04 Dec

Being a tourist in your own province is like falling for the love of your life all over again – exciting, surprising, challenging and magically memorable. Debbie Reynolds explored the KZN coast from Shelly Beach in the south to Kosi Bay in the north

Story Debbie Reynolds

Five strangers. 12 towns. 15 land adventures. 16 accommodation changes. 20 scuba dives.
21 days. 1 300km. Five friends. This, in essence, was the scope of the Dive Durban and East Coast of KZN expedition, which started at King Shaka International Airport, this winter.

It was here that five strangers – local development divers Sifiso Mngoma and Thami Mabina, experienced divers Switzerland’s Monica da Silva and Reunion’s Chris Desseigne and yours truly – met to embark on a first-ever three-week ocean adventure to explore and profile the east coast’s unique marine and tourist diversity.

Organised under the banner of Durban Green Corridors, in partnership with the eThekwini Municipality, the Dive Durban expedition’s key goal was to build a platform to encourage scuba diving tourism to the city and province.

One of KZN’s best-kept secrets is that it offers some of the most amazing diving in the world, with reefs that have consistently been voted in the world’s top 10. Throw the month of July into the mix, and encounters with migrating humpback whales and breeding ragged tooth sharks add a special magic. Top that with the adrenaline of land-based adventures and a rich cultural tapestry and you have a holiday that is hard to beat, anywhere in the world.

We started at Shelly Beach and, within two days, saw five different species of sharks, whales, dolphins, turtles, extreme swings and slides, snakes and crocodiles, indigo blue sea,
action-packed boat rides and fresh fish grilled on the beach.

Besides being an open water shark diving mecca, this part of the south coast boasts the Oribi Gorge Wild 5 adventures, theme and game parks, and a host of restaurants and accommodation, including some great luxury options.

Next stop was Scottburgh, where we stayed at the fabulously retro Cutty Sark Hotel and, as rated by the team, enjoyed one of our best dives ever on the lesser known dive sites, Howard’s Castle, which ticked every box – warm 23°C winter water, raggies, black tip sharks, turtles, rays, a giant potato bass, yellowfin tuna, remoras, pineapple fish, nudibranchs, schools of reef fish and a humpback whale, which breached right next to the dive boat as we all clambered aboard.

It was then on to the delightfully quirky town of Umkomaas where we settled in for three days of spectacular diving in an ocean teeming with marine life and dive sites, like Cathedral, with topography that had our overseas visitors awestruck. Offering a huge variety of dive sites, dive operators, accommodation and restaurants, Umkomaas has rightfully earned the reputation of being a scuba divers’ paradise.

I was excited to show our guests the beautiful city of Durban, where we spent four days discovering its unique diversity. After a full day of sun, sea, dangerous creatures and the world-class aquarium at uShaka Marine World, we were happy to chill out in what is probably one of Durban’s »
best-kept secrets – the Blue Waters Hotel. This is real beachfront value for money with great ocean views!

Being in the city on Nelson Mandela Day called for a celebration of the great man’s life, so we joined a morning cultural tour of eNanda, known as the “cradle of democracy”. After literally walking in the footsteps of South Africa’s struggle heroes and experiencing traditional Zulu culture and hospitality, we spent the afternoon at the spiritual Rasta Caves with glorious views of Umzinyathi Falls.

The next two days were spent in the ocean, where we enjoyed some thrilling wreck and reef dives off Durban and Glenashley, as well as an inspiring night snorkel at Salt Rock.

Heading for the northern shores, the next stop was the picturesque town of St Lucia, where the highlight was a five-hour Sundowners Eastern Shores excursion with Shaka Barker Tours in the iSimangaliso Wetlands World Heritage Park; not to mention the numerous sightings of hippos, which go walkabout in the middle of town at night.

Then it was time to show off one of my favourite places in the world – Sodwana Bay. This little seaside town, situated on the edge of the iSimangaliso Park, is famed for its sublime diving on endless pristine reefs, beautiful unspoilt beaches and island-style hospitality.

The team was captivated by Coral Divers Lodge, which (with Mseni Lodge) shares one of only two dive concessions inside the park. Accommodation varies from air-conditioned en suite chalets to rustic cabins and tents, with a choice of self-catering or meals at the restaurant. The evening braai at the boma is the perfect way to end a day of diving and also to meet new friends who come to this little piece of KwaZulu-Natal paradise from around the world.

They come because the diving is so good and affordable. Every one of our five dives was special, with the prolific waters treating us to everything from dolphins, whales and shoals of fish to kingfish, turtles, rays, eels, paper fish, green coral trees, puffer and crocodile fish.

After getting up close and personal with the big boys of the ocean we ended the trip with a two-day visit to the famous Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, where encounters with four of Africa’s big five – elephant, rhino, Cape buffalo and lion – put the seal of approval on an amazing local adventure.

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