Way.
We noticed that as we ran excitedly to the water’s edge kicking the sand up behind us, small glowing “stars” would fling into the air and then slowly fade once they had landed. We stood there stunned. We started to run wildly and shuffle about with expectant amazement, flicking the sand and watching the bursts of luminescent light. On closer inspection we found these were, in fact, tiny bioluminescent jellyfish (Ctenophores, or comb jellies, to be more precise). Hundreds of these Ctenophores seemed to have washed onto the shore with the high tide and were stranded in the damp sands when the waters receded. So we spent the evening watching stars in the sky and on the sand.
The next morning we spent our time on the beach. The sand glistened again, this time, not because of the bioluminescent jellyfish, but the sun. A sandbar formed a convenient skim cricket pitch about 15m into the sea.
Fittingly, that was how we spent our last morning: playing cricket on the sand bar and lying on the beach, as oblivious humpback whales cruised northwards just beyond the breakers.
Maphelane was the magic potion we needed after long weeks of work. Rejuvenated and relaxed, with wonderful memories of forests, stars, Ctenophores and sea, we headed home.
Essentials: Note, the campsites do not have electricity and the water is not fit for human consumption, so take your own drinking water.
Cost: R70 per person. - The Mercury