Jan 212015
 

Thonga Beach Turtle

Thonga Beach Turtle

By David Bristow

What cut of meat is that, the Argentinian woman wanted to know of probably the best piece of beef I – and seemingly she – had ever eaten. Loin, I thought. Not that we were there for the meat. It was just that the food at Thonga Beach Lodge has maybe the best food of any lodge I have visited, and I have seen a lot of lodges in the course of researching African Icons and all my previous books.

We were there for the turtles, leatherbacks and loggerheads that come ashore to nest on the beaches of Thongaland between Kosi and Sodwana Bays each summer. There are five species of turtle found in the coral waters here, including hawksbill, Ridley’s olive and green, but only the loggerhead and leatherback females nest here. Just why, no-one can say for sure.

Driving on beaches in South Africa is not allowed, except if you stay here (or one other lodge in the area) where you are allowed to join turtle searches during low tide. You stare ahead for the tell-tale tracks: two sets mean you are too late and the hard-shelled reptile has already laid and returned to the sea. One set and it’s pay dirt – it’s just hauled ashore.

In his book ‘Between the Tides’ (which you should buy), George recounts the time when, during the paranoid apartheid years, a security forces officer burst into the parks board bungalow to declare the country had been invaded by a large amphibious tank. How the conservationists laughed; the man had not before seen the tracks of a leatherback, which can attain a mass of around 900 kg and a length of around 3 m.

The whole process of coming ashore, digging a nest hole above the high-water mark, laying a batch of around 100 soft-shelled eggs, covering up the hole and returning to the ocean, takes an hour or more. It’s an extremely moving experience and I have seen big men shake with emotion and even shed a tear. Dr George Hughes started tagging turtles for the then Natal Parks Board (of which he was later chief) in 1964, one of the longest running research and conservation programmes in the world.

He regularly visits the lodge where he conducts turtle talks and tours. The first part of the job was to stop people here – and later all along the Mozambique coast, and then the Indian Ocean islands – from killing the turtles for meat and soup, and digging up the eggs for an easy feast. All the turtle species that occur here are highly endangered and without the tireless work of what is now called Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, there might well be none left today.

Even more than the turtles though, this has been my favourite beach lodge in South Africa since I first visited it nearly two decades ago. In fact its been my favourite beach since I first visited it as a teenager several decades ago. The powder-soft sand, rich intertidal pools, the warm Indian Ocean, dense dune forest, the lakes and grasslands that roll away to the west contribute to an almost overwhelming nature experience.

The lodge sits on a prime site in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a World Heritage Site due to its amazingly rich biodiversity, including the largest estuarine lake system in Africa. When it came to choosing icons for our book, iSimangaliso and Thonga Beach were shoo-ins.

And wait till you try the coffee crème brûlée! And the scuba diving here is not too shabby either. The only thing you won’t eat here is turtle soup, even though George Hughes was unable to stop the Lord Mayor of London serving it at his annual banquet.

Thonga Lodge Deck

Thonga Lodge Deck

May 202014
 

We are in Namibia to shoot the next two icons for our African Icons book project. The first stop is the delightful Little Kulala Lodge, part of the Wilderness Safaris stable, located in the Sossusvlei Valley near Sesriem. The icon here is the stunningly beautiful Namib Desert, know for its rugged mountainous terrain that gives way to a huge, red, dune field that contains some of the highest dunes in the world.

It is definitely a place for panoramic photographs and as a result have been shooting a bunch on the Nikons as well as these shot on my iPhone. Hope you enjoy them. If you would like to receive our newsletter please drop me an email. We are also on Facebook.

Wide open spaces near Sossusvlei

Wide open spaces near Sossusvlei

kulala-namibia-2

Rugged terrain of the Namib Desert near Sossusvlei in Namibia.

kulala-namibia-3

Little Kulala, Namib Desert near Sossusvlei in Namibia

David Bristow

Apr 302014
 

Where to next?

As in any big campaign, the quantity of the outcome is predetermined largely by the quality of the planning. Just ask Churchill about how he planned the Normandy invasion in his bathtub.

At the moment I feel a bit like Sir Winston as I sit in my orifice (as someone rude calls it), moving imaginary monopoly pieces around a spreadsheet representing “brightest” Africa.

As rain this morning announced the arrival of winter in Cape Town I’ve been corresponding with Wolwedans in the NamibRand reserve and Desert Rhino Camp, both in Namibia (late May); the Jock Lodge in the Kruger National Park (early June); Ibo Island in Mozambique (mid June); Okavango Horse Safaris and Tongabezi Lodge near Victoria Falls (late June).

That all the while booking flights to Durban to the tourism Indaba there next week. With that batch of research trips wrapped, photographers Roger and Pat de la Harpe and I will be able to at least say: “This is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is the end of the beginning.”

Now I’m not sure if I should follow the great man’s example and down a bottle of Scotch, or eat a low-carb lunch as is the fashion these days. I’m sure while we wend our ways around Africa over the next several months we’ll have a Scotch or two, and eat some very unfashionable things. Africa is, as we well know, not for sissies.

David Bristow

The Namib desert near Wolwedans Camp

The Namib desert near Wolwedans Camp

 

Apr 172014
 

Our little team of three (that’s Roger, Pat and myself) is preparing for our next foray into Africa, and this is one of the toughies. I’ve been travelling in Africa for a long time, and Chad remains one of the hardest trips I’ve done. It’s a tough country in every respect. But it does have one thing, or place, that is extra special and worth the heat, dust and agonising travel arrangements to get to – Zakouma wetland and national park.

Zakouma, Chad

Zakouma, Chad

We’ll be hosted there by African Parks, in our opinion the champions of nature conservation on the continent. The organisation is funded largely by European donors, and what they do is go out and find the real basket cases of conservation, then virtually resurrect them from the dead. The places they are now custodians of include Garamba in the DRC, Liuwa Plains in Zambia, Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the other Congo (Brazzaville, or French Congo), and several others that are scant survivors of war, pestilence, poaching and general neglect.

Zakouma lies between the terrible Sahel and verdant Cameroon. If you flipped Africa upside down, it would mirror South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. Hardly anyone outside the place knows about it, which makes it all the more alluring for our ‘African Icons’ project. Our current issue is, just a short time before our departure, that if the rains come between now and then, the place becomes totally inundated and we have to call it off … or delay the book for several months till we can visit when it all dries up again. So we’re on standby.

Aerial view of Victoria Falls. Zimbabwe

Aerial view of Victoria Falls. Zimbabwe

For the record, the icons we are working hard to include are (more or less from south to north): Cape Town and Table Mountain, The San (Bushmen, or “first people”) of the Kalahari, Namib Desert, desert-adapted black rhinos in Namibia, Okavango Delta, Mozambique coast, Zanzibar archipelago, lions of Ruaha National Park, the Serengeti, Kilimanjaro and elephants of Amboseli, the “jungle” of Odzala, Zakouma in Chad, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, stone-hewn churches of Lalibela and the Bale Highlands of Ethiopia, the Atlas mountains and Marrakech*, The Nile, and Gabon (another little-known place).

Dried mud. Near Sossusvlei. Namibia

Dried mud. Near Sossusvlei. Namibia

Some might have to change, depending on the vagaries of travelling in Africa, and the course the crazy politics of this beautiful but often frustrating continent.

So our question to you is, if you were in charge of the project, what would be your top icons?

Which places or things (key species), do you think we have missed. Given that there are more than 50 World Heritage Sites in Africa, and innumerable great game areas, we are sure you’ll have plenty of good ideas.

David Bristow

Serengeti National Park. Tanzania

Serengeti National Park. Tanzania

 

David Bristow