Technically, this is the last section of our Baz Bus route: we complete Leg Three at last, from Swaziland to Durban in the direction that I travelled. However, if you have the same ticket that I had, after Durban you would proceed back to Cape Town, going backwards on Leg Two and Leg One.
In this section of the Baz Bus tour, we explore an area of Kwazulu Natal known as Zululand. This is my hometown backyard and I was thrilled to get back and frolic in the sugar cane and on the old ocean shores again.
BAZ STOP: BUSHLANDS
Bushlands is the launch point for two prime tourism spots. One is easy to get to, the other requires some creative thinking.
First the easy one – and just because it’s easy, doesn’t mean it’s not completely spectacular: from your hostel in Bushlands, organize a full-day, 12-hour tour of the Umfolozi / Hluhluwe game reserve, (pronounced m-fo-LO-zi / shloo-SHLOO-wee), which includes many interesting activities. Alternatively, you can book a night in the reserve, at either its hotel or one of its bushcamps.
- Side Note: If you want to spend the night in the reserve, be sure to book in advance. Both hotel and bushcamps are in high demand, especially during school holidays and on weekends. Day-trippers have to leave the park by sunset; immediately outside the park there is only limited accommodation.
Umfolozi / Hluhluwe is a fantastic reserve that has lots to offer. OK – maybe I am a little biased, having spent every other Sunday here with the family while growing up.
But it does have the Big Five, the Little Five (small creatures that share names with the big ones: the elephant shrew, the leopard tortoise, the rhinocerous beetle, the buffalo weaver and the ant lion), plus about five packs of wild dogs (a.k.a. Cape Hunting Dogs), Africa’s rarest major predator.
Because the park’s smaller than Kruger, there is a better chance of seeing more wildlife. But don’t just focus on the mammals: within the first hours of my tour, I had counted over 100 species of bird, so be sure to bring your binoculars.
I was lucky enough to stay with park researchers for a few days, and go out with them at 4 a.m. each morning looking for the Wild Dogs. These endangered animals have long held my interest and it made my trip when we finally caught up with a pack of nine adults and seven pups on my last morning in the park.
Second, the one requiring creative planning: Sodwana Bay Nature Reserve. About 1 1/2 hours’ drive from the town of Hluhluwe, this small fishing and diving community is home to one of Africa’s southern-most coral reefs, frequented by loggerhead and leatherback turtles, whale sharks, rays and numerous colorful fish. Conditions are great all year round, but April through September is when diving is best. Vsibility can reach upto 30m (100ft) – so be sure to have your underwater camera ready!
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- Where to Stay in Bushlands: Isinkwe Backpackers Lodge. Isinkwe (pronounced ee-SEEN-kway, and means “bushbaby” in Zulu) is a great hostel with a bushcamp feel.
Whether it’s relaxing around the pool or bar, or falling asleep under the trees in the hanging chairs, this is a great spot.
The only bummer in my opinion is that there’s a charge for everything. As an example, when some of us needed to go into town to get some food and airtime, the hostel would only take us if we purchased the full “town tour”, including the craft market and weavers. So if you don’t have a car and get stuck, the costs could start piling up.
It’s not like you’re spoiled for choice, however: the only other accommodation consists of a few hotels and lodges closer to the park, and in Hluhluwe town.
- Where to Stay in Sodwana: Coral Divers. They furnish accommodation, organize dives and pick-up from Hluhluwe. Can’t beat that package!
BAZ STOP: ST. LUCIA
For hippos and crocs, the St. Lucia Estuary (a World Heritage Site on SA’s Elephant Coast) is the place to go, full stop. With five different ecosystems, it is a nature lover’s dream – and when they warn you not to walk alone at night, it’s not because of street gangs, but rather because of the local hippos that leave the water to graze.
If you decide to have one too many and take on a dare to swim across the estuary, just remember you will be swimming not only with hippos and crocodiles, but sharks as well. It’s a regular African-style “Frogger”!
- IMPORTANT NOTE: while many think lions are the most dangerous animals in Africa, the truth is that most animal-related deaths are at the jaws of hippos. They’re aggressive and surprisingly fast – don’t get on their bad side!
If you can get access to a car in St. Lucia, why not collect some new friends and take a trip out to Cape Vidal, and enjoy the sunshine on a beautiful beach? Try to avoid a windy day, though – or you will get sandblasted to no end!
- Where to stay in St. Lucia: Bib’s International Backpackers. This top hostel was one of my favorites. When they say they are taking you on a tour of the area, they don’t just mean a quick-follow-my-lead.
They pile you all into the van and DRIVE you around all of St. Lucia, pointing out the banks, stores, restaurants, and where to avoid hippos!
The drive ends with a lagoon sunset with the aforesaid hippos and their friends the crocs just a few meters away. Brilliant.
BAZ STOP: MTUBATUBA
Another fun word to say after a few tequilas (try it: mm-too-bah-TOO-bah). This small town was named after a Zulu chief whose mother had a hard time giving birth to him; the name means, “one who was pummelled out”. How’s that for a name! If you are heading north, it is the Elephant Coast’s first town. It’s economy is dependent on tourism, and it is a true haven of Zulu culture; I didn’t stop, but am sure you will discover many adventures here.
- Where to stay in Mtubatuba: Khumbulani Backpackers Lodge.
BAZ STOP: KWAMBONAMBI
Small enough to be called a village, Kwambonambi is situated amongst giant trees and peaceful settings. It’s another good stop to use as a base for St. Lucia or Umfolozi / Hluhluwe.
- Where to Stay in Kwambonambi: Cuckoos Nest Backpackers.
After Kwambonambi, the Baz Bus stops for lunch in my hometown, Empangeni. It has changed so much I barely recognized it when we arrived. I remember when the DRIVE-THRU KFC arrived, it was the biggest thing to happen in a long time. Now there are factories and fast food joints everywhere. Our lunch stop is at a local gas station, but don’t get too excited – the food choice is somewhat depressing.
BAZ STOP: ESHOWE
The word “eshowe” (eh-SHOU-way, with SHOU rhyming with “house”) is said to refer to the sound of the wind whispering through the Dlinza Forest that this tranquil town makes its home in. The oldest town in Zululand, it’s located on a plateau that’s protected from the sub-tropical heat, and was the popular “holiday spot” for centuries’-worth of Zulu chiefs and kings. Fort Eshowe is famous for surviving a 10-week siege during the Anglo – Zulu war of 1879.
- Where to stay in Eshowe: Zululand Backpackers.
BAZ STOP: GINGINDLOVU
The Zulu meaning is “swallower of the elephant”, but for the British soldiers of the past, who couldn’t quite wrap their tongues around the word, it was “gin gin I love you”. But don’t be caught saying that to a local! For those of you interested in colonial history, this area is well-known for its role in the Anglo – Zulu war, and used be the site of King Cetshwayo’s military kraals. Have a look at the old cemetery that commemorates lives lost during the many battles fought here.
- Where to Stay in Gingindlovu: Inyezane Backpackers. When some friends I met at Bib’s said they were heading here and planned to play in red mud, I naturally decided to travel with them.
The two nights we spent here were some of the best times I had. Being the only travellers around at the time, we had the run of the place and took full advantage. For the first two days the weather was miserable – although the storms were fantastic – and we had a power failure, which felt just like home again. The second day we spent exploring our artistic sides, painting sarongs using designs from African culture and wildlife. Finally, on our last day, the sun came out – and so did the red mud. Covering ourselves in it from head to toe, we had a grand old time. I think I was washing mud out of my hair for a week.
The red mud of KwaZulu Natal is used by locals during ceremonies, and is rumored to have mysterious healing powers. My skin certainly felt wonderful after a treatment!
All the preceeding towns are closely tied to a major South African historical figure, Shaka kaSenzangakhona pheZulu, first King of the Zulus. Go to Shakaland to see a traditional working village, and learn how the Zulus lived in “the old man’s” time. Be sure to try a swig or two of traditional Zulu (sorghum) beer.
As you head on down towards Ballito, your Baz Bus driver might point out Shaka’s Rock, which is where, it is said, the ruthless King Shaka dealt with people who didn’t agree with him, mainly by throwing them off the rock’s rather high cliff face.
BAZ STOP: BALLITO
Ballito is close enough to Durban to have all the perks of a big city, and yet remote enough – it’s on KZN’s Dolphin Coast – to guarantee tranquility. There’s excellent surfing and sun bathing – and this is a great spot to recuperate from your Zululand adventures before you head back to the crowds.
- Where to Stay in Ballito: The Secret Spot Surf Camp. Named after a little-known surfer’s curl just offshore.
Well that’s the end of our tour (whew!), and we are now cruising back into Durban, and thence back to Cape Town. It has been great having you along for the ride – but I’ll see you again soon, when I explore the Cape Peninsula with our fantastic hosts at the Baz Bus.
Until then, Keep Trekkin’…