Four friends in two cars (affectionately called ‘Phat Amy’ and ‘Storm’) on a road trip to the breathtaking, untouched coastal wilderness that is the Isimangaliso Wetland Park (August 2015). Found on the north east coast of South Africa this World Heritage Site is an unspoiled natural wonderland. The entire park is 332 000 hectares but we only explored between the diving hotspot Sodwana Bay and secluded Lake Sibaya.
It’s about an 8 hr drive from Johannesburg and the main roads are tarred and well maintained the whole way to Sodwana Bay, the only thing to watch out for is lots of big, slow trucks using the route. We prefer the roads less traveled and were only leaving Joburg late afternoon so we stayed the first night at a quaint guest farm called Emahlathini Guest Farm right on the Swaziland border. The hosts were very accommodating and even though we reached there at around 11pm we were greeted with smiles and enthusiastically shown around. No need to set an alarm clock as the resident rooster wakes up at the crack of dawn and we welcomed a clear, cold and frosty morning with a hot cup of coffee. Our friendly hosts suggested a short cut towards Pongola which we happily accepted.
The short cut was an excellent dirt road through plantation forests and we were in Pongola and then Jozini in no time. Lake Jozini (Pongolapoort Dam) is always a worthwhile stop to take in the spectacle of this enormous dam. It seems to go on and on between high gorges and for fishermen is the place for tigerfish.
The suggested (tar) road to Sodwana Bay is to carry on with the N2 (national highway) to Hluhluwe and then go up the R22. We had a look at the map and saw there is a road (P444) which runs in almost a straight line to Mbazwana, the town directly before Sodwana. The maps did say it was a dirt road but we were in 4x4s so in the words of Jeremy Clarkson; ‘How hard can it be’ came to mind. Well, the dirt road was so corrugated and rutted that no matter what speed we did it felt like every screw and bolt in our cars and the discs in our spines would work loose. Along the route one vehicle decided to drive through a ‘small’ puddle of mud at speed and transformed the front half of his car from green to brown. After about an hour and a half, the same time that the (longer) tar route would have taken we reached Mbazwana with much joy and celebration! Then it is a quick 15 min drive to the Sodwana Bay gate.
The Sodwana Bay Coast is a Marine Protected Area so is the perfect place for scuba diving. I am still new to diving and did 3 dives in total, the second dive was the best I had ever done. It was to a reef called ‘Pinnacles’ and features lots of underwater caves. One of the caves had 4 Whitetip Reef Sharks resting in it. It was an incredible experience to see these predators up close and they were much bigger than I thought so it was all the more intense! On that dive we also spotted a turtle in another cave and it swam out past us all when we got closer. Overall the dives were excellent although I did start feeling a bit cold after around 40 minutes. The water temperature was around 21 – 22 degrees Celsius.
Other than diving we wanted to explore the surrounding area and headed to Lake Sibaya – the largest freshwater lake in South Africa. The road we took was basically an offroad trail of loose sand and lush bush on either side. Luckily we did not meet anyone coming the other direction as finding a spot to go around would have been difficult! There is even a small river crossing which might be scarier in summer months. Overall it is a scenic and quiet track to take and before long you are at the gate to Lake Sibaya.
The guard at the gate told us, in broken english, that the area was not safe and seemed worried when we told him we just want to drive around. He mentioned that it would be best to go to Mabibi and showed us what seemed like a list of items (from Euros to an iPhone 6) which must have been stolen from someone or a group. We decided to just keep our eyes open and be aware of anything strange as we were in 2 cars and 4 people. With that in our mind we continued up the soft sand road to the banks of the lake for some lunch. Standing there next to the water makes you feel like the only people on the planet, it is that desolate. It’s just you, the water and lots of birds. We didnt see any Hippos or Crocs unfortunately but we did notice a Fish Eagle perched in a tree.
Having ticked off Lake Sibaya from our 4×4 bucket list we then took the same small, sandy trail back to Sodwana. Sodwana Bay is another special place and relatively unspoiled. We stayed inside the National Park at a lodge called Mseni. It is a great place to stay as the chalets are built into the dune forest and again everything feels very wild around you. You will get daily visits from monkeys and mongooses which can be quite cheeky so watch that all your doors and windows are closed! The main Sodwana beach area is a long stretch of golden sand and you can take your 4×4 onto the beach (with a free beach permit) and park it there for the day, no lugging all your beach gear up and down.
Before we knew it the trip was over and we had to make our way back to Johannesburg, along the full tar road. I will be back, hopefully for a bit longer as there is so much to do in this part of the country. Take a break to Isimangaliso, you won’t regret it and you’ll leave with an abundance of great memories.