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MY TAKE: Connecting with nature at the Elephant Coast

Nkosikhona Duma found a deep connection with nature and purposeful conversations far away from the noise and hustle of the city space when he travelled to the Elephant Coast.

A herd of elephants in the Hluhluwe Game Reserve. Picture: Supplied

In the northern part of the KwaZulu-Natal province, stretching from the world heritage site of Lake St. Lucia all the way up to Kosi Bay, virtually on the border of Mozambique lies the Elephant Coast, named so as it’s home to the largest herd of elephants to have occupied the region for centuries.

I was recently invited, among others, by a government agency to form part of a team to explore and critique the area in my capacity as a communicator of news.

I am a hard news journalist. Given this fact and in consideration of the hustle and bustle of our industry, the idea of being restricted to one region and mostly exposed to tourist attractions rather than sites of socially relevant news for a period of four days was at first daunting.

In hindsight, I am glad I took up the opportunity. Even though I am a native of the province, I had never been exposed to the Elephant Coast. The escape to the region allowed me time to refresh and appreciate the beauty that we can so easily forget after some time of covering the gloomy events in society.

The most important thing that I derived from this experience was: relaxation and an opportunity to reflect.

The small towns of St. Lucia, Pongola, Jozini, Hluhluwe and Kosi Bay which make up the Elephant Coast are not dominated by high-rise buildings, intense traffic, high-end shopping malls, highly scheduled elite humans in suits and ties who move around in their top of the range vehicles.

Instead, the area is a natural paradise boasting lush greenery, sand, forests, the big five, and a range of bird species.
The people of the area lead simple lives. Many of those who are economically active are employed either directly or indirectly by the tourism industry.

The best way to learn about the area is through deliberate engagement with the local people - and not as a service provider but on a human level. They are natural storytellers. They are fully and truly aware of the history of their forefathers and their respect for nature.

Through conversations, I hear amazing information from locals regarding the contribution of giraffe, lions, elephants, geese and hyenas to the ecosystem. This means that the locals know which grass to burn and why, how long the trees should be allowed to grow and how to react when approached by these gifts of nature that we have termed wild – even though the irony of the way we treat them suggests otherwise about us as the human family.

Despite being subjected to limited economic opportunities, the local people are impressive and creative. Men and women alike have perfected the art of delicately crafting high-quality souvenirs using their hands. And their sales skills are enviable.

The young people are eloquent tour guides, entertainers and drivers of the local hospitality industry.

The first stop of our tour was Lake St. Lucia in the heart of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, about three hours from Durban.

Here we went on a one-hour boat ride to get a closer glimpse of nature. Indeed, if the iSimangaliso Wetland Park is a miracle (which ‘iSimangaliso’ translates to from Zulu), then Lake St. Lucia is the core that holds that miracle together.

The park is a naturally rich piece of real estate that is home to various land and water species including antelopes, crocodiles and rhinoceros.

Our tour guide Thobile Mabika explained that more than 50% of all water birds in KwaZulu-Natal feed, roost and nest in the Lake St. Lucia estuary. More than 2,180 species of flowering plants and 155 fish species have been documented in the estuarine system.

During our boat trip, we spotted hippos and crocodiles, healthy and buff, carelessly going about their daily routine navigating through the fresh waters in search of their meals.

That night, we were hosted at the Pongola Country Lodge where we were offered local cuisine including ujeqe (steamed bread) and tshisanyama (local barbecue).

The following morning, we drove to Jozini, one-hour away from Pongola where we were massaged, pampered and spoilt like royalty at the Jozini Tiger Lodge.

My favourite activity here was the sunset cruise. A romantic affair this was – the boat had just enough of the necessary nibbles and drinks, the music in the background was at the perfect volume, allowing good conversations to flow. The weather was on our side and we toasted to the perfect sunset as the day settled into the night.

We said our goodbyes to Pongola and drove for 3 hours to Hluhluwe – home of the oldest game reserve in Africa.

After settling in at the Anew Hotel, we set off in 4x4s to the game reserve which is 30 minutes away.

The game reserve is a prime tourist attraction and a representation of Africa’s glory. I had never been exposed to the animal kingdom in such a beautiful and free site.

About 10 minutes inside the game reserve, we were greeted by a herd of buffalos peacefully chewing on the abundant savannah grass. Not so far from there, we spotted warthogs and impalas peacefully co-existing.

As we navigated deeper inside the picturesque reserve, we were stunned by the sight of majestic elephants sandbathing and rhinoceros intensely dedicated to the process of making junior versions of themselves.

Back at the hotel in the evening, we were given a taste of the local Zulu culture and entertained by performers who banged the drum made of animal skin relentlessly, lifting up their feet without reservation, their voices producing sweet melodies in vernacular and ululating graciously, creating an energetic cacophony that can only make one proud to be African.

The entire experience for me was a time of tranquil engagement, of deep connection with nature and purposeful conversations far away from the noise and hustle of the city space. The cherry on top was the warm people of the area who, despite everything, are unreserved in demonstrating their identities.

I wish this experience on anyone fatigued by the daily realities of our ‘modern’ life.

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