A Livingstone’s Turaco moved in the canopy – a brilliant scarlet beacon on a sea of green. A twig snapped, betraying the tiny red duiker hunting fallen berries in the undergrowth below. In the chair beside me, a gulp of Chardonnay and an exaggerated sigh betrayed Kerryn’s absolute contentment. Now this is honeymooning, we both thought, before moving on to a far more pressing matter: should we stick with the white or move onto a red?
After leaving Bhanga Nek earlier in the day, we tacked down the coast along a labyrinth of rough sand tracks, passing through lush pockets of coastal forest and sprawling grasslands. After accidently driving into a few villagers’ back gardens, we eventually made it to our next destination: the amazing Rocktail Beach Camp, run by Wilderness Safaris. It wouldn’t be a honeymoon without a bit of luxury, and Rocktail lays it on in spades. But despite all the pampering, the incredible service, the ridiculously great food and the meticulous attention to detail, they still manage to keep it all very understated. That’s just the way it should be, in our humble opinion.
Rocktail’s stilted safari tents are positioned along the spine of a hill, overlooking some of the most pristine coastal forest you’re likely to find anywhere in the world. Walking onto the deck of our tent for the first time, our verdict was unanimous: Holy sh*t! The manager showing us to our room just smiled – she obviously hears that sort of thing a lot.
Although there’s plenty of stuff to keep you busy at Rocktail, it’s the beaches that take centre stage. You’d struggle to find a more beautiful, wild and undeveloped stretch of coastline in South Africa, or anywhere else for that matter. After settling into our safari tent and ogling the view for a bit, we didn’t waste any more time in getting our beach on.
At sunrise the next morning, we met up with Mbongeni, one of Rocktail’s resident bird guides, and headed off to beautiful Lake Sibaya on the back of the camp’s Landy. We were hoping to find one of the Rosy-throated Longclaws that hang out in the grasslands surrounding the lake, but unfortunately our bad luck with the birds continued (come to think of it, it’s probably just our below average birding skills). It was a particularly pretty morning though, and we still managed to tick off plenty of waterbirds along the lake’s edge. Lake Sibaya is one of South Africa’s few true lakes, and its clear, spring-fed waters sustain a wealth of life. We were starting to see a common theme developing in this part of Maputaland – its untouched forests, grasslands, lakes, estuaries and reefs all support a staggering abundance and diversity of life. It just shows what can happen when resources are managed responsibly and commercial development is kept to an absolute minimum. Long may it continue.
At low tide later that day, we drove 20 minutes up the coast to Lala Nek, where a rocky point runs parallel to the beach, creating the perfect little bay for snorkeling. Despite heavy seas outside the reef, it felt like we were kicking about in a milk pond, and once again we were absolutely blown away by the diversity of life we encountered. The bay looked like it would be ideal for flyfishing with a bit more water in it, and I vowed to return over high tide before we left.
We thought Mother Nature was showing off at Lala Nek, but she saved her best for the next day’s boat ride. After hopping onto the camp’s dive boat and weaving through the breakers, we were soon flying down the Zululand coast. Michelle and Darryl, who run the dive operation at Rocktail, had seen a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins earlier that morning, and we were hoping to get lucky and intercept them again. Fifteen minutes later, without any warning, they popped up right beside the boat. There was much excitement on deck. Masks were donned upside down. A snorkel went sailing overboard, never to be seen again. We feared we may have missed our chance, but the dolphins were in a sociable mood, and when we did eventually flop into the sea with them, they hung around long enough for us both to get a good look. Amazing! We repeated the same routine four or five times, before the dolphins got bored with the Vaalies and disappeared up the coast.
On our way back to the beach, we stopped off for a snorkel at Island Rock, a large slab of reef that breaks the surface just behind the backline. As we slowly drifted along in the current, Michelle pointed out live corals, Mantis Shrimps, Nudibranches and a host of tropical reef fish that looked like they had been dreamed up by Lewis Carroll. We felt a bit jealous of the scuba divers staying at the camp, as the reefs a bit further out apparently offer some of the finest diving on the planet. We even bumped into world-famous underwater photographer, Brian Skerry, who was there covering a story on tiger sharks for National Geographic. We only realised afterwards that we were already following him on Instagram. If you don’t follow him, go check him out – he’s a bit of a genius.
On our last afternoon, we met up with Gibson, another of Rocktail’s excellent guides, who took us for a walk on some of the footpaths snaking through the coastal forest. Gibson was an encyclopedia on the local flora, and we soon wished we had brought along a notebook to jot down all the fascinating facts and anecdotes that he was dispensing with at will. Roots that cure liver problems. Leaves affectionately referred to as 3-ply. Tooth brush twigs. Gibson pointed them all out, giving us a live demonstration wherever possible. There was a new lesson around each corner, and our 4km stroll seemed to pass by in a flash.
Before checkout on our last morning, we managed to squeeze in one more visit to Lala Nek. Sunrise coincided with a high tide, and I was keen to get a bit more flyfishing in before pushing on down the coast. We emerged from the forest onto a completely deserted beach. After spending a fair bit of time on various well-known beaches around the world, we knew what a privilege it was to be standing where we were, without another human in sight. Conditions were perfect for flyfishing, and within an hour I had released several small kingfish back into the bay. Although there weren’t many big fish around, it was the perfect way to end our stay at magical Rocktail. We had one of the most beautiful beaches we had ever seen all to ourselves, and it doesn’t get much better than that.