Canoeing at GweGwe
Canoeing at GweGwe
Image: Supplied

We weren’t 30 minutes out of Virginia Airport, flying a few thousand feet above the coast, before the Wild Coast rolled into view. Gone was the industrial sprawl of Durban, and the Gatsby-esque seaside mansions of the south coast. No more manicured golf estates. Even the seafront railway line, built in the late 1800s to serve the sugar mills, had petered out by the time we reached the Mtamvuna River.

Here the landscape changed, unfurling into sinuous estuaries and wide-open grasslands peppered with small villages. Another 20km down the coast, past the Mtentu River mouth, the pilot dipped one wing of the Cessna Grand Caravan and bumped us down onto the grass landing strip in the Mkambati Nature Reserve. Welcome to GweGwe Beach Lodge.

The Wild Coast isn’t known as the sort of place you fly into. For decades it’s been a place of self-sufficient fishermen and remote holiday cabins. But bubbly on the beach, and luxury lodgings? Not so much.

Which makes the opening this month of GweGwe Beach Lodge a game-changer, as low-volume high-value tourism comes to this far-flung corner of the Wild Coast.

The Mkambati Nature Reserve dates back to 1920, when the local community was evicted to make way for a leprosy hospital. Later the hospital housed tuberculosis patients, before the land was declared a provincial nature reserve in 1977. With the prospect of restitution post-1994, seven villages on the outskirts of the reserve formed the Mkambati Land Trust (MLT) and petitioned to get their land back.

That finally happened in 2004, but the community soon realised that land without income and opportunity meant little. In 2012 they began tendering for tourism development, and after more than a decade the foundations for GweGwe were laid.

Picture: Richard Holmes
Picture: Richard Holmes

Conservation and community

GweGwe Beach Lodge — which opens officially on June 18 — is operated by conservation-minded safari outfit Natural Selection, which runs dozens of high-end camps and lodges across Namibia and Botswana. In a similar vein to its Lekkerwater Beach Lodge in the Western Cape’s De Hoop Nature Reserve, GweGwe offers exclusive access to a corner of the coastline that is largely off-limits to travellers.

Mkambati stretches across 7,700ha, but two-thirds of that has been set aside as a private concession for guests of GweGwe. Though locals still traverse footpaths linking remote villages, it’s introduced a level of exclusivity to a reserve that once welcomed fishermen who were happy with rustic, cheap, self-catering rondavels. And not everybody is happy with the changes.

“We’ve had some resistance from a few quarters,” admits Colin Bell, co-founder of Natural Selection, who has been driving the GweGwe project. “But people need to understand that this is essentially private land. It’s a reserve that’s owned by the community! It’s not your land, so what gives you the right to come and visit, pay a few hundred rands, bring all your own food and supplies, go fishing, and not create a single job?”

Picture: Colin Bell
Picture: Colin Bell

Jobs, and the conservation impact possible through economic upliftment, are what drive Bell.

GweGwe Beach Lodge has been structured to maximise community development. In addition to a fixed annual rental of around R300,000, increasing with inflation each year, GweGwe pays the MLT 9% of gross turnover. That’s gross, not net.

“Every spa treatment, every bit of revenue we earn, they get a share,” says Bell. “But though the money is one thing, people are really looking for jobs. They are desperate for jobs, and out here there aren’t many opportunities.”

That has certainly changed with the opening of GweGwe, which employs dozens of staff from local villages; for many it’s their first time working in hospitality. And the impact spreads even further, from hiring teams to clear alien vegetation to supporting local community gardens. An all-women anti-poaching team is also in the pipeline. 

But the model only works if the tourists come, and happily, there are plenty of reasons to journey to this corner of the Wild Coast.

To start with, the new lodge is an understated charmer; more like the beach house of a friend with excellent taste than a new-build hospitality offering.

Picture: Peter & Beverly Pickford Wildlife Photography
Picture: Peter & Beverly Pickford Wildlife Photography

GweGwe opens with nine suites — two set up for families — each with a private pool and small garden. Indoors the décor is light and breezy, with bleached wood echoing the driftwood along the shore, and a flush of coastal blues and greens lending a laid-back coastal aesthetic. If you enjoy a bath you’ll love the deep tub with glorious sea views.

No surprise, given its remote location, GweGwe has been built to be entirely off-grid, with power coming from rooftop solar — neatly hidden out of sight in the staff area — and water pumped and filtered from the GweGwe River.

The main lodge is equally understated, in a palette of natural tones and textures. On one wall a mural by Cape artist James Durno depicts the cultural history of the area, while a driftwood installation by Garden Route-based creator Danny de Kock celebrates the vernacular styles of Pondoland.

But you’ll also come here to get out and about.

Beneath the waves

Start with the ocean. The shoreline here has been designated a marine protected area since 1981, and the seas are alive. Humpback whales migrate along this coastline, while pods of dolphin often take a turn into the small bay formed where the GweGwe River meets the sea, so keep a keen eye on the waves. At the Horseshoe Falls, where the Mkambati River plummets into the sea, I spotted a turtle in the shallows before leaping into the natural pools for a swim. Wandering the shoreline at low tide near the Mtentu River, I discovered that the rock pools delivered colourful lobster and an inquisitive octopus. During the summer months large shoals of adult giant kingfish visit the Mtentu estuary. In winter each year this coastline is a hotspot for the sardine run; a marine feeding frenzy that takes place just offshore from GweGwe.

Picture: Richard Holmes
Picture: Richard Holmes

Too adventurous? On calm mornings, grab a kayak at the lodge for the short paddle upstream and you’ll be rewarded with forest views and diving kingfishers.

While the ocean is the star of the show, the grasslands of Mkambati also support a diversity of antelope and wildlife, and the area is easily explored on daily nature drives. Zebra and red hartebeest are common, and you’ll likely see herds of eland set against a backdrop of the Indian Ocean. Those grassy hills rolling down to the seashore may be the postcard image of Pondoland, but it turns out there’s remarkable diversity to discover.

Mkambati is home to about 2,000 species of plants, of which about 10% are endemic to the reserve. And while you’ll marvel at the red milkwoods hunkered down against the constant coastal winds, perhaps the most striking endemic is the Mkambati palm, growing only on the banks of the Mtentu and Msikaba rivers. In precipitous river gorges, thick forests carpet the cliffs; a forest home for flocks of trumpeter hornbills.

The birding is certainly impressive. Jackal buzzards and marsh harriers soar above the grasslands, while black-headed herons and secretary birds hunt the marshy corners. You’ll find endangered southern ground hornbill here, along with raucous black-bellied bustards, while Mkambati also sits on the fringes of the range for African grass owls.

Picture: Peter & Beverly Pickford Wildlife Photography
Picture: Peter & Beverly Pickford Wildlife Photography

Head out in the evening and you may glimpse the most southerly population of swamp nightjars in the region. On our last afternoon at GweGwe the twitchers were agog at a fleeting glimpse of a black-rumped buttonquail, another endangered species that is a rarity along this narrow stretch of Pondoland coastline.

You can discover all of this and more, but beyond swimming in waterfalls, kayaking up streams and peering down into gorges, the magic of Mkambati is the simple sense of seclusion. It’s a place to take off your shoes, sink your toes into the sand and wander empty beaches. To sit quietly on the rocks and be still against the restless waves. And now that there’s a luxury bolt-hole to return to? Well, that’s just an added extra.

It’s a beautiful lodge, in a glorious location, and it’s hard to imagine anyone coming to GweGwe and not feeling that their cup has been filled. Getting there isn’t easy but it’s also half the fun. It’s a six-hour drive from Durban or a 20-minute helicopter flight from Margate. If you’re feeling especially adventurous, there’s a twice-weekly ski-boat shuttle from Port Edward. But my money is on that flight out of Virginia. With the KwaZulu-Natal coast unfurling off the starboard wing, and the homes of the south coast giving way to the unblemished landscapes of the Wild Coast, there are few better ways to ease into a Pondoland escape.

* This article originnaly appeared in Business Day. The writer was a guest of Natural Selection

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