Thonga Beach Lodge is one of those places that simply must be on your bucket list if you are a diver or a snorkeller, or if you enjoy prolific birdlife and animals, especially turtles, elephants and whales. The lodge falls within South Africa’s first World Heritage Site – the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

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Local people from the Tsonga community are shareholders in Thonga Beach Lodge.

Thonga Beach Lodge is a romantic luxury hideaway set in a coastal milkwood forest, just a short walk away from a white sand beach and some of South Africa’s best tropical reef diving.

The lodge falls within the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, which was one of South Africa’s first World Heritage Sites, declared on the same day in 1999 as the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site and the Robben Island World Heritage Site. At iSimangaliso, the delicate coastal dune-forest ecology meets savannah bushveld and a string of biodiverse and intriguing inland lakes.

One of these lakes is Lake Sibaya, which is only 25 minutes’ drive away from the lodge. Thonga Beach Lodge offers kayaking trips along the lake’s shoreline. If you’re a birder, this is a good place to see the only fruit-eating vulture in the world – the palmnut vulture. It is also home to Pel’s fishing owl (which is so seldom seen it has attained near-mythical status) and the charming pygmy goose.

iSimangaliso might just as well have been named Bird Central: there are more than 500 bird species in this semi-tropical part of the world. Look out for crocodiles and hippos too.

In summer months (October to March), Thonga (pronounced ‘Tonga’) offers turtle tracking safaris at night. Enormous leatherbacks and loggerheads lumber ashore, dig holes in the sand and lay their eggs. In late summer, the babies hatch and tiny turtles struggle down to the water’s edge. Years hence, those grown-up hatchlings will be coming ashore to lay eggs on this very beach.

Rates include a visit to a nearby Tsonga homestead, where you can meet local people and learn about their culture and heritage.

But it’s the diving and snorkelling that people come back for, year after year. The warm Indian Ocean offers up bottlenose dolphins, whale sharks, manta rays, giant turtles, Moorish idols and parrotfish, among many other species. There are 1 250 recorded species here, which compares rather well with the Great Barrier Reef, with 1 500.

On the other hand, it’s practically compulsory to set aside a day or two to just lie on the pristine beach, gazing at the clear waves and those adorable three-banded plovers.

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