Umdoni Park, KwaZulu-Natal- a hidden golfing secret

A Challenging Walk in the Park

You haven’t played KwaZulu-Natal coastal golf until you’ve toured Umdoni Park, a top 100 course. Perched, like a hidden secret, within an indigenous forest and overlooking the Indian Ocean, it is a fantastic challenge for golfers of all levels.

Photo courtesy of Ndimbulele Khasibe
Photo courtesy of Ndimbulele Khasibe

The secret to the golf club’s enduring success is the warmth of its members and staff. Within minutes of arrival, you feel part of the place – which is just as well, ahead of the challenge that awaits.

The sharp elevation of some approach shots, particularly on the front nine, speak to deceptive design, and you under club at your peril.

Often, a golfer is most fearful of that which they don’t know. The members will tell you to pack plenty of club for each shot chasing the safety of the green.

Don’t Come Up Short

For players coming from up north, where the air is light and the ball flies forever, best you adjust your yardage early. You will need at least two clubs longer, and that is before you take the wind into consideration. Here, too, the course can hoodwink the uninitiated. Even if you can’t feel it beneath the trees, your shot will be affected.

Terrific features of Umdoni are the short holes on the course. Each is unique in character, and places a massive premium on accuracy. The charming third and the wicked 12th both require little more than a wedge, but they can both gobble up a shot short on distance.

Photo courtesy of Alex Crowie
Photo courtesy of Alex Crowie

There are plenty of candidates for a signature hole, but the closing stretch of four holes, heading back to the clubhouse and the sea, will demand your last bit of concentration.

The final hole, from a tee box that has a view as vast as it is blue, is a wonderful par-five. The heroes will try and get there in two big blows, but water near the green combine with forest on the left to protect a well-bunkered putting surface.

Convivial Clubhouse Company

Head into the convivial 19th hole for tales of adventure and what could have been, as the wind outside whips up and brings in the night.

Photo courtesy of Ndimbulele Khasibe
Photo courtesy of Ndimbulele Khasibe

If you’re eating, the clubhouse restaurant has some excellent choices every day expect Monday, including a truly sumptuous fillet dish that would sit proudly at any reputable eatery.

Rustic or Baronial?

If you’ve travelled from afar, Umdoni’s range of accommodations offerings suit every budget and party size. For the modern Tarzan and friends, there are rustic dwellings near the 12th green- the self-catering forest cottages which accommodate up to 20 people, well away from anyone else. You can be as loud as you want, and only the resident mambas (snakes) might complain.

Photo courtesy of Angela Buckland
Photo courtesy of Angela Buckland

For those after a more genteel night’s rest, Botha House sits between the estate entrance and the clubhouse. Botha House was originally built for General Louis Botha as a beach retreat for his wife Annie. Today this sensitively restored, gracious homestead stands proudly above the ocean, the sound of the waves crashing on the Umdoni Point rocks below.

Surrounded by rolling lawns, it has a certain country charm and appealing grandeur. Its architecture is unmistakably Cape Dutch, its interior elegantly colonial- think columned entrance hall, drawing room, dining room, country house paraphernalia, fireplaces, oil landscapes and portraits- and it is a sublimely relaxing retreat.

Photo courtesy of Angela Buckland
Photo courtesy of Angela Buckland

The four rooms of the manor house are glorious and cavernous, with views towards the sea or the forest. The staff, led by the knowledgeable Charles, are attentive and knock up a traditional breakfast, which you can take in the grand dining room or on the terrace, with the morning sun and sea breeze for company.

Photo courtesy of Alex Crowie
Photo courtesy of Alex Crowie

It is an experience that speaks of a bygone era, where time went by as slowly as the gin and tonics. There are also cottages dotted around the main house, and these are also comfortable and make for fine double rooms.

Off Course, On Track

It’s not all about golf, so golfing widows or widowers have plenty of options. That forest I mentioned? Imagine riding through the forest simply enjoying the solitude and hearing nothing more than birds tweeting and the hooves of your horse as you make your way along the trails.

Photo courtesy of Shannon Stoffels
Photo courtesy of Shannon Stoffels

There are walking trails with Bushbuck, Impithi, Red Duiker and so much more, running trails with weekly parkruns and myruns, and cycling tracks, over 120 tree species, ditto for grassland species, a resident pair of Crowned Eagles and over 150 bird species.

Photo courtesy of Thobekani Mdletshe
Photo courtesy of Thobekani Mdletshe

For the more adventurous, hike down to the gorge and along the Nkumbane River and Ridge Trail. Stop off at the Otter View Site and take-in the forest sights and smells.

Photo courtesy of Khulasande Tshayile
Photo courtesy of Khulasande Tshayile

There’s a whale watching deck, lovely picnic area, an Environmental centre, with interactive walks to learn about the fauna and flora. The beach has a tidal pool and the best access to Pennington point, a renowned fishing spot.

Photo courtesy of Thando Ngcobo
Photo courtesy of Thando Ngcobo

Closing Shots

It is easy to forget that KZN has two coasts, completely different in manner or manor.
The well-heeled North attracts the attention, and even more so after the airport relocated. Everything happens quicker on that side of Durban.
But, as the international pandemic has reminded us, there is still a time and a place for old creature comforts.
Like the south coast, and hidden treats like Umdoni and it’s wonderful people.
Go.
Play.
Stay a while.
Visit www.umdonipark.com

Umkhumbi Lodge

“Time for a lemonade” said Anton Roberts as we sat atop the riverbank in Ukuwela conservancy, some way outside the small town of Hluhluwe in Northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

One or two “lemonades” later and the sun was setting over the trees of neighbouring five star Phinda Game Reserve, a very different affair from where we were sat. Here the stars shine brighter, since there is only bush and distant Albizia Camp- a nice rustic camp for large or small groups with permanent ablutions and a central hangout. Perfect for Roberts’ frequent volunteers and interns- the latest batch being veterinary students from the UK whose moon tans vie with the luminous fever trees in the fading light. It’s also available as a glamping  option for people who want to just break away from the hustle at a reasonable rate.

Conservation In The Bush

I need to backtrack to 2011, when I first met Anton and Emma Roberts at Umkhumbi Lodge their three star lodge a short distance from Albizia, where the focus is on families and small groups. I was struck with the care they had taken in building guest units in the indigenous sand forest, using wheelbarrows to cart materials between the shrubs and trees for minimal environmental impact.

About The Lodge

Umkhumbi is a quiet, comfy place and the subdivided units dotted around the forest are roomy and airy, with lofty ceilings and private decks. No tvs, except at the bar, but all-important aircon and bar fridges, en-suite bath and separate shower. The main hub for guests is the dining area and upstairs bar with fantastic sunset views. Chef Meva Zisongo is a keeper and his meals are definitely four star, as is the very friendly, laidback atmosphere.

The upstairs bar

It’s an ideal base for exploring the region and you are likely to meet people from all walks of life, including the aforementioned veterinary students and film crews.

A visit to Umkhumbi is not complete without a close encounter with some creeping, slithering or crawling creature from the Roberts’ collection. Anton has helped facilitate wild life documentary film crews in 96000 hectare Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, the oldest proclaimed reserve in Africa, as well as other game reserves in Southern Africa and the Roberts’ have hosted The Survivor Man – Les Stroud, Nitro Circus, Nat Geo, BBC, Animal Planet and many others. Anton will find the creatures required for wildlife programmes and conservation, assist with inserting telemetry tracking devices and afterward monitor the animals and the transmitted data.

“I’ve led tour groups, film crews, scientists, film stars, presidents and other so-called important people from all over the world in Namibia, Botswana, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique” he says.

Here you can see what he gets up to in his spare time: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCAHAdOuD4E&t=34s

The large female also had a large clutch of babies, which Anton saved from certain death at the hands of the terrified local community.

The environment, its preservation and sustainable resource usage are driving passions for the Roberts family.  Umkhumbi is not a huge money spinner. But they are not in it for the money. “If we were we could simply start a pineapple farm” Emma says, rolling her eyes. Pineapples are big business in the area but that would mean destroying their forest, home to endangered Suni antelope and many other species.

Instead they’ve partnered with like-minded people and associations, most notably the Wild Tomorrow Fund. Anton says “John Steward and Wendy Hapgood are amazing people with total dedication to conservation and wildlife. I have been in contact with many NGO’s and non-profits but they are mostly top heavy with egos and consultants with nothing but theory and paperwork, which stalls the actual efforts where the money is badly needed. With Wild Tomorrow Fund the funds go straight into the field where it’s used and managed by the people doing the actual work. Their ecologists are 100% committed and have a great relationship with everyone they work with, both in private reserves and government parks”.

Their relationship with The Wild Tomorrow Fund resulted in the Ukuwela conservancy, the base for their environmental awareness courses.  Emma is often an “office widow” as Anton spends weeks at international trade shows and presenting to schools, colleges and universities to get youth groups- from veterinary students to expedition groups, sporting and educational school tours- to South Africa on very hands-on, customised programmes that cover all facets of ecology and the importance of conservation.

Umkhumbi offers internships with up to three month placements, or a minimum of two weeks (www.wildvolunteers.com) volunteering. Included are basic bush skills, core conservation principles, night skies, game walks, game drives, iSimangaliso Wetland park visits and more- work and play combined.

Umkhumbi Lodge has a clinic and interns spend time working on animals that have generally come from rehabilitation centres such as CROW (crowkzn.co.za ) and are now ready for release into the wild.

“Rewilding” the animals often involves weaning them off any form of human contact. The puff adder being treated for pneumonia and the hissing spotted eagle owl in the aviary seemed well keen to be rid of humans and the interns joshed each other about their reaction times.

“Releasing the rehabilitated wildlife in a very low game density area such as Ukuwela gives them the best possible chance of survival” says Anton. Various studies on the conservancy include game density studies with camera traps that have revealed the likes of aardvark, porcupine, honey badger and four leopards that were previously not known of. Bucket traps are also in place and data of insect and reptiles is recorded on a daily basis and the conservancy is also home to a variety of plains game- antelope like wildebeest, nyala, zebra and impala.

“Bring it on!” is Anton’s often heard life motto and it’s always “on” it seems, if one tracks his and the interns’ progress at Umkhumbi, at Albizia, or through South Africa into the Namib desert and other remote places. Back at the lodge, staffies Copper and Shadow keep Emma company and guests amused (Copper loves chasing bats in the evening). You should join them.

www.umkhumbilodge.co.za

 

Rockwood Forest Lodge

Who knew that one of my favourite spots would also be one of the closest to home? I enjoy my privacy but at almost every far-flung place I’ve been there’s someone staying alongside or nearby. Not at Rockwood Forest Lodge.

Here you have a double storey wooden house in a forest glade, with a rushing stream below an expansive deck, and nobody, except Jabu Dlamini who services the place in the morning- and the security service clocking in at an electronic marker once a day- to disturb you.

“Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits”- widely (and erroneously) attributed to A.A. Milne- is the most appropriate, given that you are in your own 100 Acre Wood although, at 936ha, this wood is way bigger.

Rockwood Forest Lodge – A (very) Hidden Gem

Self- catering Rockwood Forest Lodge, in the Karkloof Private Nature Reserve in Kwazulu-Natal’s midlands, is only accessible with a 4×4. If you don’t have one, no problem. Jabu will ferry you from the office on the farm Spiztkop, through several gates and over several watercourses into the reserve.

It’s rustic but four star. The little kitchen is well equipped and thoughtful extras one doesn’t normally find in self-catering spots are provided- seasoning, milk, oil, ground coffee, yummy biscuits and a bottle of red wine for example. Then there’s the Big Green Egg. This is not a braai (barbecue), it’s a very efficient cook’s delight and it’s worth working out how to use it to bake and much more.

Evening on the deck- Big Green Egg fired up

Forest Lodge won’t suit everyone. Activities and facilities are not “on tap”, nobody’s going to take your kids off your hands and you may not have cellphone/internet reception. Therein lies the charm. A complete break. Privacy, enveloped by nature.

In the heart of the second largest indigenous forest in South Africa, the lodge sleeps six (eight at a pinch) in three bedrooms with three bathrooms (well, two baths, one shower). Very large windows without bars afford lovely forest views, the babbling brook is a constant soundtrack for relaxation in the greenish light and, if the weather turns or you tire of the water music, there is DSTV, a blu-ray player and some discs and an iPod docking station/music system in the very comfy lounge, with its fireplace and never ending wood supply (Spitzkop produces firewood).

A few days here is simply the perfect way, in the perfect place, to unwind. I’ve been twice and loved every part of each experience, from just sitting on the deck listening to the rushing water below, to the plectranthus-lined walk to the waterfalls, with crowned eagles overhead.

The peace of the forest wraps itself around the place, providing friendly seclusion. Food for the soul.

If noonoos bug you the forest is not for you (nor is Africa really, especially KwaZulu-Natal). On a forest walk the lead hiker does a Gandalf impersonation, waving a staff to clear spiders’ webs, while the supplied Peaceful Sleep came in handy too. Oddly enough, almost no mozzies around the lodge, so we only used it on our walks. My brother played Gandalf and added a jig- hilarious to watch- since a couple of horseflies found his legs very tasty. They left the rest of us alone.

Goudini Falls

Aside from a shortish hike to Goudini Falls 1 and 2, we checked out the dams on the farm, well stocked with rainbow and brown trout. Bring your own rods and grab a life jacket from the office if using one of the canoes.

The whole area is a mountain biker’s delight, with trails ranging from easy enough for me to mistakenly head down in my 4×4 the first time I visited, to “Eish!”.

We also negotiated the long, winding, scenic 4×4 road to the eco-friendly Mountain Lodge, taking time out to enjoy a swim in the clear waters of the dams on the way. If you alert the staff they will open a gate for 4×4 access to the nearby and highly recommended Karkloof Canopy Tour.

The Canopy Tour is a real treat, with wonderful views over the Karkloof Valley from the uppermost platform and zipline, and thrilling, staggered descents through the canopies of the indigenous forest. Here you can hope to spot the same elusive bird species to be found near the lodge, as well as Simango monkeys. Afterward, you can enjoy a supplied light meal and check out the photos from your experience, which you can buy on a disc. I’ve done numerous canopy tours and this one remains top of my list.

Apart from the Forest Lodge and the equally isolated Mountain Lodge, down on the flatland of the farm is the fabulous farmhouse and separate cottage, 25m apart. The farmhouse does not deserve its four star rating, or maybe a star fell off. It looks great from outside, but a whole lot better inside and is wonderful for families or groups, with a loft play area complete with foosball, pool table and much more- and there is playground with trampoline and swings close by and a private dam right outside. Five stars from me!

Check them all out here: http://www.rockwood.co.za/

Nosy Be

If You’re Heading To Nosy Be (and you should)

There are so many reasons to visit. Lemurs of course-and many other endemic or unusual species of flora and fauna too. 90% of the species in Madagascar are found nowhere else on earth.

I’ve never been to the mainland (though many I know have spent time there). I have, however, visited Nosy Be (Big Island) and several of the satellite islands- there are fifteen in total- that comprise the collective also known as Nosy Be, off the north western coast of Madagascar proper.

While the mainland is, in many respects, an ecological nightmare, Nosy Be and the surrounding islands is mostly reserve, on land and sea, making it Madagascar’s natural showpiece. And what a showpiece it is!

Dirty Laundry- Corruption, poverty, sex, disease

Let’s get this out of the way- and I’ll try not to rant. There’s some crazy shit going on around the globe and, whatever bad things you read about Madagascar (don’t get me started on sensationalist journalism), the Nosy Be area is not the same as the mainland and I feel way safer there than I ever did in, for example, Istanbul, between bomb attacks.

If you’ve been to Africa, you’ll understand. If you are scared off by what you read in the media, you will never know what you’re missing.

Corruption is rife but hardly affects visitors who are, after all, everyone’s bread and butter. You get a sense as you disembark at the Hellville airport. Make sure you have USD30 or Euro25 for your entry visa and don’t expect change. Know that you will be asked for a “gift” by each of the officials- and you will be needlessly shuttled between five or so. Just decline. No need to be intimidated. They are just trying it on.

Similarly at the frequent roadblocks. These affect your driver, not you, and I had a good laugh when I asked my driver what he had given the policeman. A hotel brochure. It’s a daily, de rigueur dance and the locals know all the moves.

The darkest side of corruption and poverty is the sex trade. You’ll see signs regarding that in Hellville and, if you hang around Hellville, a lot more besides. I have no tips for you concerning that.

International media had a field day in 2017 regarding the “Black Death”. To quote World Health Organisation official Charlotte Ndiaye: “It is as if the plague is the end of the world… but it is a disease like any other… We are lucky that treatment is available for this disease and it is free.”

More importantly, there have been no cases in Nosy Be. See this blog: https://lonepalmjewelry.com/blogs/captains-log/captains-log-16-october-2017-1027
It’s been handled very well and, on their website, “WHO advises against any restriction on travel or trade on Madagascar…”, something reiterated by the Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), Taleb Rifai, in November 2017.
“WHO expects more cases of plague to be reported from Madagascar until the typical plague season ends in April…”

You are more likely to get Malaria, so take prophylactic treatment to be safe. For the record, I have travelled in and out of malaria areas more times than I can remember. I stopped taking prophylactics years ago. I have not contracted malaria. Mozzie spray is recommended.

Comparisons

Nosy Be is way different to the Indian Ocean destinations that I have visited- La Reunion, Mauritius, Seychelles (though I have not seen all of the Seychelles islands, which are scattered across an immense area), Zanzibar and others spots on and off the Mozambique coast.

Mauritius is lovely but very commercialised (not my thing) and similar in many ways to my part of South Africa. Mahe and Praslin are extremely beautiful and I love it there, but I constantly remind myself that much of the flora is imported, as is most of the food. La Reunion is somewhere I would happily live but that’s another story. Besides, poking a tad over 3000m from the sea gives La Reunion a very different climate (climates actually) and, being a French province, it’s quite first world by comparison. Zanzibar is beautiful but my experience was largely of walled, cheek by jowl, resorts- a tourist trap with incredibly persistent hawkers. Mozambique is, well, complicated (the roadblocks are way worse) and not as beautiful.

Nosy Be is more densely forested, jungly, wilder, more exotic than any of the above. Only a few of the fifteen islands are inhabited. Poverty is evident but not abject. Delicious and varied produce and, of course, seafood, is abundant so nobody’s starving. “Nosy Manitra” (the perfumed island) is one nickname for Nosy Be and ylang ylang, coffee, cacao, vanilla and sugar cane plantations distil a deliciously balmy fragrance in the warm air. People are laidback. Shouting and gesticulating is not their way- even taboo (fady).  There are many fadys and they vary from community to community, so be sure to ask (quietly). This, and a few Malagasy words or phrases, will go a long way to making your visit all the more enjoyable.

I do have tips on tipping and money. Draw Ariary, the local currency, at an ATM in Hellville as money changers will maximise their profits at your expense. You will get better prices from traders if you use Ariary, but USD and Euros are widely accepted.

There’s another form of currency- just for tipping, and this applies in other poor countries. A seasoned fellow traveller’s suitcase was packed with clothes he didn’t use or need and he went home with an almost empty suitcase. I now routinely leave obviously placed caps, folded clothing, slip slops etc. when I check out, especially in remote areas where items are not easily available.
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Out And About

Diving is probably the top drawcard here and there is plenty of fishing, swimming, snorkelling and sailing if you prefer to stay close to the surface. Every lodge or resort will arrange those and other activities. Alternatively MadaGascaT have live aboard charters- which rolls all that into a package that I am itching to do.

Wherever you explore, be it by boat, foot, quad bike or mountain bike, be courteous. The Malagasy people are generally reserved but open up if you engage with them, I found. They are genuinely friendly, not just because you are a paying customer. I like that and was touched by several as I toured.

Claudio Harrys, my Be Welcome guide, was one. A gentle soul, Claudio first took me, paddling a pirogue (dugout), alongside a steeply rising, forested stretch of Nosy Be from Ambatozavavy to Ampasipohy Community Reserve (Lokobe National Park). Here Anwar Alle guided us through the muddy paths in the dappled light of the humid forest.

On hundreds of African game viewing excursions I’ve always been amazed at guides’ spotting abilities, but Anwar takes the cake! The Giant Leaf Tailed gecko may be huge but is incredibly well camouflaged, the large spiders and boa constrictors not so much (happily, no venomous types in Nosy Be). But the mostly nocturnal lemurs, some the size of mice and endemic to Nosy Be- like many of the trees and flowers- can be hard to spot, hidden in the dense foliage. Panther Chameleons, with males reaching 44cm, are a doddle but Madagascar also has the world’s smallest chameleons- the size of a pinkie fingertip- which take some finding.

 

 

 

 

Frogs, bats, trees and flowers- including some vaginal beauties- and much more. Then it was back to the little village’s lunch spot above the bay for a delightful lunch in yet another beautiful setting, accompanied by colourful song and dance from the women.

Back we went- this time getting a tow from a passing motorboat, so all we really had to do was bail water. If you are visiting Nosy Be, this is a must-do (not the bailing bit).

I was reunited with Claudio on a full day’s visit to Tanikely Marine Reserve- on and around a small, uninhabited island a little way off from Nosy Be.

The snorkelling at Tanikely is superb, swimming with green and hawksbill turtles in the tap water clear, warm water a real treat. Much of the coral was bleached a couple of years ago but the sealife is abundant- rays, eels, fish of every colour, ranging from shimmering shoals of tiny types to giant pufferfish and large groupers. Huge sea urchins and giant clams, nudibranchs, octopi and unusual sea cucumbers are just some of the sights around the reef which is only about 30m from the shore.

Lunch- made offshore on the boat (no fires allowed)- was what you find everywhere, and delicious: rice, veggies, seafood, Zebu (the local cattle)- seated on a log rectangle at a table of piled up and flattened sand bedecked with a colourful cloth, under the shade of trees fringing the forest. Entering the forest, one goes up, with many stops for pics of lemurs, crabs, bats and more, to an interprative centre and the now-defunct lighthouse which affords great views and a way to get your bearings among the islands.

If the tide is right, you can walk around the island in about 45 minutes. If you like solitude I recommend getting there early, before boatloads of other visitors arrive- though there’s always space.

Claudio also showed me Hellville, the colourful, somewhat chaotic and Cubanesque capital (named after a person, so never fear). The bustling produce market is worth a visit for a looksee, vanilla, fragrances and spices. Finely crafted jewellery from shops in the main road is worth considering and I came home with lots of fine Madagascan chocolate.

Heading out of town, we lingered at the site of a humungous, sacred banyan tree (Malagasy beliefs are largely a blend of Catholicism and Animism). Our guide, and the posing lemurs, were enchanting, the banyan truly impressive, the little museum rather interesting and the rhum arrangé and coffee, looking out to sea, most welcome.

Mostly Muslim Marodoka was another stop. The 9th century village of Swahili origin, which attracted Indians and Arabs, was the first in Nosy Be. Madagascar’s first mosque is here and the Indian cemetery, dating from the 17th century, was one of many sights that made me wish I was a film director.

There’s lots I haven’t done, lots yet to do (I unfortunately had to cancel my last trip- but soon!). Beautiful Nosy Iranja, a favoured hawksbill turtle hatchery, for example.

But it’s not so much about the doing as the being and soaking it all up. Pick a perfect spot (and another, and another) and be as rooted as the banyan, or gad about. Either way, unplug, observe and immerse yourself in the experience- “Mora Mora”(relax, it will happen – it just takes time) as the Malagasy say.

 

Getting There, Getting About

MadagasCaT Charters and Travel arranged my seamless itinerary. MadagasCaT are members of Nosy Be Tourism Board and are the private partner behind Airlink’s direct flight to Nosy Be. MadagasCaT are the main contributors for the Nosy Be chapter in the Bradt Guide to Madagascar for the last four editions. Call +27 21 2000173 and visit www.madagascat.co.za

Airlink connects you to your unique Indian Ocean island getaway, Nosy Be, on Sundays and also has seasonal flights from Johannesburg to Nosy Be return on Wednesdays from 28 March to 2 May, 27 June to 10 October 2018 and 19 December to 2 January 2019. Airlink, now connecting you to 37 destinations in nine African countries and St Helena Island. Book your flight direct on www.flyairlink.com or call SAA Central Reservations on 011 978 1111. Spread your wings- fly Airlink.