A total of two thousand and five hundred kilometres turned into an off-road adventure of a lifetime around South Africa, Mozambique and Swaziland. Completed in a speedy nineteen days.
From 20th December 2018 to 7th January 2019 we spent three-quarters of the time off road than on road in my 4×4, deliberately seeking off the beaten tracks, tracks invisible on Garmin GPS. Forget Google Maps and Waze! Unless you have endless time to get back on track. If only…
Naturally, I expected to be excited by the trip. New places to explore, different cultures to experience; so much of the unknown to delve into. My expectations were dull in comparison to the constant stream of stimulation engulfed at every turn, wishing every moment would last so much longer.
Three countries: two out of the three I hadn’t set foot in | Two provinces, almost opposite ends of South Africa | Exploration of surf and turf | Beaches | Surfing | Luxury | Rustic | Gourmet | Basic | Braaied fish | R&Rs | Peri-peri | Unforgiving heat | Dripping humidity | Rural | City | Welcoming natives | Friendly foreigners | Electric thunderstorms | Blinding rain | The Big Five | Wildlife habits | Safaris | Sundowners in the bush | Happiness | Peace | Mania | Wealthy people | Poor people | Dramatic landscapes | Bare rock | An oasis | White river rafting | Almost getting stuck | Flat car battery | Stuck | New battery | Derelict mining town | Mountain passes | Plantations: mealies, sugarcane, mangos, lychees, macadamias, pineapples | Pervasive scents | Farm animals | Informal settlements | Rainbows | Biltong… Endless thrills.
Part 1: Durban to Ponta D’ Ouro
The luxury tented camps nestled amidst the Maputaland Coastal Forest Reserve, abundant with birds and opportunistic monkeys. Watch out for your bread rolls at breakfast! A pity we didn’t have time to experience the unique scuba diving along unspoilt reefs or the turtle safaris. A maze through the indigenous forest meandered onto a stretch of over thirty-kilometres of pristine beach.
Surfing Sodwana Bay
Through iSimangaliso Wetland Park, we hit serious off-road including sand dunes, dense forest and coastal vistas lasting forty-kilometres to reach Sodwana Bay. A day spent surfing and de-stressing from London living rejuvenated us, prepared us for the unknown venture ahead. Unfortunately, summer in South Africa doesn’t lend itself to the best surf conditions but we gave it our all and persevered until complete exhaustion from paddling overcame us.
Off-road to Kosi Bay Border
After breakfast on the second morning, we left for Ponta D’ Ouro, Southern Mozambique, planning to surf en route. The stunning, unspoilt beaches were all too wild to surf, so we briefly admired each from the beach and rallied on.
Screaming through dirt tracks for fifty-five kilometres, I almost got us stuck twice. The narrow tracks snaked, dipped, climbed in between thick vegetation; beach sand like soft brown sugar challenged me as a 4×4 driver. Bring it on! I’ve never experienced off-roading as joyously intense before. Most of the traffic came in the form of Nguni cattle, known as the most beautiful cattle in the world, indigenous to Southern Africa.
Frenzied Border Post
A few kilometres outside the chaotic Kosi Bay town, we hit tarmac and traffic jams caused by both cars and people on foot. Having not even progressed a kilometre, another stumbling block appeared. A two-kilometre queue of stationary cars to the border post! The cars in front had already been waiting for almost two hours. Silent Scream! Furniture piled as high as a house on bakkies smaller than my car; taxis dangerously overloaded with people; scuffles between men alongside buses with beer spilling from bottles held in their hands; 4x4s in convoy.
Stop-start, stop-start, we moved a car at a time every two minutes. After the fifth time restarting my vehicle it gave up, tick tick tick, the battery died. The third attempt and it ceased even ticking. Fortunately, I had jump leads and we asked the car behind us to give us a spark. With a smile, he pulled his dilapidated bakkie alongside us. It worked. My car started again. The vehicles behind us tried to overtake us and push in, as the cars in front slowly trudged forwards. We managed to get our spot back and allowed the chap who kindly assisted us to go before us.
Finally, while approaching the gate to the border, we laughed at the endless line of people queuing at the gate while the cars drove through and parked on the Mozambican side. The laugh was on us in the end. We had to join that queue. Drivers had to park the car while the passengers had to wait on the South African side. No! Thankfully, we were able to join the wife of the man who was behind us in the vehicle queue. They’d done it before and felt sorry for us. At least we now know for next time, and of course, help out the ignorant.
Border Requirements: Invaluable Information
Ponta Do Ouro Reservations lists the vital documents required here for the entry into Mozambique. I’d suggest buying the third party insurance online rather than at the border, to avoid joining a fourth queue. At least I found that out before arriving.
Ponta D’ Ouro (fondly known as Ponta)
Ponta used to be less than ten kilometres from the Kosi Bay border along dirt tracks; however, with it recently having been tarred it’s longer and not as much fun on road. Fortunately, the tar road ended as we reached the beginning of Ponta village, a unique African village hugging the coast, and from there the thick sandy tracks and dongas prevailed. Let the fun restart!
The only problem was that the tarmac brought 2×2 vehicles in droves and they all, bar none, got stuck. Not a problem for the locals. They all rushed out from every nook and cranny to assist, bodies dropped to their knees, sand flinging in every direction, then rocking the car from front to back and as if by magic the car raced along until another extra soft sand dump… The saga started all over again.
As you entered the village and hit the dirt, an informal market bustled on the right. Close to the road, Fernando’s Bar served plastic cup after plastic cup of R&Rs, rum with a splash of raspberry. Only a sip made my face contort, easily imagining methylated spirit would be less toxic to drink. But then again I don’t drink at all…
Having arrived a few days before Christmas we thought, how delightful, what a peaceful almost sleepy village. Come Christmas Eve and everything drastically changed. Thousands of ‘Mapushkins’, peeps from Maputo, flocked to Ponta to let loose. The morning of New Year’s Eve doubled with people, the beaches already filled with bodies having camped overnight, all eager to see in 2019.
Outside Luka’s Supermarket & Butchery, trading mostly South African groceries, bags of cashew nuts dangled from the telephone boxes with sellers offering unbeatable prices. In the car parking area, the catch of the day from the night before spilt out of cooler boxes. People queued under an umbrella for the ATMs. A wooden shack sold real estate. To the left of Luka’s, a shop sold a variety of exotically flavoured samoosas that proved popular. A seafood shop offered ice cream too. Above, a favourite restaurant, Palm View soon became our local haunt. A shop at the fuelling station north of the village centre, adorned with palm plants and flowers, sold only local Mozambican produce.
Either side of the dirt tracks, running through the village, vendors sold clothes, peri-peri sauce, Vodacom SIM cards, rum, ice cream and fruit. It’s advised not to haggle over the price of clothes as they were already really cheap and they put in a lot of effort to produce.
We hired a quad bike for half a day and explored mostly back and beyond. During the adventure, we discovered a steep, single sandy track up to the top of the ridge, near the South African border fence. After the second attempt, coming close to flipping the quad we relented. Let’s do the hike tomorrow! In this heat and stifling humidity? The views will be worth it, and we can dive into the sea straight afterwards. OK! And so the next day we climbed, one step forward and two slipping back later we finally reached the top where the old lighthouse sat. Up a second rickety ladder, we reached the top of the lighthouse and gawked at the vistas over the whole of Ponta, either side of the cape at the southern tip of the bay.
Ponta Malongane (fondly known as Malongane)
Less than seven kilometres north of Ponta, all dirt tracks, a less hectic experience awaited us. From Ponta to Malongane, most stop off at every bar en route to Malongane, from isolated to rustic and chic.
My absolute favourite place, Sky Island Resort, could have been nestled on Sicilian cliffs. A perfect spot to parasail along the ridge and down on to the beach below, one of their most popular service offerings. The chunky seared tuna deserved an award and a second helping. A couple of days later we returned especially for the fish and the views. An oasis in the midst of frenzy.
A much smaller version of Ponta, Malongane offered revellers live music throughout the evening at Amigo’s Restaurant e Bar. A bar slap in the middle of the village where homeless children sat outside hoping for patrons to hand them leftover food.
The Sunset Shack apparently produced the best chicken in the world. I don’t eat meat so cannot comment. Sticking to fish, I relished the perfectly cooked catch of the day, the popular ‘reds’ or better known as red snapper became a favourite throughout our stay.
The beaches at Ponta and all the way past Malongane were wide, fine creamy-white sand falling into warm cerulean seas as clear as a raindrop. Not a spec of litter in sight. The protected bay at Ponta was ever ideal for bathers.
Surfing was best slightly north of the bay where the waves were a little more erratic and exciting. But again, summer doesn’t produce ideal surfing conditions. Mid to high tide proved better than any other time. Where there’s a will there’s a way!
Rustic bars that hug the beach all celebrated their own signature cocktail drinks, and people expertly knew how to appreciate this.
Tip: When it comes to accommodation during peak season, book far in advance. Fortunately, a friend of a friend could put us up for half the time at a self-catering villa, Walkers Way, above the campsite, which was a bit of a stroll for our daily morning surfing sessions. The other half of our stay was spent at Casa Ponta, a B&B close to the beach and the village centre that prepared a delicious continental and cooked breakfast.
Sampling the main restaurants, we soon discovered a couple favourites. The staff soon recognised us and beamed more and more each time we returned. The prices were surprisingly more expensive than South Africa, but the quality of food was consistently exceptional.
Palm View served the best ‘reds’ (red snapper) dripping garlic peri-peri sauce on a bed of chips. Chips that came from the most divine, melting potatoes ever tasted. Mozambique produces potatoes that instantly puncture the saliva glands.
For the best coffee and a healthy salad or wrap then head to Tarragon’s, opposite to the fuelling station. They also made scrumptious South African style fudge in different flavours.
Love Café made delicious banana milkshakes, albeit the ice cream throughout the village didn’t come close to Sicily’s gelato.
Most establishments charge for Wi-Fi. If the sign “Free Wi-Fi” isn’t emblazoned all over the front then it’ll cost you.
A Photographer’s Nightmare
I lost most of my photographs taken in Ponta and most of Swaziland. At least I still had some on my iPhone and the last day’s worth in Ponta that I hadn’t yet saved to the missing USB. I thought of crime and didn’t want to take too many valuable things. The last thing I thought of was negligence on my behalf. Too much of a good time… Back up! Back up! Back up! Oh well, another reason to return.
A couple of power outages turned the entire village black; however, it didn’t stop the people partying in bars and out on the ‘street’.
Ponta D’ Ouro is the most chaotically charming place I’ve ever experienced, a vibe that makes my soul beat rhythmically… I cannot wait to return.
Tee-shirts read: What happens in Ponta stays in Ponta. For the majority, it couldn’t be truer!
The next blog on Swaziland.