By BRUCE DENNILL
In 1997, I joined a gaggle of mates for a trip to the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal for a New Years’ holiday. As it turned out, about 30 000 other people had the same idea, so relaxing on the beach was more of a theoretical construct than it was a reality.
The most room I enjoyed the entire week was when crashing in a crammed room with three very tall twenty-somethings who knew each other better than they knew me.
The party was on Margate Beach, and the parking situation approaching the beach was such that we more or less walked from our digs in Ramsgate. Along the way, we were prepared for the delights ahead by the sight of some poor sap examining the hole where the back windscreen of his Nissan Sentra used to be. He spent a lot of time looking around at passing strangers, and the patter among his friends suggested that it was a stone thrown by a less-than-sober reveller (this at 5pm in the evening) that had ruined the man’s day. On the plus side, he would – unwilling to leave his unsecured car in the vicinity of thousands of potential looters – go home, freeing up a parking spot for a late-comer.
On the beach, party people embraced unlimited freedom and debauched hedonism by whooping and dancing around within a strict three-metre radius of their respective cooler-boxes and swearing loudly and luridly to underline their intellectual and moral authority.
The highlight of the evening was when a few of these upstanding individuals – all white, all privileged enough to be able to afford 12 beers more than their constitutions could reasonably handle – decided to pick on one of the few black youths on the beach, using the sort of language that used to be trotted out just before a Mississippi lynching and pushing the poor guy around before a bunch of us – including my three giant, dorm-clogging mates – decided to step in.
For our valour, we were treated to similar abuse – this while one of their number attempted to, roughly, convince his girlfriend that doggy-style sex in the ankle-depth wavelets 20 metres behind their group was a good idea.
We headed home.
As a mental marker for “what the South Coast is like”, this event went a long way to saving me several tanks of petrol driving the extra distance from Johannesburg to Margate or anywhere on that stretch of coast ever again. Having children and thus the challenge of planning around school holidays made it even easier to avoid the Hibiscus Coast or its surrounds.
One thing that will make you ignore memories of tipsy people shouting at each other and getting a little too personal is – oh, the irony – a family wedding, and it was the nuptials of my brother-in-law on KZN’s Really South Coast (the venue was literally across the river from the Transkei) that drew me back to the area.
We headed down a week after Easter, when the worst of the holiday rush was over. It was still a long drive – that hadn’t changed – but perhaps as a consequence of being older, wiser and less annoyed by pettiness, I was able to focus on my surroundings rather than fitting in with my peers (curiously outsized or otherwise).
Unlike the North Coast – mile after mile after repeated rolling hill blanketed in sugar cane – every settlement south of Amanzimtoti exists only because those who live there are ready to fight off the fecund tropical vegetation on an almost hourly basis. This means that every vale and river course looks like a rainforest, and when the greenery is broken by the occasional cliff or grotto, you could just lacquer each scene, bind a bunch of them together and release a TV Bulpin coffee table book.
Stopping along the way also becomes more interesting. Ballito and Umhlanga are now soulless concrete playgrounds for tourists with more money than taste, but on the South Coast, you can choose between having a picnic on the edge of a lake, designing your own dessert waffle or enjoying a cappuccino on the farm where the coffee beans were grown – all on or just off the same stretch of highway.
Then there are the beaches. Go far enough north of Durban – Zinkwazi and up towards the Tugela River – and the long, unbroken stretches of sand are difficult to argue against. But the brief, C-shaped coves that pepper the coastline around Leisure Bay are the stuff of postcards you actually want to send; travel brochure destination pictures that don’t require the photographer to take an intercontinental flight to capture them. You can visit a different one every day for a week without needing to park in a different spot or see the same people two days in a row.
First impressions last. But decisions based only on those impressions and no current knowledge of how things may have changed are foolish. The South Coast has been redeemed for me by a “forced” visit – a journey undertaken because of familial duty but enjoyed because of wonderful people (as opposed to drunk, racist, Sentra-attackers) and the revelation of a corner of South Africa that, when not overrun by over-eager holidaymakers, retains a touch of Eden.