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.