(Jo McLure)
Article Words : Nigel Richardson | 25 February

Exploring KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

The north-east borderlands offer visitors a whole different game: giant elephants, great-value lodges and a man on a border mission

In 1875 in Paris, a moustachioed French statesman sat down in front of a map of south-eastern Africa and drew a straight line east to west on a parallel of 26° 30’ south. With that, he probably treated himself to an aperitif, for his job was done.

Patrice de Mac-Mahon, the President of the Third French Republic, had been asked to arbitrate in a land dispute between the colonial powers of Britain and Portugal. Henceforth, land to the south of that drawn line was to belong to the former; land to the north to the latter. Tout simple.

The fact that the line cut in half the territory of Maputaland, fracturing an indigenous community and culture, was evidently neither here nor there.

Two lifetimes later we were driving along that ink mark. Known as the MacMahon Line, it is a sandy track at right angles to the Indian Ocean that marks the border between South Africa and Mozambique. Our open-sided game-viewing vehicle was rattling towards the border post at Kosi Bay when the nuts on the rear nearside wheel shook loose and we gawped at the surreal sight of one of our tyres speeding ahead of us in a spume of dust.

Then – clunk! The Land Cruiser bumped to a halt and sat there like a stubborn mule.

“OK, guys – out of the vehicle, please,” said the driver, Ernest Robbertse. He looked anxiously at his watch and started cranking up the jack while a couple of our team went back to look for the wheel nuts.

This was not so funny. It would be getting dark soon; we were still 4km from the border crossing into Mozambique, our goal for the night, and this was bandit country. After dark, just like bushbabies, the border smugglers come to life. We had recently passed a breach in the fence made by vehicle traffickers. Momentarily it seemed as if the wheels were about to come off our adventure.

Division and separation

The location of this spot of bother, at a place of division and separation, could not have been more symbolic: I was following a campaigning conservationist whose latest mission is to persuade the countries of southern Africa to drop the fences and barriers between them in order to benefit wildlife and unite peoples.

Kingsley Holgate is pretty much unknown in Britain but in South Africa he is box office. A cross between David Bellamy and Sir Ranulph Fiennes, this tall, lavishly bearded extrovert specialises in adventurous stunts involving his whole family (think the von Trapps in khaki) that publicise and raise money for worthy conservation and community causes. “We’re just an ordinary family with an extraordinary passion for Africa, using adventure to improve and save lives,” he told me with practised modesty.

His latest adventure – a cheerfully chaotic spin through nine southern African countries, including Angola, Namibia and Mozambique, in 120 days – was designed to promote the concept of Transfrontier Conservation Areas: that is to say, game parks that straddle international boundaries. His mission is to get rid of the fences that mark those boundaries. The MacMahon Line is one such, separating Tembe Elephant Park in South Africa from Futi-Royal Tembe Transfrontier Park in Mozambique – as well as continuing to divide the tribal region of Maputaland.

The idea is that if you drop the fences the animals – in particular elephant – will be able to roam, migrate and breed as they did before man persecuted them to near extinction. At the same time the local communities that live adjacent to, and own, these conservation areas – and count among some of the poorest people in Southern Africa – should be empowered to run them themselves. Hence Kingsley’s slogan for the trip: ‘Nature, Conservation, Culture’.

Chasing elephants

In the two days before our jaunt to the border, Kingsley had preached this message at Tembe Elephant Park. In many respects it was preaching to the converted, for Tembe is run on exemplary and enlightened lines, to the great benefit of the community and the wildlife.

Tembe is the brainchild of Ernest Robbertse, our wheel-less driver. The elephant park itself, comprising large tracts of dense and protective sand forest, started life as a refuge for some 70 elephant that had fled south in the 1970s to escape the Mozambican civil war. They had been heavily persecuted in that conflict: some still bear bullet wounds and evidence of snaring.

“The only time you saw them was when you were chasing their bums – or they were chasing yours,” said Ernest, a semi-retired businessman from Durban. “It took 20 years for the calm-down process.”

Now the population stands at about 220 and the eles – including some huge tuskers – are completely cool around the game-viewing vehicles that head out in the early morning and at dusk.

The park covers 300 sq km and boasts – in addition to elephant – lion, leopard, black and white rhino, buffalo, giraffe, more than 300 bird species and one of the world’s smallest antelopes, the suni. The camp at Tembe – nine wonderfully cosy tented rooms with piping-hot showers, a thatched bar and dining room, and a campfire beneath a spreading pod mahogany tree – is owned jointly by Ernest and the local community, one of the tribes of ancient Maputaland. Its staff are all local.

“It is very much run as a non-profit enterprise because there is always someone in training,” Ernest told me. “The tariffs are set at just above break-even point.”

The answer? Relative remoteness

He claims it is the cheapest full-service lodge (ie all meals and game drives are included) in the whole of South Africa. In addition to being outstandingly good value, its relaxed atmosphere and genuine warmth of welcome are exceptional. Many safari camps pay lip service to the idea of local community involvement; Tembe does it for real. All of which may make you wonder why it is not better known among foreign visitors to South Africa.

The answer is its relative remoteness – it is 400km from the nearest major airport, at Durban – and rather scant guidebook coverage, exemplified by this entry on Tembe in the latest edition of The Rough Guide to South Africa: “The elephant park is not described here as it’s a very underdeveloped conservation area to which only the dedicated go in 4WD vehicles.”

Eager to attract more tourists – and with one eye on the influx of football fans for the 2010 Word Cup – Ernest has collaborated with a beach resort across the border in Mozambique called Ponta Mamoli (our destination when we broke down) to promote two-centre holidays that promise ‘the best of the bush and the beach’.

“In the spirit of transfrontier parks we became the first commercial partners to hold hands across the border,” said Ernest. But his objectives in opening up this neglected region are not solely commercial: “We need to drive the tourist traffic to the transfrontier areas because that’s where the poorest people are.”

It is hard to imagine a poorer or more deserving community than the Tembe people who live next to the elephant park. Aids and tuberculosis are rife, three-quarters of the adult population do not work and government help is negligible. As Ernest explained wryly: “We’re the furthest you can get from Maritzburg [Pietermaritzburg, the provincial capital of KwaZulu-Natal]. By the time the delivery truck gets here it’s empty. In fact, it doesn’t even get here. It runs out of diesel.”

Ernest was talking during a day of events at the local school, Asibuyeni Primary, during which two of Kingsley’s corporate sponsors donated a new library, as well as nets and markings for the football pitch. The school has been funded principally by guests who have stayed at the lodge and maintain a connection from their homes in Western Europe and North America.

The schoolmistress, Agnes Tembe, started the school in 1999 with 18 students; the classroom was a reed hut. Now there are seven proper classrooms and 268 students aged five to 16, many of whom have been orphaned by Aids. Malnutrition is a major problem and Agnes’s next priority is a proper kitchen. “Sometimes when they are crying, it is because their stomachs are empty,” she told me.

Of all the passionate declarations in favour of community development made that day – by Kingsley Holgate; by the King of the Tembe tribe, Israel Tembe; by a conservationist and member of the Swazi royal family, Wisdom Dlamini – the most eloquent contained no words. A pupil of about six in an immaculately pressed white shirt locked his eyes on to mine, then patted his stomach and held out his hand.

Wet and REALLY wild

It is not just Tembe that makes this coastal corner of KwaZulu-Natal a revelation. The elephant park happens to lie adjacent to one of Southern Africa’s finest protected wildernesses. The generic name for this corner of KwaZulu-Natal, bordered by Mozambique to the north and Swaziland in the west, is the Elephant Coast, after the vast herds that used to roam here. Now a long, thin strip of it along the Indian Ocean receives official protection and goes by the name of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

The park, which stretches for 200km south from the border with Mozambique, became the Republic’s first Unesco World Heritage site (along with Robben Island and the Cradle of Humankind fossil caves in Gauteng province) when it was designated in 1999. Back then it was called the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park but has recently changed its name, partly to avoid confusion with the Caribbean island of St Lucia. The new appellation is appropriate – iSimangaliso means ‘miracle’ or ‘wonder’ in Zulu.

Human encroachment is confined

Just 4km wide at its narrowest point and 80km at its broadest, iSimangaliso is a shimmering mix of beaches, swamps, coastal forest, coral reefs, towering dunes, lakes and rivers. In the north, human encroachment is confined to small, low-impact camps. In the south there are game reserves (lots of hippos and crocs), campsites, self-catering cabins, hiking and riding trails, and picnic sites. At the mouth of Lake St Lucia, near the town of that name, families picnic in deckchairs while hippo sunbathe on mudflats 30m away.

The park embraces many superlatives and Roland Vorwerk, the park authority’s genial and impassioned marketing manager, was not slow to enumerate them: “South Africa’s largest freshwater lake (Lake Sibaya), the largest estuarine system on the continent of Africa (Lake St Lucia), South Africa’s premier dive destination (Sodwana Bay), the only beaches in South Africa where we still have loggerhead and leatherback turtles…”

I got the point. A couple of days after my visit to Tembe, we were talking over a dinner of potjiekos stew with pap (a sort of hotpot with maize porridge), and a decent Cape red, at Amangwane Camp, in the far north of the park (we would later stay at its sister camp, the more luxurious Umkhumbi Lodge, in the south). That afternoon we had witnessed a way of fishing that is specific to these few miles of coast and has not changed for many hundreds of years.

Sunk into the shallow waters of the lakes, fences made of lala and raffia palms, configured in a series of loops and runs, act with the tides as a kind of piscine pinball machine, chivvying and channelling fish into corrals where they are speared. “The park is not just about biodiversity,” said Roland. “It’s a much richer story, about culture and traditions.”

Much has been achieved on this coast since the late 1980s, when an Australian company attempted to strip-mine the forested dunes in the south for titanium. A grassroots campaign defeated its efforts and catalysed the push for World Heritage status. Since then pine and gum plantations have been cut down and indigenous vegetation allowed to grow back.

A spraying programme has rolled back malaria, and schemes have been put in place to train in hospitality skills and wildlife guiding some of the 600,000 people who live within a 40km radius of the park – though Roland admits more could be done in this direction.

One of his dreams is to see the protected marine area in the north expanded into southern Mozambique, where the authorities have catching up to do in terms of environmental protection. At the moment iSimangaliso Wetland Park ends abruptly at the infamous MacMahon Line.

A fenceless future?

On this line drawn in the sand, dreams still turn to dust – or so it had seemed to us in our stranded vehicle in that gathering dusk two days before. In fact, we found the wheel nuts, got the wheel back on and made it to the border post – only to find it closed. “Welcome to Mama Africa,” said Kingsley.

We were stuck in the dark, in a limbo land of No Entry signs and barbed wire. Engaging his charisma in overdrive Kingsley picked up his mobile phone – and two hours later disgruntled officials arrived to stamp our passports and open the gates.

It will not be so easy to dismantle the fence that separates the game parks along the MacMahon Line. There is still much red tape to unravel on both sides of the border, and infrastructure and know-how need to be brought up to scratch on the Mozambican side. But if you come here you believe it will happen. There are successful precedents in the form of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, linking Kruger National Park in South Africa with Mozambique and Zimbabwe, and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park straddling South Africa and Botswana. The energy and progress are already evident in this remote corner of ancient Maputaland.

Visiting here will not be for everybody. It is a far cry from the first-world sophistication of Cape Town and the Mediterranean climes of the Garden Route. But it makes for a fascinating and heartwarming alternative, in which you can see for yourself how tourism, conservation and communities are evolving together in one of southern Africa’s neediest areas.

It will certainly be an adventure. On that most eventful day of an exhilarating trip, it was 10pm by the time we made it to the Mozambican resort of Ponta Mamoli. The casuarina pines rustled in the breeze off the Indian Ocean and the surf roared below us as we sat slumped in front of ice-cold Mozambican lagers. I couldn’t help noticing the brand name on those bottles of beer: MacMahon.

Border-hopping highlights

Extend your trip into South Africa’s neighbouring countries

Namibia

Over the border: Raft the gently bubbling Orange River (which forms much of the South Africa/Namibia border); the five- to seven-day trip from Noordoewer to Aussenkehr winds past weird rock formations, wild countryside and very few people. Or delve into Fish River Canyon, 550m deep and deeply dramatic; a tough trail traces its cracks and fissures.

Practicalities: No visa is required for UK nationals. The border post at Noordoewer is open 24 hours.

Botswana

Over the border: Nip into the Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park, over 36,000 sq km of unspoiled, border-spanning wilderness. There are shifting sand dunes, herds of gemsbok, Kalahari lions and over 250 bird species – plus accommodation ranging from basic campsites to luxury lodges.

Practicalities: KTNP is 900km west of Johannesburg. Bokspits border post is the closest to the park; tourist visas can be issued here.

Zimbabwe

Over the border: There’s a buzz about Zimbabwe right now. It’s early days, but if you do decide to hop over from SA, head for Great Zimbabwe – these 11th-century stone ruins, Africa’s largest south of the pyramids, are the cliff-perched remnants of a medieval city, including a ceremonial enclosure, huts and soapstone birds.

Practicalities: The Beitbridge border crossing, 460km from Pretoria, is busy and slow; a single-entry visa issued on arrival costs £35.

Mozambique

Over the border: Waterside capital Maputo is a laid-back art deco city perfect for market shopping and café lounging; nearby Ilha de Inhaca has good beaches and prolific birdlife. The southern Mozambique coast is rife with life: humpback whales are common offshore from July to October, while Ponta d’Ouro is one of the best places for swimming with dolphins.

Practicalities: UK nationals require a visa, which can be bought at the border crossing at Kosi Bay.

The author travelled with Rainbow Tours