5km from Port Edward
Considered something of a mystery among those who have seen it, the Red Desert outside Port Edward is said to be the smallest desert in the world. Eleven hectares in area and a mere 200 metres across, there is some debate on its origins. Some reckon it is the result of over-grazing from a nearby small village in years long past; others that it is a natural desert in the strictest sense of the word. Some even posit that it is the result of an alien landing on the site. The discovery of a number of archaeological artefacts in the desert further add to its mystique.
The red dunes resemble rock and stand as tall as a human. This desert nook is cushioned by coastal vegetation – grasslands, forests and wetlands – making its presence all the more extraordinary. Recognised globally as a plant hot spot, there are some rare and decidedly special indigenous plant species to be seen. There are also plenty of birds, and a number of small mammals and antelope that quietly occupy the area.
Mountain biking along the gorge overlooking the Umtamvuna Estuary and Bridge is a popular pastime in the area. Riders get to enjoy panoramic views of the landscape. This enigmatic desert will at once astound and convey a sense of calm. It’s a remarkable natural feature that has an impact on all who visit it.
Decades ago, beach holidays were simple. They were holidays of buckets and spades, sunburn, ice-creams melting on your fingers, brollies and swimming. Somehow, the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast has managed to retain this relaxed, old-school charm and escaped the ruthless modernisation of other parts of the world.
The South Coast stretches from the outskirts of Durban to the Eastern Cape border just south of Port Edward, with countless small towns dotted in between.
Some are prime holiday destinations that attract crowds by offering busy nightlife and organised activities. Others are gentler and more relaxed, relying on the natural charm of the ocean and the beach to attract a less frenetic class of people.
Whatever your preference, you will be sure to find some place that fits the bill on the South Coast.
Running down almost the length of the South Coast is the N2 highway, passing through grasslands, hills, sugar cane and over bridges that span a multitude of wide rivers bringing water from the inland mountains. It is an area of great natural beauty and the sandy beaches are numerous and beautiful, perfect for long walks in the afternoon.
Obviously the Indian Ocean is the prime reason for most tourism and it is easy to understand why. Even in winter, the water is warm and swimmable, but in spring, summer and even autumn the water hovers around 25 degrees Celsius, making it perfect for long days in the water.
Six beaches on the South Coast have been awarded the coveted Blue Flag status, which means they satisfy 32 criteria, including service, safety, water quality and even environmental management. While these six beaches obviously have something to crow about, there are dozens of other beaches that are as beautiful, safe and worth visiting. In fact, in summer, when the crowds are out, many of these beaches might prove more enjoyable than those with the coveted Blue Flag status.
Beneath the warm waters of the Indian Ocean are further attractions, and the scuba-diving spots of Aliwal Shoal and Protea Banks are some of the best in the country, with Aliwal often rated as one of the top-10 dive sites in the world.
The South Coast offers far more than just its top-class beaches, though, with a number of small game reserves, excellent golf courses and more.
Oribi Gorge is piece of rugged wilderness just a short drive from Port Shepstone beach. Nature is the attraction here, and all sorts of birds and animals thrive in the gorges and forests along the river banks. It has also become something of an adventure destination, so prepare yourself for adrenalin highs.
Wherever you choose to stay, and whatever you choose to do, make a point not to drift too far away from the simplicity and relaxation of a holiday on a beautiful beach.
Look out for
The Sardine Run is one of the world’s great migrations and sights of the natural world. Unfortunately, the timing is a bit hard to pinpoint, much like the Namaqualand daisies, but it generally occurs in the middle of winter. Tens of millions of sardines make their way up the coast, followed by thousands of sharks, dolphins, game fish and whales, as well as flocks of predating birds. Scuba-divers can dive alongside this natural phenomenon.
Oribi Gorge, a short drive inland from Port Shepstone, is a spectacular natural attraction formed by the Mzimkhulu and Mzimkulwana rivers. A nature reserve offers birding, game-viewing and walks, while operators in the area offer white-water rafting, mountain-biking, a gorge swing, abseiling, horse-riding, fishing and more. It is also a wonderful spot for landscape photography, or relaxing at one of the lodges or spas.
Scuba-diving is a major attraction on the South Coast, which is lucky enough to boast two world-class dive destinations in Aliwal Shoal and Protea Banks.
If scuba-diving is too tame for you, or if you want to up the stakes a little, try shark-diving on for size. Specialist dive operators give you the opportunity to swim with all sorts of shark species, including the fearsome bull shark, tiger shark, hammerhead shark and ragged-tooth shark.
The coast’s Blue Flag beaches (Trafalgar beach and Marina beach near San Lameer, Ramsgate beach, Margate beach, Lucien beach near Margate and Umzumbe beach) rank amongst the best in the world and spending the day on them is a privilege that should be savoured.
The South Coast boasts some wonderful golf courses, including San Lameer, Selbourne and the Wild Coast Sun (just across the provincial border in the Eastern Cape), while almost every small town also offers a very good local course.
For something a little different, pop into the Beaver Creek Coffee Farm outside Port Edward. Here you can watch the entire process that the coffee bean makes on its way to becoming that hot cup of brew on your breakfast table. There is also a restaurant and a shop selling Beaver Creek’s excellent coffee.
The South Coast offers very good birding along most of its length, and birders can enjoy sightings of interesting birds without leaving the towns they are staying in. That said, there are a few spots that are particularly good, such as the Mtamvuna Nature Reserve and Oribi Gorge.