Maverick Life

SUSTAINABLE TOURISM

Thonga Beach Lodge builds enriching and abiding partnership with the people of Mabibi

Thonga Beach Lodge builds enriching and abiding partnership with the people of Mabibi
Gugu Mathenjwa serving guests from Canada and Germany fynbos gin at sundowners over Lake Sibaya. (Photo: Angus Begg)

This was not an imposed relationship, where developers move in and tell the community how it will ‘score’. The community elders knew in the 1990s — without the skills and experience needed to earn an income from their land — that lodge tourism would be their best option. And so they invited the construction of a lodge, to provide income, jobs and careers. 

“That’s my house, there’s the hut where we speak to the ancestors, and that’s my father’s house next door.”

Sthembiso Mdletshe is the son of the Mabibi community Induna, on the other side of the forested coastal dunes on a northern KwaZulu-Natal beach. We’re on our way to Lake Sibaya to catch its famed sunset, visible roughly 10 kilometres away on the other side of the houses he is pointing out to us. 

‘Sthem’ carries himself with the pride of someone invested in the village. Yes, his father is the local chief, but maybe also because Sthem is a senior guide at Thonga Beach Lodge, tucked unseen into the forest on the edge of the pristine Mabibi beach below us. He knows his birds, turtles and every person in the village. He knows the story of Lake Sibaya’s diminishing size. The Mabibi narrative is woven into the leather of his boots. That’s why he’s working at Thonga, not because he’s Induna Mabibi Isaiah’s son. 

Although I dare say the family connection is always useful in such circumstances, if he didn’t cut it as a guide, he wouldn’t have the job that he’s held for seven years. That’s because Thonga is today rated amongst the finest beach destinations in South Africa. And that, says lodge GM Andre — “call me AK” — Kruger is in no small part due to the people who work there. 

Happy people, happy place

“The essence of Thonga is the staff.” An avid angler, AK says that having worked for much of his life at top-end lodges around southern Africa, he believes the staff at Thonga sets it apart. 

With visits to close on a hundred lodges in my backpack over the last few decades, focusing on communities, it was indeed the bright eyes of the staff that stood out for me. Thabiso, Nonhlanhla Gumede, chef Nomazulu Ndlovu, 52-year-old guide Gugulethu (Gugu) Mathenjwa; they all have their own brightness, happy to share their stories. 

Gugulethu Mathenjwa, Thonga Beach Lodge

52-year-old lodge guide Gugulethu Mathenjwa (right), with lifelong friend and fellow village resident and local primary school head Robert Ngobese. (Photo: Angus Begg)

“When you have happy people, you have big smiles”, says AK. “The people of Thonga care about their home and the environment. They are proud to showcase their home to the world.”

He tells of how Gugu worked at Rocktail Bay — a lodge maybe 20km up the beach, now closed — for many years under the tutorship of local  fly-fishing legend Andy Coetsee, bringing his “immense knowledge” with him. 

“So you worked with Andy?”, I said to Gugu, remembering having once seen Coetsee’s deft wrist-flick into the surf at Rocktail Bay. “Long time,” he said with a smile, looking over the specs balanced on the end of his nose. 

Chef Nomazulu Ndlovu

Chef Nomazulu Ndlovu – one of three chefs in the village who work in the lodge kitchen, none of whom had experience in hospitality before. (Photo: Angus Begg)

Gugu may be a relative newcomer at Thonga compared to the likes of Sthembiso, yet beyond his Rocktail experience, Mathenjwa says he also guided at a lodge outside Tembe Elephant Park for seven years. He speaks with feelings of Tembe’s large tuskers — elder bull elephants — especially a local legend who carried three-metre tusks before he passed away this year. 

The biggest creature Gugu will see at the beach, however, weighing in at around 800kg, is the leatherback turtle. Not as frequently seen on the beach as the smaller loggerhead, the leatherback is a sight, as they say, to behold, even more so when diving with them at one of Thonga’s reefs. 

Exclusive reefs

“We’ll do a short refresher if you feel it’s been too long out of the water”, says Bonani Mbonambi, one of the dive masters at Thonga. The diving here is superb. 

The coral playgrounds out beyond the breakers lie within iSimangaliso Wetland Park. But as far as the diver experience is concerned, the reefs are within the lodge’s concession, which gives exclusive access to Gogo, Jacks, Slingers and Yellowtail reefs. This means guests, whether from the Mabibi campsite or the lodge, will see neither another diver — from outside the lodge — bobbing up and down on the north-easterly swells, nor boat. 

Placed in context, anyone who has dived at Sodwana Bay will be familiar with the scuba bunfight on the beach, cowboy pilots vying to launch through the waves first, and the boats heading out to their respective reefs to drop their cargo of divers. Here it is just you, and maybe him and her, diving with the Thonga dive master. Who, for myself and a South African honeymoon couple visiting from their home in Ireland, was Bonani Mbonambi, like Sthembiso, from Mabibi village over the hill.

“When I arrived as a general helper at the lodge, the DM (dive master) saw I had an interest in the diving operation, so I started helping out at the dive centre, she took me on a few dives…”. A veteran diver who saw my social media posts on our dive with Bonani, responded that “he’s the best DM I’ve ever dived with!”. 

The honeymooners also found the camouflage wetsuit-wearing DM unforgettable, as he eased them into their first dive in a year after their Sodwana certification dives. 

“That was awesome, Bonani!”, said the bride, clutching at the first available adjective in her excitement as Bheki the skipper expertly surfed the zodiac onto the beach. The result of the dive, the interaction and experience, was deep satisfaction, a theme which carried through to sundowners at Lake Sibaya, up and over the forested dunes and through the Mabibi community. 

Nonhlanhla Gumede, Thonga Beach Lodge

Waitress Nonhlanhla Gumede, one of the queens of the lodge dining room floor. (Photo: Angus Begg)

Neighbours

The extremely steep driveway up from the beach to the spread-eagled village is where the buds of the community’s relationship have borne the most obvious fruit. In and amongst the numerous waterberry trees — draped over the vegetated dunes with their broad canopies and shallow roots — the satellite dishes, new houses and renovations are as common as the yellow-billed kites that Gugu says arrive from the skies to steal the villagers’ chickens.

It is these visible signs of progress, added to the primary school’s new roof  — it was leaking — and Grade R classroom that are the most obvious testament to the success of the work of the Isibindi Foundation. The foundation has, in tandem with and through the Mabibi Development Trust, sought to ensure that the relative prosperity and sense of well-being amongst the people of Mabibi is sustainable in the true sense of the word.

This was not an imposed relationship, where developers move in and tell the community how it will ‘score’. As related to me by Makhaza ‘Duncan’ Ndlovu, a founding member of the Mabibi Development Trust, the community elders knew in the 1990s — without the skills and experience needed to earn an income from their land — that lodge tourism would be their best option. And so they invited the construction of a lodge, to provide income, jobs and careers. 

“In about 2004 we invited Brett (Gehrens), of Isibindi Africa, to help us, because he had experience in these things. He said he could, explained his ideas, and the community agreed.” 

That’s how Thonga Beach Lodge was started. And from that was born in 2019 the Isibindi Foundation, driven by the requirements of people, needing to earn a sustainable living while appreciating that tourism — through nature — provides that living. 

Ndlovu says the Isibindi Foundation’s reach into the lives of the community has been immense. 

“They take them (Mabibi community residents) from the land where they know nothing”, says Ndlovu, “and teach them”. 

Sfikile Nhlozi

Mabibi Primary headmaster Robert Ngobese with Sfikile Nhlozi – project coordinator for the Isibindi Foundation, which facilitates, funds and coordinates projects for the foundation. Among the Foundation’s projects are the ceiling repair of the school, a new Grade R classroom, and marine monitoring – “cleaning the beaches of litter”. (Photo: Angus Begg)

The Isibindi Foundation’s manager, Luke Martin, says the community’s relationship with the lodge and the foundation were strengthened considerably during Covid. For the nine months that the lodge was closed, Martin says that the foundation “mobilised its resources to ensure that every household in the Mabibi community received a meal for four months”.  

I wrote in a social media post a while back that I was looking beyond its pristine beaches to discover why Thonga is so popular as a beach destination, because getting there is not a simple A-B exercise. The answer is a bit like the construction of a complex puzzle, requiring patience until the image reveals itself at completion. Once the lodge was built — camouflaged in this sub-tropical coastal forest of iSimangaliso Wetland Park, with miles of empty beach in every direction — the people of Mabibi completed the picture.

Sthembiso is getting married any day now, to Purity, the lodge administration manager, nurturing their roots in the soil they call home. He says Mabibi would be a very different place without Thonga. DM/ML/ MC

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Annelies Cramer says:

    Thonga Beach Lodge is without a doubt one of the finest beach destinations in this country and the beach itself the most pristine I’ve seen. The people at Thonga are phenomenal and seeing the turtle lay her eggs on the beach under the cover of darkness accompanied by the Thonga guide, was an incredible experience. I imagine that the hatching of the turtles would also be magical too.

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