Try this budget seaside family escape to Rocky Bay

Posted on 25 October 2017

We gave this Durban-based family a strict budget and sent them packing. Here’s where they went and what they did.

The family: Jess Nicholson, husband John White, and Jack (11) and Thea (8). Photo by Teagan Cunniffe.



Petrol R200
Accommodation for one night in a log cabin R1500
Supper at the resort restaurant R250
Padkos & other food R150
Shark cage-diving (for one) R900

Of course, within 15 minutes in the car, one child says: ‘Is there anything to eat?’ No, I say, we’ll stop on the way. Thankfully, before they got too ‘hangry’, there on the side of the road sits Claude Timam, chilling in a wheelbarrow, fiddling with his phone, low-fi South Coast style. Balanced carefully next to him are piles of fruit. Mangoes for Jack, avocados for Thea. Lots of bananas. Sorted for padkos. Except now the children are trying to stroke a cow, happily snacking on the grass between the N2 and the R103. ‘The cow is not for sale,’ said Claude. ‘It’s okay. We only eat meat we don’t recognise,’ Jack says. It is difficult to keep me away from going down the South Coast. So close to Durban but still far away. There is something magical about the very green hills and dense tropical foliage, with views of homesteads and the ocean as you drive.

‘It’s like the wood between the worlds – you can almost feel the trees growing … and the bananas,’ says Jack. This is not a place inhabited by the rich, and generally, it offers weekend breaks many can afford. Tidal pools are this coast’s answer to the North Coast’s infinity pools. And after Richard Carstens, award-winning chef at Lynton Hall, took his thyroid clouds and mushroom ice-cream and headed for the Western Cape, most restaurants offer seafood baskets, ribs and milkshakes – perfect grub for children. There are a few posh, gated exceptions but basic beach cottages are the best bet for a chilled family holiday, as are chalets and camping at self-catering spots.

Children are like everything on the South Coast – stick them in the sun, give them some water and fresh sea air, and watch them grow. Photo by Teagan Cunniffe.

Camping at Rocky Bay is right on the beach. So, unlike many parts of the world, the cheapest accommodation here has the best sea view. We opt for a one-bedroom (four beds) wooden bungalow on stilts, a frisbee throw from the ocean. We have a view of the lagoon, and there’s a boardwalk that takes guests under the railway bridge and onto the beach. ‘This is the best place,’ says Thea, reading the instructions for the DStv, which she can watch from the top of her bunk bed. ‘It says Never Ever Turn Off The Television.’ Unfortunately it is true; the sign explains that the sea air interferes with televisions.

We throw a towel over the telly and head for the beach. Rock pools, clad with mussels and anemones, are the main feature, perfect for clambering on with nets, perfect for fishing off. Jack and I meet James Mac here.

‘I come here every day,’ he says. ‘From Maritzburg.’

‘For the fishing?’ I ask.

‘I come to heal,’ he replies.

I nod in sympathy. Even on a family-focused weekend, opportunities abound for tired parents to stare into the ocean in a trance of cathartic blankness as their offspring build castles and chuck sand at each other.

‘It’s not emotional healing,’ he clarifies. ‘It’s my foot. I accidentally hammered a nail all the way through it with a mallet. The salt water is helping the wound.’

Swimmers enjoy the tidal pool at Preston Beach. Photo by Teagan Cunniffe.

Jack and I go for a swim to heal our wounds. The sea is warm and not too rough. There are no shark nets. ‘No one has ever been eaten,’ says a lifeguard, ‘but you mustn’t go too far out. We have saved three people today.’

Thea is collecting shells to make a necklace. Despite it being a site for launching boats and a long weekend, the beach is not crowded. A short walk further north, I find Preston Beach, a massive tidal pool and people happily chilling, braaiing and playing cricket. By the end of the day we’re all so in the South Coast vibe, we can scarcely be bothered to put on our flip-flops for dinner at the Sugar Baron, Rocky Bay’s bar and restaurant. Luckily we don’t have to. The only enforced dress code here is that patrons should not be wet.

Over fresh prawns and spaghetti bolognese, we decide there’s been enough lazing about – tomorrow is action day. There are many options. All along the coast are some of the world’s best surf spots, and much of the ocean is a protected marine reserve. Aliwal Shoal is just down the drag for snorkelling, and from Rocky Bay you can go shark cage-diving, which Jack opts for. You will find crocodiles at Scottburgh and we were told a python was once spotted in the Umdoni Forest.

Thea and I decide to go and look for one. ‘We have to take Jack’s pen knife,’ she says. ‘Remember what Colwyn said: If you get coiled up in a python you must breathe in a very shallow way. Then the python will think you are dead and loosen its grip enough for you to get your knife out your pocket and stab it.’ Colwyn is a friend of ours who has surfed this entire coast and walked all of its jungles. We don’t find pythons in the forest, where paths meander magnificently through umdoni trees and milkwoods, but an overgrown trail leads down to a river where we find an otter’s tracks, porcupine quills and a small snake slithering out of the way. This is enough to keep a less-than-keen-on-hiking child interested. Back at Rocky Bay we explore the trail running and cycle tracks through the sugar cane, at child’s pace.

View house in Rocky Bay. Photo by Teagan Cunniffe.

Putting coins on the railway line is our last adrenaline activity. The children admire their squashedness in the car before, completely and happily worn and sunned out, they and their dad close their eyes and with mouths open and the occasional snort, sleepily dribble all the way home. I wave to Claude in his wheelbarrow and slowly, reticently recalibrate for real life.


Plan your trip to Rocky Bay

Getting there

Head down the N2 south from Durban, turn off at Park Rynie and take the R102 to Rocky Bay. About 50 minutes (65km).

When to go

Winter is often better than summer – less hot and humid and the sea’s warm enough to swim in. Perfect from April to July. August to October is still good but can be windy.

Stay here

Rocky Bay has lawns and trees, a playground and volleyball net plus indoor games (table tennis, pool, darts) and a restaurant. The self-catering log cabins are fully equipped but do take your own beach towels. They sleep up to seven people and cost from R1025. Camping is R196 per adult, R98 per child, R20 a dog. Tel 0399760336.

Other options that fit the budget

Happy Wanderers. Like Rocky Bay, the cabins and campsites are right on Kelso Beach. There are similar activities on offer but it’s much bigger and very busy, so it’s less of a family holiday and more of a family-and-friends-of nearby campers holiday. From R1100 for a cabin (sleeps four), camping from R380 per site for four.

Mac Nicol’s. Across the railway line from Bazley Beach. Very similar to Happy Wanderers, so also busy. Lots of activities. Log cabins (sleep four or six) from R750 plus R170 per adult and R85 per child per day.

Mantis and Moon. This backpackers in surf spot Umzumbe is probably more suited to teens and young adults. It has a bar, and offers yoga and surfing lessons. Family rooms from R940 (sleep four to eight), cool treehouse and glass cabins from R620 (sleep two).

Pumula Beach Hotel. Very popular and right on the beautiful Blue Flag Umzumbe Beach. A bit more of a luxurious option but still in a relaxed South Coast way. It runs specials for families, and rates are full board or B&B. From R1095 per person sharing, children R315 to R660 (depending on age).


Do this

Walk in the Umdoni Forest, 10 minutes’ drive away at Umdoni Park Golf Club. It’s one of the few stands of indigenous forest on this coast. Free entry.

Go mountain biking on the trails at Rocky Bay, some of the best on this coast, say locals (from 12km to 36km). You put R20 in an honesty box and a guard will let you in and out. Also good for walks and trail runs.

Explore other beaches nearby, such as Pennington and Kelso.

Shark Cage-Diving
Jack White (11)

‘The shark cage-diving was super fun and I learnt a lot about sharks and fish. The speedboat trip out was really exciting because you ramp up and down on the huge waves.

When you get to the dive spot they put out chum and generate sounds to attract the sharks. It was amazing when you saw the fins on top of the water and the actual sharks beneath. We saw black-tip sharks, kingfish, rainbow fish and some other species. The water was warm and the visibility was great.’

John Miller operates Shark Cage Diving KZN from Rocky Bay. He takes anyone older than six on a 15-minute boat ride to a spot five kilometres out in the marine reserve near Aliwal Shoal. He operates 365 days a year, weather dependent, and says the best time is early morning. John has been operating for more than 10 years with no casualties and guarantees that there will be sharks or your money back! It costs R900 per person. Tel 0823735950.


This story first appeared in the July 2017 issue of Getaway magazine.

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Our July issue features the best places to stay in the Midlands, budget family breaks in Durban, and the best (and mostly free) things you have to do in New York. 


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