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Four-star fun in heart of Zululand



Keeping it in the (royal) family

Driving and riding through the KwaNibela tribal area on the shores of Lake St Lucia in northern Zululand last month, I was reminded that South African idiom is sometimes meant to be taken literally.

In this case; “my brother from another mother”, a phrase generally adopted by men to denote a friendship so close as to be virtual kinship. Vincent and Lucky Ngubane – in their mid- to late-forties and both guides at Nibela Lake Lodge – on the other hand are indeed patrician siblings. This is something that’s common in their family: their father, who turned 100 the month before my visit, has had upwards of half a dozen wives and sired more than 80 children.

A retired sergeant-major in the “Zulu” (121) Battalion of the ’80s, the elder Ngubane is proof that the “blue stones” the former SA Defence Force was reputed to put in soldiers’ tea as an ardour dampener was either a myth… or that it didn’t always work. Exploring the Nibela Peninsula – the only land fronting onto Lake St Lucia that is not part of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park or falling under Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (formerly Natal Parks Board) – with the brothers was a leisurely affair. We were constantly stopping our quadbikes or the game-viewing vehicle to greet relatives.

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The role of conservation in the KwaNibela peninsula

I found it rather endearing and, in any case, I didn’t have anywhere better to be than in the middle of a floodplain watching flocks of flamingos, herons and egrets. All land in Zululand is owned by the Ingonyama Trust, of which the king of the amaZulu is sole trustee. The KwaNibela Tribal Council is custodian of the peninsula on his behalf.

More than half of all water birds in KwaZulu-Natal occur around Lake St Lucia, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site and has been a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance since 1986. The lake is section of the iSimangaliso (“miracle” in isiZulu) park. “Lake” is, in some senses, a misnomer.

St Lucia is actually the estuary of the iMfolozi River as it flows into the Indian Ocean. The mouth, however, silts up regularly, forming a body of salt water 80km long and 23km at its widest. Established in 1895, the St Lucia Game Reserve is the oldest conservation area within iSimangaliso.

Nibela Lake Lodge, as well as its Sobhengu share-block and selfcatering adjunct are, so to speak, jewels in the crown of the KwaNibela Tribal Council. They have been operated on long lease by Dream Hotels and Resorts ( and predecessor companies since 2005. Getting to Nibela is an adventure on its own.

Road conditions, alternative routes, and unique travel experiences

The lodge is some 50km from Hluhluwe, with much of the road being dirt. It’s in good condition for much of the year but it becomes a muddy morass during the rainy season. My routing took me from Cape Town to Johannesburg via FlySafair, and to Zululand in a Hyundai Grand i10 Sedan.

The shortest – though not quickest – way by road to Nibela would be taking the N17 to Ermelo via Bethal before joining the N2 to Pongola and on to the Hluhluwe turn-off. I did this route in reverse, a distance of 565km covered in a smidgen less than eight hours.

The volume of trucks on the road makes this an exhausting trip to undertake in one fell swoop and you really don’t want to tackle the final stretch to Nibela either when you’re tired or after dark. Might I suggest the alternative of flying to Durban and hiring a car.

The distance from King Shaka International Airport to Nibela is 280km and there is the fun option of taking a 40-minute ferry trip across the lake to the lodge from False Bay Resorts.

This eliminates the dirt road entirely and vehicles are parked securely for the rest of your stay. I took the long way and arrived just behind a Dutch couple who were welcomed by receptionist Doris Zulu with a spiel that concluded: “Please be careful if you go walking along the banks of the lake.

“Our hippos and crocodiles can get quite cheeky.” Doris, like most of the staff, comes from the local community. Accommodation at Nibela comprises 20 double chalets, each with mosquito net-enclosed double beds, en suite bathrooms, air conditioning, Wi-Fi and private decks overlooking the lake.

Accommodation variety, activities, and wildlife experiences at Nibela Lake Lodge

Some have interleading doors, making them ideal for families. There is also a deluxe “honeymoon” chalet – situated furthest from the main lodge – with a king-sized bed, floor-to-ceiling windows and an outside bath and shower.

There are four stand-alone lodges at Sobhengu, ranging from one to four bedrooms. The smallest offers a main bedroom with a queen-sized bed and loft with two three-quarter beds, making it ideal for young families. The Sobhengu lodges have open-plan kitchens and braai facilities, though guests can make reservations to dine at the main lodge, which includes the restaurant, two swimming pools, bar, bush boma, spa and curio shop. Everything is connected by an elevated walkway that is illuminated at night. Chalets face away from the lights, making them dark but not overwhelmingly so unless the heavy drapes are drawn.

Leaving windows open allows the night sounds, along with the lapping of St Lucia’s wavelets against the shore, to filter in. There is a back-up generator in the event of load shedding. Activities include guided quadbike excursions, boating (fishing trips, sunset cruises, hippo and croc-watching as well as joyrides), nature drives (birding tours, wetlands exploration, village visits, night drives and picnics), guided walks and mountain-biking.

I chose one morning to drive about 80km to the Hluhluwe/ iMfolozi Park, two adjacent game reserves I remembered fondly from my teenage years. A lot has changed since then (not only the number of years) and, apart from majestic white rhino – what a pleasure to see animals that haven’t been dehorned! – I found the overall experience disappointing.

It wasn’t too expensive to enter the reserve (“cash only, please”) but the amenities for day visitors were shocking. The shop at Hilltop Camp stocked very little worthwhile – compare this to the shops at, for instance, Kruger and Addo Elephant – and I was charged R170 for a very ordinary breakfast omelette (there being nothing else on offer).

I even had to pay something like R10 for a map of the park (something they didn’t have at the gate). Don’t bother leaving Nibela unless you want to do a day trip to Sodwana. You’ll have far more fun and satisfaction chasing around the bush or venturing out onto the water. Don’t make the mistake, though , of thinking that St Lucia, being a lake, is necessarily tranquil. It can get pretty choppy when the wind comes up and you have to keep a firm grip on your drink.


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