Opting out in Salt Rock
Words Andrea Abbott, Pics Andrea Abbott & supplied
I grew up in the Salt Rock area of the Natal North Coast when it was far from everywhere, especially school. Getting to and from school consumed so much time that the only thing to do was bunk. Often. Spending idle hours on the beach eyeing the talent, I never really got the hang of things like maths and science. But what the heck – as the song goes, we had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun.
Times have changed. Development along the North Coast has brought Salt Rock closer to everywhere, including schools. No valid excuse now to bunk. But although the population has boomed, as is evident from the housing estates occupying former sugar-cane fields, Salt Rock has retained its small-town character. The village centre is much as it’s been for decades. No high-rise buildings block the view or shade the beach, and amenities are few but sufficient. They include the Country Club, an unassuming cluster of shops, a couple of restaurants, and the famous Salt Rock Hotel that Basil Hulett built in the late 1930s and which has been passed down to his grandchildren, Craig Hulett and Linda Labidi. Except for the multi-storey wing tacked on in the 1960s, the hotel is still imbued with old-world tropical charm.
Lunch on the rustic patio or drinks on the sundeck perched high above the tidal pool, which Basil also built, is about as good as things get. Metres from the pool, the caravan park is probably closer to the sea than any other accommodation in the area.
A caravanning retiree from Cape Town told us he escapes the Cape winter every year, spending three months on the eastern side of the country, a month of that at Salt Rock. With the North Coast’s climate balmy practically all year round, ‘Retired from Cape Town’ enjoys an almost endless summer. As another song goes – summertime and the living is easy.
It’s easy indeed to enjoy all the area offers. Stroll along pristine beaches, brave the exhilarating surf or cool off in the tidal pools at Salt Rock, Shaka’s Rock and Thompson’s Bay that, like the legions of rock pools exposed at low tide, teem with marine life.
“When I first saw the creatures in Shaka’s Pool, I knew I had to share that beauty,” surfer and qualified nature guide, Michelle (Michy) Morris says. A year ago, Michy started Tidal Tao Snorkel Safaris. “Not everyone wants to go scuba diving. Snorkelling is much the same but in miniature.”
‘Tao’, Michy explains, is Chinese for ‘telling a story’. And what stories she tells as she guides snorkellers on unforgettable expeditions – some at night – in the tidal pools and hidden gulleys. Stories, for examples of the nudibranch. “The what?” “A sea slug,” says Michy. “The name means naked gills. There are more than 3 000 species, all of them fabulously coloured.”
Another story is of the coral in Shaka’s Pool. “The most southerly occurrence in the world of shallow-water coral,” she says. In telling the ocean’s stories, Michy’s primary goal is to conserve marine life.
“I want to stop the cruelty along the coast.” It’s not mere talk. Twenty percent of her income goes to marine conservation projects.
Another who cares deeply for animals, in this case domestic animals, is Genevieve Chisholm. “In ten years we’ve rescued 10 000 animals,” she says. Gen and her parents, Odile and Julian Foster-Greenwood, own Flag Animal Farm, situated a few kilometres inland from Salt Rock. “It was badly run down when we bought it,” Gen says. “Today it’s rated as top of its kind.” It’s also one of the busiest destinations on the North Coast. Families stream in and schoolchildren arrive by the busload to picnic, party, play in the Jabula Playground and learn to love animals.
But Flag Farm is no zoo. It’s a facility genuinely devoted to giving a loving home to abused or abandoned domestic animals. “Many get dumped here,”she adds, hugging a kid goat whose mother escaped slaughter by jumping a fence and running away. “If we don’t have space for an animal, we’ll find it another home. But every one we accept lives its full life here and receives proper care.”
Further inland is a venue devoted to wild animals. Rain Farm wildlife sanctuary and lodge is the only place of its kind on the North Coast, until the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. “The owner, Douglas Nidd, is passionate about wildlife and conservation,” marketing manager Tasmyn-Jain van Niekerk tells me as we sit on the restaurant deck watching zebras graze on coastal grasslands across the valley. “He dreamed of his own game reserve where his children could lead an outdoor lifestyle.”
Eighteen years ago Douglas began a remarkable labour of love – the re-wilding of 300 hectares of sugar-cane fields. As Rain Farm evolved, the Nidd family decided to share it, and opened it to the public five years ago. It has become a sought-after destination that offers a range of facilities including accommodation, a wedding venue, day-visitor amenities, game drives and various adventure activities.
Back toward the coast, two other enterprises provide muscle-straining, bum-bruising adventure – more specifically ‘the new golf’, as some refer to mountain bike trail riding. “It’s one of the fastest-growing sports,” Nic Jordan tells us. A farmer and accomplished mountain-bike rider who has, among other challenges, ridden halfway around Rwanda, Nic started Holla Trails (named after ‘holler’ – what riders do when they’re hurtling along a thrilling route) five years ago.
“Our 340km trail network is possibly the most extensive organised trail venue in the country,” says Nic, adding that Holla’s furthest point is high on an escarpment, a 70-minute drive from the clubhouse. That surely translates into a many-hour ride. (I’ll take the drive, thanks).
Next door, Sugar Rush Park offers mountain-bike trails ranging from a 5km course to a demanding 40km route. More than that, the park is a unique agritourism hub. “Our initial plan was for a cut flower growing and distribution centre,” says Rose Juby, one of four partners who developed the park. “We only needed two hectares, but ten is the required minimum for agricultural zoning.” To make use of the surplus, Rose and her partners brought on board the Ballito Dolphins Rugby Club, which needed a home of its own, and iLembe Winery, a co-op with vineyards in the KZN hinterland. They also opened a café, decor shop and the Sugar Rush Adventure Centre, which incorporates the trails and a children’s play park. And so, from its beginnings as a flower-packing facility, Sugar Rush has blossomed into a place where you can ride or shop until you drop.
Back at Salt Rock, shopaholics can feed their habit at two fine markets. On the north side of the N2, Burnedale Farmers Market concentrates on local fresh produce and home-made products. The Saturday morning market is part of the Burnedale Centre, which houses a café and a range of small shops including a pottery gallery where you can buy hand-painted crockery, or do your own painting.
Across the N2, the Litchi Orchard – set, as one would expect, on a working litchi farm – also promotes local and sustainable food production. A day market is held on the second Saturday of each month, and the night market that includes live music is on the last Friday of the month. Facilities open daily include the dinky Coffee Roastery, a café, garden centre and pub.
Thinking back to my (misspent) childhood on the North Coast, I recall people commenting to my parents, “Why do you want to live all the way out there?” Nowadays though, the Salt Rock area has so much going for it that anyone not living ‘all the way out there’ might be sorely tempted to bunk work or school and escape to this vibrant coastal paradise
Source: Country Life