Where humans rest and turtles nest

Thonga Beach Lodge is one of those places that simply must be visited if you are a diver or snorkeller, or if you simply enjoy prolific sea life, especially turtles and whales, writes Sonja Newlands.

Just a little story about Thonga

I first visited Thonga Beach Lodge a few years ago, when it opened. The privilege of seeing turtles nesting on the beach stayed with me as one of the best wildlife experiences of my life. Now it was time to introduce my kids to these wonderful, gentle creatures.
The sole purpose of our trip was to see the turtles and the kids were beside themselves with excitement, even though it was a five-hour drive that lay ahead of us from Durban. You need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to reach the lodge itself, although the lodge will pick you up from a meeting place with secure parking if you’re in a two-wheel-drive car. Alternatively, if the budget permits, you can also fly to Richards Bay and then take a light-aircraft transfer to the nearby airstrip.
Thonga Beach Lodge is situated within South Africa’s first proclaimed World Heritage Site, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. iSimangaliso means “place of miracles and wonders” in Zulu, and Thonga Beach Lodge is truly that. One of very few places to stay on KwaZulu-Natal’s pristine Elephant Coast, north of Sodwana Bay, this romantic luxury hideaway is set in a coastal milkwood forest, just a short walk away from a white-sand beach. The 12-room lodge is hardly visible amid the thick vegetation of the huge sand dunes on which it has been built. All suites are air-conditioned and have ceiling fans. The rooms are spacious and the bathrooms – with their stone baths and semi-outside showers – are charming.
Breakfast, lunch, dinner and teas and coffees are included in the room rate. During our two-night stay, the meals were of a very high standard – the ostrich with a red-wine mushroom sauce on mash was the best ostrich dish I have ever eaten. There is also a kids’ menu for younger visitors.
The staff members are all very friendly and competent. Most of them have been there for a while, which is evident from their relaxed confidence and personable manner. My son made friends with the barman, who delighted him with endless card tricks. The lodge offers a babysitting service for guests who want to have some adult time alone (or who want go diving or snorkelling). There is a policy of not having more than eight children in camp at any given time, so it never feels overrun with kids and is a popular destination for honeymooners and couples wanting a real escape.
We booked our turtle tour as soon as we arrived at the lodge. From November to February, Thonga offers turtle-tracking safaris at night. Turtles spend most of their lives at sea, returning to land only to lay their eggs, often on beaches up to 3 000 km away from their feeding grounds. Of the seven species of marine turtles found on Earth, five have been recorded on the KwaZulu-Natal coast: loggerhead, leatherback, hawksbill, green and olive ridley. Only the loggerhead and leatherback females are known to nest on this sandy coastline. Green turtles are occasionally seen foraging by scuba divers in the warm waters; hawksbills are seen less frequently, and it is very rare indeed to see the olive ridleys.
Loggerhead and leatherback females venture ashore in the dead of the night in summer to dig egg chambers on the cool beach sands above the high-water mark. They prefer medium- to coarse-grained sandy beaches backed by high dunes with well-developed vegetation, making the beaches around Thonga an ideal nesting site. In late summer, the eggs hatch and tiny turtles struggle down to the water’s edge.
It turned out to be a dark and utterly moonless night. We left the lodge in a 4×4 and made our way down to the beach, hoping that we would have success. It wasn’t long before our guide announced that we were in luck. We disembarked and were briefed on how to approach these beautiful creatures. And there she was – our gentle giant. At first we all stood in awe, not uttering a word, my kids amazed. We were lucky enough to find a female leatherback on her way back to the surf after laying her eggs. She was about a metre and a half long from nose to tail and weighed about a ton and seemed absolutely exhausted. I don’t blame her: she had just made her way up to the high-water mark, carefully excavated a nest for eggs, laid the eggs, covered them up, camouflaged the nest site by thrashing around in the sand nearby and was now making her way back to the surf, beckoned by the white curls of waves. It was an encounter that will stay with us forever.
iSimangaliso delicate ecology includes coastal dune forest, savannah Bushveld and a string of biodiverse inland lakes. One of these lakes is Lake Sibaya, which is only 25 minutes’ drive away from the lodge. Thonga offers kayaking trips along the lake’s shoreline, where you are bound to see hippos and crocs. Lake Sibaya is also a popular venue for sundowners and bird-watching; there are more than 500 bird species in this semi-tropical part of the world.
But it’s the diving and snorkelling that people come back for, year after year. The warm Indian Ocean attracts bottlenose dolphins, whale sharks, manta rays, giant turtles, Moorish idols and parrotfish, among many other species. This section of coast certainly rates highly when compared to some of the best diving in the world. There are 1 250 recorded fish species here, which compares rather well with the Great Barrier Reef, with 1 500.
Thonga Beach Lodge is a small lodge and the KwaZulu-Natal Parks Board was adamant that it would have as little impact on the local bush as possible. This means that when you are walking along the beach, you can hardly see the lodge at all, as it is tucked in among the trees. Similarly, the lodge’s main areas don’t overlook the beach, although there is a beach deck where dinner is served and everyone congregates. It also means that only five of the 12 rooms have ocean views, while the rest have a view of the forest. This didn’t really bother me as we spent so much of our day at the beach, either relaxing or snorkelling.

A stay at Thonga Beach Lodge is an absolute pleasure, from its wonderful beaches to its magnificent diving and turtle-tracking. I can highly recommend a stay of at least seven days: five days for diving, snorkelling and exploring and two days just to lie on the pristine beach, gazing at the clear waves and being entertained by the antics of adorable three-banded plovers. So you can put colorado buffalo hat or utah utes hats on and go to the rest too!