The single-lane tarmac motorway runs almost exactly South to North, carving a straight line through small towns, villages and (very) isolated service stations with an incongruous bright red ‘Wimpy’ or ‘KFC’ sign protruding out of the bush. The ‘N2’ follows the coastline towards the Swaziland border and took us to our turn-off for the Maputaland Marine Reserve and our destination for four nights, Rocktail Beach Camp.
Off the main road, we were directed down a gravel road with surprisingly green and lush bush on one side and tall forestry blocks on the other. We had been instructed to park up at a place called ‘Coastal Cashews’ and wait for a 4-wheel drive to pick us up. A few kilometres down the track and a large brown sign outside a cashew plantation took us to our parking spot under an awning behind a barn and next to a row of tractors.
We emerged into the sticky heat from the luxury of our air-conditioned rental car and were soon met by Abi, one of the team from Rocktail Bay. Having hauled our luggage and us into the back of the open-topped safari truck, we set off further down the gravel road. The gravel gave way to yellow sand as we travelled deeper into the forest and towards the sea. After about half an hour, we pulled up to a small sign: we had arrived at Rocktail Beach Camp.
Natalie and her husband Willem welcomed us off the truck and led us up the stone steps into a small clearing with a bright blue swimming pool, a few sun loungers and a thatched open dining area that led into a bar populated with comfy sofas and glossy marine life coffee table books. They apologised profusely that our ‘room’ was the furthest away up in the treetops. It was rather secluded as it was the honeymoon suite and did we mind being upgraded? The ‘room’ was more of a tent-cum-house on stilts. The pathway through the woods led us up the hill through the woods delicately lit at regular intervals with forestry lamps, and eventually onto a deck that wrapped around a thatched house. The deck was level with the treetops, affording a breath-taking view across the forest and out to sea. The ‘room’ consisted of a living room, complete with tea and coffee making facilities and a complimentary decanter of sherry, a bedroom with a bed big enough for a family of five, and a shower room in between – also big enough for a family of five. The panorama across the ocean was uninterrupted across all three rooms, with a series of glass and mosquito net panels across the front. Standing in the shower while trying to spot dolphins jumping became a particularly entertaining pastime, but one which was not conducive to short ablutions – a requirement in a nature reserve suffering from a drought.
As is the African weather’s wont, the skies went from bright blue and sweltering sunshine, to torrential steamy downpours and back again in a matter of minutes. Whatever the weather, the beach – a 10-minute walk through the forest – was spectacular. Quite literally not a human being to be seen on it as far as the eye could see. The waves crashed up the fine yellow sand, disturbing the odd Red Duiker (a diminutive bush buck) that had strayed out of the treeline and sending the small Bambi-like figure scampering back over the dunes.
Our hosts could not do enough for us – insisting we have lunch on the beach on our second day. We expected a picnic basket and a couple of bottles of beer. We got a feast of cured meats, cheeses, pickles and homemade bread. With it came an overflowing basket of fresh fruit and a cooler box filled to the brim and topped with a surprise bottle of bubbles. The spread was carried onto the beach for us, laid out on a tablecloth, salt and pepper sellers, champagne glasses and all. We were then left to our own devices – finishing off a perfect and utterly undisturbed afternoon by body-surfing the incoming tide like teenagers – until the leftovers were spirited away again and we wandered back up to the camp on the forest track.
We could not visit the Maputaland Marine Reserve in the summer season without going out on a turtle drive. Between November and March each year, hundreds of turtles make their way into the bay and lay and bury their eggs on the beach. The numbers had dwindled but thanks to a wildlife conservation project, they are booming once more. We set off with our turtle guide at midnight, driving along the beach looking out for the tell-tale signs of turtles emerging from the waves. We passed a number of flipper tracks before stopping by what was the jewel in the crown – a rare Leatherback turtle – the largest species in the world. It had laid its eggs and was busy scuffing up sand with its enormous and powerful flippers. Our guide straddled the beast to measure it– a whopping 1m60 long and 1m20 wide. We did not stay long, leaving it in peace to complete the burial of its eggs and make its way back into the water. During our outing we also spotted the smaller and more common Loggerhead turtle and watched quietly in the darkness, swatting away thousands of tiny flies buzzing around our heads, while it laid egg after egg into the deep hole it had excavated. An unforgettable sight and one which I would recommend to anyone visiting the Reserve.
We did not get around to snorkelling on the nearby reef during this visit but that leaves us something to do next time we visit. Other guests were drawn to what we hear is exceptional scuba diving with a wreck to explore as well as the unpolluted reefs.
The area is a rare unspoilt and unpopulated tourist destination and huge work has gone into the preservation of its beauty and its flora and fauna. It seems perverse to encourage people to visit as it is precisely its seclusion and remoteness that is appealing. But if you are up for peace and quiet, a privileged insight into nature going about its business undisturbed, and do not balk at the prospect of being cut off from the outside world, then this is the place for you. Natalie and Willem and their team go to every length to make your stay as perfect as possible, while giving you the space to feel like you are all alone in your own personal paradise.
The idyllic setting and relaxing stay made it all the more difficult to readjust to everyday life back in grey and wintry UK. Three days later I am still in denial, reluctant to discard my flip flops. But the onset of frostbite and odd looks from Christmas shoppers are a price worth paying for the pleasure of clinging on to the utter bliss of Rocktail Beach Camp for just a few more days.
(our holiday and itinerary was booked through AfricaAndBeyond)