Richard’s Bay: the furthest port

Posted by Melanie van Zyl on 30 October 2019

 

There’s a social regatta at Zululand Yacht Club every Wednesday evening (with happy hour in the bar), and informal Zulu lessons every Thursday in the clubhouse. Image: Melanie van Zyl.

Once a quaint fishing village, Melanie van Zyl visits Richards Bay to see if industry has left any room for the wild that first attracted visitors to the north coast.

My friends wore looks of scorn when I revealed my choice for the long weekend. ‘Glencoe by the sea,’ said one pal, a KwaZulu-Natal local. Now, I’d never been to Glencoe or Richards Bay, so the comparison was lost on me, but I knew Richards Bay didn’t have much of a vacation reputation. It was founded by Sir Frederick Richards, the Commodore of the Cape, as a supply post during the Anglo-Zulu War (1879), then evolved into a small fishing village surrounded by a nature reserve.

In 1976 it underwent a drastic personality change with the development of Africa’s deepest natural harbour into SA’s largest port. Now people tend to associate Richards Bay with heavy shipping traffic and hardcore industry.

They’re not wrong – it’s an important site of trade, with an enormous coal export, aluminium factories, dune mining and the like. I figured, though, that perhaps through the eyes of a fisherman the little angling town still existed. So I packed up my fishing-mad boyfriend, Scott, plus his rods and reels and a sprinkling of optimism, and made for the North Coast.

The Reeds Restaurant at Imvubu Lodge, tucked into the town’s lush greenbelt zone, looks out over Lake Menywa. Image: Melanie van Zyl.

Arriving in a town blanketed in drizzle and darkened by load-shedding, our fishing trip to South Africa’s subtropical shores wasn’t off to a good start. We settled into our stylish self-catering apartment at Indaba Lodge, just minutes away from the main beach, and plotted our next move. With the sea and sky indistinguishable from each other, we opted for an indoor excursion, kicking off the weekend in style with a massage at The Retreat Spa next door. Both a refuge from the rain and easy on the pocket, I could’ve easily spent the entire long weekend there, and silently willed the weather to stay sour.

Post-spa, we went for lunch at Jack’s Corner, at The Ridge Guesthouse nearby. Seafood platters were on the menu, while the pub walls offered a glimpse of Richards Bay pre-port. Black-and-white photos showed the first hotel, which was set up for fishermen in 1929 and consisted of a couple of rondavels.

In 1952 Richards Bay was a village with just 36 permanent residents, and the guest house sits on the same spot as that first hotel. It remains a favourite local hang-out, and people started to pour in for the digital jukebox tunes as Friday afternoon fever set in.

The Reeds Restaurant at Imvubu Lodge, tucked into the town’s lush greenbelt zone, looks out over Lake Menywa. Image: Melanie van Zyl.

The following morning we set off early with avid deep-sea angler Andre Nell, who runs Good Times Fishing Charters. ‘I’ve been fishing here for 30 years, but we only moved permanently to Richards about five years ago from our farm in the Free State,’ Andre told me as we motored away from the Ski Boat Club. The further we got out to sea, the happier Andre became. Scott even more so.

The fishing competitions really contribute to the community here, filling up the smaller B&Bs and restaurants,’ Andre said. ‘In a recent competition, Richards Bay landed one of the biggest marlins in South Africa – over 1 000 pounds [450 kilos].’ He looked over at me meaningfully. ‘That’s a big fish.’

We trawled and spun and sunk plenty of bait. We didn’t catch much – to Scott and Andre’s dismay – but I was content to just be out on the water. On our way back to shore, Andre pointed out the dunes north-east of town. ‘They’ve been mining this sand [for ilmenite, zircon and rutile] for as long as I can remember. They’re busy re-mining them now, but I like that they always replant the vegetation.’

These protective concrete blocks at Alkantstrand, known as dolosse, are a South African invention used worldwide. Image: Melanie van Zyl.

Back on land, we went to check out the Tuzi-Gazi Waterfront. KNK Curries is a Richards Bay rite of passage, and we settled in at a table alongside an intriguing mix of locals – from tough-looking salty characters to trendy young couples sipping beers together. No matter their background, everyone tucked into the bunny chow with their hands. Children sitting on the harbour wall, swinging their legs over the edge, watched the boats come in.

Despite its development, Richards Bay still has some pretty pockets of nature. Enseleni Nature Reserve, just 15 kilometres away and straddling the N2 highway, provided the perfect place for a tranquil forest walk along the Nseleni River and great views across the coastal grasslands. It’s also championed by brilliant bird photographer Peter Chadwick as one of the best locations to see the shy African finfoot.

These small pockets of nature need help, I found out when meeting with the North Coast Anti-Poaching (NCAP) crew. Melinda Ashington, chairman of the NPO, said, ‘Our objective is to save marine life, so we monitor the places were illegal fishing takes place. George Shacks, the vice chairman, elaborated: ‘Gill nets are illegal. We call them walls of death. They catch things like hammerhead sharks, a species on the red list, and we even found a brindle bass once. You can get a R50 000 fine just for holding it!’ However, stats prove that NCAP’s presence is working. In 2017, they removed 45 kilometres of netting; in 2018 the number halved to 27 kilometres.

Forest trails at Enseleni Nature Reserve on the outskirts of Richards Bay

To end off our stay, we set sail again, this time on a leisurely catamaran cruise piloted by Boue Gina. ‘I’m just helping out,’ he explained.

‘I normally drive the bunker barge in the harbour. It’s a floating fuel station that supplies all the ships waiting at sea. We get lots of cruise ships coming in, too, and sometimes they’ll spend a whole week here.’ With Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve nearby and plenty of beaches to while away a day, I wasn’t surprised to hear that.

I was surprised, however, to find hippos in the salty bay just outside the Ski Boat Club, and was reminded of something Andre had said: ‘Everyone who comes here needs to take a trip out to sea, then you’ll see that Richards Bay is not just mining. I counted 50 ships out here once, but we have dolphins and whales and wilderness too.’

True enough, on our way back into the harbour after our morning of deep-sea fishing, Andre pointed out a pair of common dolphins, gently arching through the water. Right after that, we were graced by South Africa’s most endangered dolphins – a rare pair of Indian Ocean humpbacks, two of just 500 said to be left on our coast.

Plan your Trip

Getting there

From Durban, it’s 190km on the N2 north past Ballito and the R34 to Richards Bay. From Joburg, take the shortcut via Vrede, Newcastle and Vryheid.

Imvubu Lodge has log cabins that sleep up to five in a tranquil forest setting. Don’t miss the happy-hour special at the Sundowner Bar. Self-catering from R590 per person sharing, or luxury suite with jacuzzi and sea view from R1 ,405 per person sharing B&B. 035-753-4122, imvubulodge.co.za

Indaba Lodge is close to the beachfront and harbour. The website only shows hotel rooms but its swish self-catering suites are the bay’s best-kept secret. Each has a balcony begging for a fish braai, a fridge for bait and lockable parking for a boat. From R1, 400 (sleeps four). 035-753-1350, indabarichardsbay.co.za

The tropical vibe at Alkantstrand makes it hard to believe the harbour is just around the corner. Image: Melanie van Zyl.

Richards Bay Caravan Park is a sprawling North Coast seaside institution, with stands to suit every kind of camper and lots of activities for families. It’s a quick walk to the beach. From R132 per adult, R82 per child. 035-753-1971, richardsbaycaravanpark.co.za

Do This

Go for a walk or run. There are two trails at Enseleni Nature Reserve – 5km Mvubu and 7km Nkonkoni – which wind through grassland and riverine forest. Entry is R20 per person (031-001-3642). The Saturday Parkrun departs from Zululand Multi Sport Club, and combines gravel, trail paths, grass and piers. parkrun.co.za

Swim in the sea. Families like the warm lagoon off Pelican Island, and over the weekend it’s a popular picnic spot. The main beach, Alkantstrand, a popular surfing spot, no longer has Blue Flag status but it still has lifeguards, good facilities and wooden A-frames dotted around for shade.

Looking for saltwater creatures at Tuzi-Gazi Waterfront in town. Image: Melanie van Zyl.

Pamper yourself at The Retreat Spa, next door to Indaba Lodge. It offers everything from a basic pedicure (R180) or Indian head massage (R190) to luxurious packages. 035-753-1161

Hang out at the waterfront. The Tuzi-Gazi Waterfront (named for the Mzingazi and uMhlatuze rivers that flow into the port) offers maritime scenery and several shops and restaurants, including homemade treats from Roberto’s Ice Cream. Cubana Latino Caffé is a vibey sunset spot. 035-788-0088

Eat Here

KNK Curries is famous for hot dishes in a chilled outdoor setting at the harbour. Samoosas cost R6, a quarter beef bunny chow is R50. It’s a daytime restaurant, closing around 5.30pm. 035-788-0343

Jack’s Corner is a local haunt with great sea views and history on the walls. The Portuguese-inspired menu includes prego rolls (R65), prawn pastries (R65) and calamari (R120). 035-753-3334. Find it on Facebook.

The Reeds Restaurant at Imvubu Lodge feels a million miles away from industrial Richards Bay, with a beautiful bushveld setting beside a lake. You can’t go wrong with the generous pizza. 035-753-4122

Trevallys at Indaba Lodge offers craft beer on the deck (shaded by tall fever trees), good vegetarian options and an excellent breakfast buffet – the nifty pancake machine is worth it alone. 035-753-1350

The Reeds Restaurant. Image: Melanie van Zyl.

3 Ways to be at sea

Deep-sea fishing
Pack the binos – this isn’t your average fishing trip. As well as angling for tuna, marlin, sailfish or snoek, you may spot dolphins, turtles and whales. Andre of Good Times Fishing Charters also has many stories about the area. R950 pp, gear included. 072-639-9366

Pleasure cruise A two-hour catamaran trip takes you past the larney marina, Naval Island, Pelican Island, tug boats – and a hippo or two if you’re lucky. R220 per person. 083-736-5921, nomad-yachtcharters.co.za

Whale watching
From June to September, the North Coast is a haven for humpback whales. Advantage Tours offers three-hour cruises from the Waterfront to see them. From R1 150 per person. 035-590-1259, advantagetours.co.za

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