Travel

This remote KZN lodge has a private beach, sea turtles, and a reef for diving and snorkelling

Business Insider SA
Snorkelling in the rock pools at Thonga Beach Lodge.
Snorkelling in the rock pools at Thonga Beach Lodge.

Review

  • Thonga Beach Lodge is located on the shores of iSimangaliso Wetland Park in a remote section of KwaZulu-Natal.
  • It offers fire-star barefoot luxury with direct access to a pristine private beach.
  • The lodge attracts seasoned divers and snorkelers who rate the visibility and marine life highly.
  • And between November and February, you can watch loggerhead and leatherback turtles nesting on the shores.
  • At other times of the year, you can find the full-grown turtles paddling the clear waters above the off-shore reef.
  • Here's what to expect from a trip to one of South Africa's best private beach lodges.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

On a remote section of the KwaZulu-Natal iSimangaliso coastline, five hours north of Durban, is a beach lodge that rivals those on many of the world's most popular exotic island destinations. It's called Thonga Beach Lodge and it offers access to a pristine stretch of beach that is effectively private by virtue of its remote location. 

Turtles lay their eggs on the nearby sands between November and February, and many visitors travel specifically to Thonga to witness this natural spectacle. But the clear waters and an off-shore reef offer superb diving and snorkelling at other times of the year - and two swimming pools, hammocks, lakeside sundowners, kayaking trips, spa treatments, and guided forest walks also cater to the more tranquil-minded travellers.

Thatched rondavels nestled beneath coastal dunes a
Thatched rondavels nestled beneath coastal dunes at Thonga. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

The offering at the 12-roomed lodge is not dissimilar to those on many of the world's famous island destinations. Shoes are optional, and subtle nautical themes run through the decor in the restaurant, bar area and the comfortable five-star "eco-sensitive" thatched rondavels, all set among the indigenous coastal forest. 

There's also an aquatic centre with diving and snorkelling equipment and fat-tyre bicycles. Relaxed staff, who wear golf shirts and shorts, ensure you get the required equipment. Elevated wooden walkways connect the main dining area and bar to the rooms and lead guests through the trees to surprise locations like an elevated beach deck.

But unlike many of the world's celebrated island destinations and resorts, it's free from high-rise hotel buildings, kitsch themed cocktail parties, has exclusive access to a vast unpopulated beach, and, for local visitors, isn't a pricey international flight away.

%[KÛÈ?)f²Rooms at Thonga are eco-sensitive but com
Rooms at Thonga are eco-sensitive but comfortable, and come with ocean or forest views. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

Getting to Thonga does not require an international flight for South African travellers, but its idyllic, isolated location means it's quite a drive to reach. To get there, you'll need to traverse a sandy road alongside forested dunes and brave a steep descent - it's accessible in your own 4x4, but most opt for the transfer option from Sodwana Bay. 

At the end of the dramatic drive, you'll find the stilted thatched rondavels dotted between dense tropical trees, which peer out between the leaves at an ocean home to an abundance of marine life. Strict usage agreements imposed by virtue of the lodge's location on a stretch of coastline in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa's first UNESCO World Heritage Site, ensure that the forest stays verdant and marine life populous.

The lodge takes its role in protecting the wetland park and its surroundings seriously - but its pristine location doesn't mean guests can't explore the ocean and coastline. 

In the evenings, enthusiastic guides make their way through the guests gathering around the bar and pitch the options on offer the next day, which they can sign up for on the whiteboard nearby.

Returning from a day at sea.
Returning from a day at sea. Photo: Andrew Thompson

Depending on the time of the year, tides, and weather, these include sea turtle tracking, bird watching, fishing, sundowners or kayaking on southern Africa's largest freshwater lake, rock pool snorkelling, Tsonga cultural tours, various spa treatments, and guided forest walks. 

The two premium experiences, however, take advantage of the Elephant Coast's famously clear waters. Scuba divers can rent equipment from the aquatic centre and head out with a divemaster to explore the reef. Those not qualified to dive can also appreciate the underwater attractions on an "ocean experience". This includes the opportunity to spot marine life like whales and dolphins on a rubber duck boat ride, followed by a thirty-minute off-shore snorkelling expedition above the coral reef.

Baby turtles make their way to the waters at Thong
Baby turtles make their way to the waters at Thonga between November and February. Photo: Supplied.

The sales pitch of the ocean experience is hard to resist, and so it was that half a dozen of us guests found ourselves signing indemnity forms and trying on fins at the aquatic centre at sunrise.

"Because the Thonga coastline is protected, there's no jetty - we're only able to do a beach launch," said guide Tristan. "But that's a good thing - it's the most thrilling way to get out to sea!"

Moments later, the group's men found themselves chest-deep in the warm Indian Ocean, gripping onto the rubber duck now high above their heads, as the captain waited for the moment to make the quick dash from the launch tractor to the rubber duck. 

As soon as he reached the rubber duck, he fired up the engine, and those in the water somehow slithered onto the boat. The captain then ramped up the motors to breach the breakers to complete a safe - but exhilarating - beach launch.

"Hold on tight," Tristan shouted above the engine and crashing waves. "Once we're through the breakers, we're going to head along the coastline for a few kilometres to look for dolphins, and then we'll head out to sea."

Although the dolphin and deep-sea trip yielded no dolphin or whale sightings, the ride allowed us to view the forested dunes from afar - and understand just how unpopulated this stretch of the KZN coastline is.

beach sign spa
Direct access to beach and other facilities is via elevated walkways. Photo: Andrew Thompson.

For most who sign up for the experience, the highlight is the off-shore reef snorkelling. And within seconds of dropping into the tepid ocean, a plethora of marine life filtered into view in the swell beneath us. 

As the group bobbed and swayed in the surprisingly turbulent water, Tristan excitedly raised a hand and blasted water from his snorkel. 

"Sea turtle!" he shouted, before ducking back down. "Actually, two!" he said when he returned to the surface one minute later.  

The turtle tally continued, and by the end of the excursion, we'd spotted well over half a dozen giant sea turtles flapping nonchalantly above the reef.

A plethora of other fish also floated into view, and at the bar that evening, Tristan was happy to list the species he'd identified. 

"Apart from the green and hawksbill turtles, we also saw parrot fish, sergeant majors, two species of rock cod, Moorish idols, sea goldies, and old woman angel fish," he said. "It was a good morning out there!"

As soon as Tristan had returned us to shore, he headed out again for a diving excursion with a guest who'd returned to Thonga multiple times for dives in waters he claimed rivalled those found in far pricier destinations.

Guests can rent fat-tyre bicycles for rides along
Guests can rent fat-tyre bicycles for rides along the beach. Photo: Andrew Thompson

After the ocean experience, most of the guests, satisfied with their morning excursion, shuffled off to breakfast beneath the trees and found hammocks, deck chairs, or spots around the pool with books in hand.

For those less thrilled by the open ocean, there's also the opportunity to snorkel in more tranquil rock pools a gentle walk from the lodge. And the fat tyre bicycles available at the aquatic centre are a new addition for those who want to explore more of the sandy beach than they can reach on foot. 

Evening activities tend towards the inland, where Lake Sibaya - South Africa's largest freshwater lake - offers birdwatching and sundowners sipped to honking hippos.

Thonga is the definition of barefoot luxury, however, and there's no obligation to do anything more than relax around the pool, read a book on the deck overlooking the ocean or on your private balcony, or perhaps find a secluded section alongside a dune with towel and umbrella. Or, given the quality and quantity of food included in the price, simply count the hours until your next meal. 

But the thousands of hectares of tropical paradise floating just metres off-shore beg for exploration. And all of the above, combined with a thrilling boat ride, scuba dive, or snorkelling excursion, is what truly brings the experience to life and makes this a strong contender as one of the best beach lodges in South Africa or nearby islands.

sea turtle
Sea turtles use the protected beach to lay their eggs during certain times of the year. Photo: Supplied.

Visiting Thonga Beach Lodge

Thonga Beach Lodge is a five-hour drive north of Durban's King Shaka International Airport, or an eight-hour drive from Johannesburg. 

It's only accessible by 4x4. Transfers for those without a 4x4 are available at an extra cost from Sodwana Bay.

Most experiences, apart from scuba diving and the Ocean Experience, are included in the nightly rate. Rates also include all food but exclude alcohol.

The lodge offers competitive South African rates, and for those on a tight budget, it's cheapest to visit in May, June, or July.

Andrew Thompson was a guest of Thonga Beach Lodge.

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