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Get Lost in Umlalazi

Get Lost in Umlalazi

‘Location, location, location’ is the mantra for real estate but can it apply to the ideal holiday whereabouts? Take Umlalazi Nature Reserve on the North Coast of Zululand and the answer is yes.

Words and Pictures: Anita de Villiers

Umlalazi_6390With a spread of 1 028ha of natural beauty over river, beach and bush, Umlalazi has many opportunities for adventure, activities and good old leisure time. As one of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s smaller parks, it adheres to their policy of conserving the indigenous biodiversity of KwaZulu-Natal, while creating unique ecotourism destinations.

But should all of this not satisfy the traveller, Big Five game reserves like Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, the Ngoya coastal scarp forest with the rarest of endemic cycads and birds, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, and the Southern Hemisphere’s largest shopping centre in Umhlanga are all within an hour or two’s drive from this magic epicentre.

All of this may sound just a little biased, but it is well-informed, albeit a little subjective. For I live in the verdant village of Mtunzini – a ‘place in the shade’ as the Zulu word indicates – that borders the reserve. As the first town in South Africa to receive conservancy status, Mtunzini and the folk who live there are the beneficiaries of Umlalazi’s natural bounty.

What this also means is a zebra might visit the gardens to drink from the birdbath, the monkeys will regularly raid the kitchens, and the blood-curling scream that might wake residents at night belongs to a bush baby.

In the interest of objective journalism, I slapped on sunscreen and hat and set off for the fenced and gated Umlalazi, with its uninterrupted 42km of unspoilt beach between the river mouths of the Umlalazi and Amatigulu. There’s much to do there – hiking along various trails, birding, fishing, surfing, skiing and canoeing.

I joined the canine lovers on the doggie section of the north beach, before continuing for a few kilometres towards the river mouth, where the eight kilometre Umlalazi Trail turns inland to follow the Umlalazi River. Luckily I timed my walk for low tide, as some areas on the river are swamped during high tide.

The trail covers a good cross-section of the area’s vegetation – estuarine mudflats, mangroves, open reed and grassland, as well as coastal dune forest. Many interesting creatures thrive in each, such as the astonishing mudskippers – small amphibian fish that use their fins to jump over land and water.


Eventually I found a spot seamed by mangroves that looked more like a moonscape, where I sat quietly, waiting. Soon came my reward when hundreds of fiddler crabs with asymmetrical claws merged from their muddy holes. The males started a symphony of movement, waving their dominant claw in a seemingly ritualised mass come-hither call. Red duikers were also everywhere, strange because they’re shy creatures but have obviously become accustomed to humans.

Umlalazi_23Aside from a good choice of walking trails in the reserve, there is a short 4×4 drive through the mangrove swamps to where the old railroad bridge crosses the river, and all of these open up a birder’s paradise. But it’s not surprising. There are several kingfisher species, most notably the Mangrove Kingfisher in winter, plus the Green Twinspot, Woolly-necked Stork, Trumpeter Hornbill and many herons among the more than 300 species that occur here. The reserve forms part of the Zululand Birding Route, and the occurrence here of the rare Palm-nut Vulture has given this little neck of the woods world status in birding terms.

The Palm-nut Vulture (Gypohierax angolensis) feeds on the fruit of the raffia (raphia) palms that occur in the Kosi Bay and Mtunzini areas. Also known as Kosi palms, they have the largest leaves of all palms in the world.

Just outside the reserve gate, a dirt road canopied by palms leads to the Raffia Palm Monument that was planted in 1903 by the then district magistrate, C.C. Foxon. A tiny signpost marks the turn-off to the monument, and the boardwalk leads into dense palm forest, one of the most likely places for birders to tick off a lifer. I was not so lucky to spot the Palm-nut Vulture this time, but the cry of two soaring Fish Eagles and the rush of the breeze through the gigantic palm leaves were ample compensation.

Later that afternoon, I made my way to the lagoon, where families and groups of friends saluted the end of another perfect Zululand day. At the jetty, a jovial atmosphere accompanied the ritual of pulling ski-boats from the water, rinsing fishing gear and comparing the day’s catches. At the canoe launch-site, a dad cast his fishing line, his young daughter keenly looking on. A young family took turns between braaiing chops and braaibroodjies on the coals, and some stand-up paddle boarding, the fastest-growing water sport in the world.


Smoke from the campfires was carried off by the light evening breeze as I passed the campsites on my way back to town. I checked the weather forecast for the following day and the promised heat certainly called for time in the sea.
I’d be back.

Umlalazi_24Insider’s Info on Umlalazi

  • Umlalazi Nature Reserve is under the control of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and is part of the greater Siyaya Coastal Park that stretches from the Umlalazi River in the north almost to the Thukela (Tugela) River in the south.
  • Two camps, Inkwazi and Indaba, have 50 sites in total, with 15amp plug points at each.
  • 12 two-bedroom (four bed), fully equipped log cabins are serviced daily.
  • There is no shop in the reserve but there is a well-stocked grocery store and other shops in nearby Mtunzini.
  • The reserve has no restaurant but Mtunzini has several.
  • Day visitors pay an entrance fee to use the reserve facilities.
  • Summers are hot and humid (17-40°C) while day temperatures during winter rarely fall below 17°C.
  • Umlalazi is about 700km from Johannesburg and 130km from Durban.
  • Contacts: 033 845 1000, [email protected] (chalets), [email protected] (camps)

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