WHERE: EASTERN SHORES OF LAKE SIBAYA
Our GPS map looks like kindergarden art as roads trail off in every direction. Many of these tracks crisscross one another and abruptly end in blankness. We’re trying to make sense of the sand-road network north of Sodwana and I finally accept that northern KZN has no official 4×4 trails.
Despite my best efforts, I failed to find a formal 4×4 route in northern KZN, the kind where you arrive at an office, pay a fee, sign an indemnity, and drive a well-mapped trail that usually follows a circular direction. I even questioned the locals for an inside scoop, hoping they’d have details on a brand new trail in the area, but the response I got was the same: “Nah dude, the 4×4 roads here are free”.
And so, after speaking to countless beach bums, divers, deep-sea fisherman and roadside curio crafters, I stubbornly accepted that northern KZN has plenty of 4×4 tracks – which are all free – and that the best route to drive is the Eastern Shores of Lake Sibaya trail.
The route is no mystery, folks have been driving this sandy track since 4x4s first forged the roads here; but as far as trails go, it’s a must-drive route and a hallmark attraction to any 4×4 owner visiting northern KZN. Although the trail’s well known, you won’t find many details on the route itself, specifically the road network that takes your there.
If you’re in a rush to get to Lake Sibaya you can hop straight on the D1848 and head directly to the southern gate of the Lake Sibaya coastal reserve. However, half the fun of this trail is getting there along the spider-web network of tweespoor tracks that burrow through coastal forest. The trail kicks off just 700-metres northeast of the Sodwana Bay Lodge. At that point you’ll find a road to the right of the main drag. Take the road eastward and follow the signs that lead to Maginty Lodge. The road quickly shifts from high-range gravel to deep sand – which may require low-range gearing when the sand is soft. This section of the route is mostly rural; you’ll see plenty of small dwellings, rickety fences and lazy cattle barricading the road.
As mentioned before, the road network is labyrinth of T-junctions, forks and dead ends. Even with directions from the locals we somehow looped back on our tracks and returned to a well-known site called Tolle se Gat. At roughly a foot deep Tolle se Gat is an easy river crossing that’s continuously fed by the surrounding tropical bush. It’s the sort of place you’d expect to be spiritually important to the locals; it would also make for a terrific picnic spot if it weren’t for cattle using it as a daily drinking hole and latrine.
After driving this section of the route several times, we eventually came to the conclusion that the best way to reach Lake Sibaya (without getting lost along the way), is to keep as far east as possible. That’s to say, if you’re faced with a fork in the road, the chances are you’ll want to keep right – as close to the dune belt as you can. If you travel this way it should take you along the most direct route to Lake Sibaya. Although, in saying that, some of these tracks will take you to other great site-seeing destinations, so if you have the time, don’t be afraid to get lost and do some site seeing.
Eventually, you’ll pop out onto the D1848 and complete a short stretch of gravel that takes you directly to the southern gate of the reserve. Once you enter the park the directions are straightforward: just follow the single tweespoor track that peaks and troughs to the contours of the land.
The terrain is exclusively soft sand, separated by a lush-green middlemannetjie of Kikuyu grass. On either side of the road dense coastal bush encroaches on the track and occasionally forms a cave-like canopy. Shortly after entering the reserve you’ll see a road that forks to the right, along with a sign that says Nine Mile Beach. Recently, this favourite lunch stop has become a hotspot for crime in the way of petty theft and vehicle break ins. You’re advised to never leave your vehicle unattended, so if you’d like to visit this beach (which is a short stroll over a small dune) it may be a good idea to arrange a car guard first – speak to the gate officials.
Despite the crime situation, Nine Mile Beach is worth the visit, even if you just drive in, do a U-turn, and come back out. Once you’re on the main road again, you’ll see several tracks that deviate towards the lake itself. Each of these offshoot roads will take you straight to the water’s edge where you’ll find snow-white beaches and countless picnic-spot opportunities. Of all these offshoot spots, the second one (see GPS panel) is the best option as far layout, wind shelter and pure chill-out bliss in concerned. However, even though the water depth is limited to 200 mm for a couple of meters or so, be warned that Lake Sibaya is crocodile and hippo territory – so don’t go too deep and never turn your back on the water.
The next best attraction is Mabibi Camp, where you should really spend a night or two. If possible, book sites five or six, they’re arguably the best campsites. After a quick stay at Mabibi, most visitors tend to head south and return the way they came through the reserve’s southern gate. For some reason, travellers seldom continue along the lake’s eastern shores and exit through the northern territory. If you zero your trip meter at the reserve’s southern gate, at roughly 30 km the area opens up into a vast flood plain where sandy-white tracks blaze through grass-covered fields like pale scars.
The lake’s northern reaches are less 4×4 taxing – the roads firm up and the sand gets thinner; however, you do get a sense that fewer people venture this far up Lake Sibaya’s banks.
We never planned on travelling so far north, and at the Lake’s most isolated reaches, our Jeep’s fuel gauge hit the empty mark, the light came on, and our cellphone signal went blank. Simultaneously, it was at this point that we got lost.
And so, despite my best efforts to map this route from start to finish, admittedly, I panicked about our fuel situation, forgot all about my notepad, and somewhere in the nether regions of Lake Sibaya, I dropped the ball as far as this trail review is concerned.
But there are a few lessons to be learnt here, the first of which is that one should never drive a trail in a 3.6-litre Jeep without topping up first. And the second lesson was learning that Lake Sibaya still offers serene mystery to those willing to explore her full flanks.
LOCATION: KZN (Sodwana)
DIRECTIONS: Travel along Sodwana’s main road towards Mbazwana. At approximately 700-metres from Sodwana Bay lodge keep right at the fork and immediately take the gravel road east. Follow the signs that direct you to Maginty Lodge. The road will get noticeably softer and deeper with sand – you’re effectively on the trail at that point. Your first “obstacle” will be Tolles se Gat (a clear-water river crossing), keep right once you’ve driven through the water and keep heading in a north-easterly direction all the way to Lake Sibaya’s entrance gate.
TRAIL DETAILS: This grade 1 to 2 trail is roughly 50 km long, and consists mostly of sand and gravel. Low-range isn’t necessary and most capable soft-roaders could complete the route. (Provided your vehicle has at least 190 mm of ground clearance)
NEED TO KNOW: The area is a malaria zone, so consult your GP about prophylactics. You’ll also need to bring food and supplies as there are no shops close by – except in Sodwana.
Fuel station and shop (Sodwana) S27° 32.754 E32° 40.153
Unofficial start of trail S27° 30.469 E32° 39.222
Tolles se Gat S27° 29.330 E32° 39.832
Lake Sibaya southern entrance (Baya Gate) S27° 25.248 E32° 41.898
Nine Mile Beach S27° 25.762 E32° 42.718
Best picnic spot on Lake Sibaya S27° 23.744 E32° 42.705