BY BILLY SUTER
THE smell of sea air, bright sunshine and blue sky, the breeze in your hair and a good glass of sauvignon blanc in hand – what better way to spend a Saturday afternoon with family and friends?
Oh, but there’s more – picture this jovial bunch with good burgers from a braai, assorted Woollies snacks at hand, and enjoying not only a gentle, private river cruise on a spacious, two-level barge but also witnessing not one, but two, majestic fish eagles.
And we are not just talking ‘ooing’ and ‘aahing’ at the mere sight of these magnificent creatures on treetops, and hearing their distinctive cry, surely one of the most beautiful in all nature.
Oh no, the dozen of us on board the fibreglass vessel hit the jackpot – each of these birds, several minutes apart, entertained us by swooping down from dense foliage to expertly, seemingly effortlessly, pluck a fish from the river and then zip off into the trees. Magical moments.
This unforgettable experience was on the Umlalazi River which, hugging the Indian Ocean in Mtunzini on the KwaZulu-Natal north coast, snakes through dunes and lush coastal forest, passing shoreside homes and resorts, some with their own private barges.
The area is also home to the Palmnut Vulture, one of the most rare birds of prey in the country, and is noted for its mangrove swamps and the nearby Raffia Palm Monument, the raffia being the largest palm in the world.
Vervet monkeys, bush pig, bushbuck and red, grey and blue duiker are also found in the area, as are fiddler crabs. Crocodiles, too, are often to be seen sunning themselves on the river banks.
Our spotting of the fish eagles and their dinner dance was all thanks to our barge skipper, Enore Danielis, who owns River Cruises Mtunzini, and is also the builder and owner of the baby-blue barge we enjoyed, Gondaleo II.
He has also built many other similar vessels of different size and design. Check out his website at http://www.gondaleobarges.co.za
Enore says the fish eagles often wait for his vessel for his free handouts for their culinary cabaret.
“We feed them barbel or mullet,” he explained, as he tossed a frozen barbel into the air for the fish to see, going on to enthuse about the abundant bird life in the area. Blue cranes, egrets, heron, kingfishers, Spotted Ground Thrush and Southern Banded Snake Eagle… just some of the many to be seen. So take binoculars!
Enore and Sandra have been operating their river cruises since 2016 and most guests, they explain, have been locals out for a leisurely trip. The cost is R2000 for 12 guests on a two-hour cruise, a return trip on the river covering some 10km or so in total.
Pointing to his own three rods positioned behind the Gondaleo II’s helm, Enore says that River Cruises Mtunzini also offers four-hour trips for anglers, for which the cost for 12 guests is R3000.
Fishing is a passion for Enore who, for many years since 1993, ran chartered fishing cruises.
He advised us to check out some catches on his River Cruises Mtunzini Facebook page. I did so and noted that, on one trip, Sandra once hooked a 320mm Malabar rock cod, a 390mm rock salmon ‘river snapper’ and a 690mm kob, beating Enore “three-love”, as he recalls with a grin.
The Gondaleo II, on which Enore and Sandra pipe popular, mostly ’60s and ’70s, music during the cruise, provided a hugely enjoyable afternoon of relaxation for my family and friends. We took along our own burger patties, charcoal, rolls and snacks and made use of the small braai on the roof level of the barge,where there is also seating.
A toilet is on board should you forget to make use of the toilet facilities in the braai and picnic areas, where the vessel collects it guests.
We took a leisurely 85-minute drive from Durban, itself a scenic trip, to take up the cruise and will certainly do it again sometime. It’s great for a birthday celebration or just for the fun of it.
Note that you will pay three road tolls driving from Durban – currently R13, R11 and R37 – and entrance to the nature reserve, where one boards the vessel, is R30 a head.
The Umlalazi Nature Reserve makes up the northern section of the Siyaya Coastal Park – about 42km of unspoilt coastline, which stretches from the mouth of the Umlalazi River to the southern boundary of the Amatikulu Nature Reserve.
The 1 028-hectare reserve offers accommodation in self-catering chalets and camp sites. Also on offer are picnic sites and trails.
For bookings or more information about River Cruises Mtunzini phone or message Enore Danielis at 083 544 2231.