comfortably amidst rolling sugarcane fields interspersed with hardy
timber forests, the Zululand towns of Empangeni and Richards Bay,
together with surrounding Esikhaweni, Vulindlela, Felixton, Nseleni
and Ngwelezane, make up the thriving municipal region of uMhlathuze.
The small fishing village that was Richards Bay is now the hub of the
industries and tourist attractions putting Zululand on the map.
The climate is typically subtropical to tropical with high humidity, and winter is for the most part a no-show, so Zululanders with their love of the outdoors and sports of all kinds, can enjoy their favourite pursuits year round. There are several golf courses, for example, (including the spectacular 18-hole course on the banks of Lake Mzingazi) and faithful putters can be seen enjoying a round before sunset on a summer’s evening. Indeed, whether visiting the area for pure pleasure, or on business with little time to spare, there is something for everyone.
The South African government has recognized Richards Bay as one of this country’s growth and development points. Named for the British Naval commander Rear Admiral Sir Frederick William Richards who landed troops at the coast in 1879, it is the largest export coal terminal in the world and it is already home to large, productive industries such as the Mondi paper plant, Richards Bay Minerals (RBM), and the Bayside and Hillside Aluminium plants which are both part of the Billiton group. Bell Equipment, which manufactures heavy machinery and is a proudly Zululand born-and-bred company, began in 1954 on the Bell family farm outside of Empangeni. Today it is a JSE-listed company, and in 2002 Bell proudly unveiled the world’s largest articulated dump truck (ADT), their giant B50D.
For visitors leaning towards industrial tourism, these companies and many others make for interesting visits, but for those who enjoy more traditional pastimes, there are options in abundance. The uMhlathuze district is within easy striking distance of many beautiful nature and game reserves, including the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, which is a World Heritage Site. The renowned Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve is approximately 90km from Richards Bay, an easy day-trip although there is plenty of accommodation in the park itself. There one can see the Big Five, plus, amongst many others, giraffe, hippos, hyenas and even the humble tortoise, as well as birds a-plenty. The picnic sites are clean with very suitable ablutions and one gets a real Out of Africa feeling after a good lunch under the trees, with the odd cheeky warthog bustling past and even cheekier birds stealing crumbs and tidbits from the table.
The beaches at Richards Bay enjoy the warm Indian Ocean currents, and Alkantstrand and Newark beaches are protected by lifeguards and shark nets. There is also Pelican Island, a large tongue of land reaching across the water into the main harbour. Always popular for picnics and the traditional South African braai, this chunk of beach has become the hub of the kite surfing fraternity. Blessed with strong wind and wide-open spaces, it is the perfect venue for those wishing to take to the air in a most unorthodox but fun manner.
One could also meander across the Tuzi Gazi bridge and head for the small craft harbour. Here, the options are plentiful. There is Naval Island, a perfect venue for a family picnic. There one finds shade under the enormous old trees, a wide stretch of golden sand and gently lapping waters which children adore. These outings tend to start early in the day to avoid the fierce heat at noon and by 9am on a weekend that beach is colourful and festive with children in bright swimming gear racing between the water and their picnic blankets.
In 1843, Commissioner Henry Cloete took a look at the uMhlathuze estuary and declared that it had little or no future as a harbour. Today it is South Africa’s deepest and largest port, the main channel dredged to a depth of 26m, allowing the largest bulk carriers to enter. Handling some 1700 ships and 80 million tonnes per annum and making up approximately 55% of South Africa’s seaborne cargo, in terms of cargo volume, it is South Africa’s leading port.
The waters are particularly clean, making it a prime water sport mecca, and hosts several ski boat clubs as well as the vibrant Zululand Yacht Club.
The Tuzi Gazi Waterfront at the small craft harbour is home to several excellent restaurants including The Grill Fish and Maritinos, both of which serve excellent food in relaxed surroundings. There is something so peaceful about enjoying a splendid meal whilst inhaling fresh salty air, with the background sounds of yachts bumping gently against their moorings. There are several curio shops, pubs and shops and it’s well worth a visit.
The name “Tuzi Gazi” is derived from the two rivers which flow into the harbour in this area – the uMhlathuze and the Mzingazi. The harbour has been carefully and cleverly designed to accommodate the industry it needs to support, but also preserve the natural environment around it. A wall was built across the bay to divide the original lagoon. To the north is the industrial harbour and the south is a wildlife sanctuary. The lagoon floodwaters now flow directly into the sea by means of a new estuary which was cut through the dunes. Birdlife is flourishing and indeed Richards Bay is considered a top birding destination.
Lake Mzingazi is a 944ha freshwater lake, and a portion of its banks plays host to the Richards Bay Country Club. Due to an abundance of crocodiles and hippos in the water, swimming and boating is neither allowed nor recommended, and to this end the lake has largely been left untouched and glories in its natural beauty. The African Fish Eagle is regularly seen here and its haunting call can be heard as it glides overhead in search of something fishy for lunch.
Interestingly, in World War II the lake was used as a base for Catalina flying boats which patrolled the coast for U-boats.
There are many wonderful attractions and useful facilities in Richards Bay – it boasts a newly-extended Netcare hospital and The Boardwalk shopping center with Pick ‘n Pay, Woolworths, most of the well-known clothing chain stores, cinemas, restaurants and a few small speciality stores. There are motor glider flights based at the Richards Bay Airport, excellent fishing, horse riding, and even a dolphin-viewing platform which was erected to allow visitors sightings of the Humpback dolphins frequenting the coastline.
Richards Bay is an approximate two-hour drive from Durban, and a two-hour flight from Johannesburg. The airport no longer enjoys international status so there are no flights leaving from there into neighbouring African countries but SA Express conducts daily flights between Richards Bay and Johannesburg.
Heading west about 18km inland along the John Ross Highway, one finds the town of Empangeni. Established as a Norwegian mission in 1851 on the banks of the Mpangeni River, which was in turn named after the Mpange trees growing alongside, this is another flourishing town in the uMhlathuze district, and occupies about 13% of the total 796 sq/km municipal area. This is the true heart of sugar cane country and the views of the green crops from some of the higher points in the town are truly spectacular. It is the home of the Zululand Observer (which also has its offices in Richards Bay) – the only bi-weekly newspaper in the area catering exclusively for Zululanders. Founded 37 years ago by Reg Anthony, a leading lady in regional press circles, it has weathered competition and now stands alone and triumphant as the Zululand newspaper publishing house.
Empangeni is rich in history, and the local museum displays the history of the sugar industry in the area from when the mill opened in 1911, as well as a wonderful permanent display of Zulu heritage art.
The Arts and Crafts Centre next to the museum is a community upliftment project where visitors can experience the colourful Zulu culture in many forms including the making of beautiful crafts and delicious traditional food dishes. Although still considered a developing town, Empangeni is completely self-sufficient, in that it has several large shopping centers, banks, a library, a private hospital as well as the government maternity hospital, restaurants, coffee shops, schools both private and government, bed and breakfasts, hotels, an 18-hole golf course … the list is endless.
It is easy to get from Empangeni to various places of interest and amusement in the greater Zululand region – it’s about 30km from the town of Mtunzini with its protected beaches, lagoon, and raphia palms. Further inland is Eshowe, home to the beautiful, unspoiled Dlinza Forest. It features an aerial boardwalk which culminates in a 20m high steel observation tower. The view over the canopy of indigenous trees is completely breathtaking. An early morning visit may prove to be particularly rewarding to twitchers because the forest is home to more than 65 species of birds, including, to name but two, the rare Delegorgue’s Pigeon, and the Spotted Ground-Thrush which is an endangered bird.
As a growing city and thriving port, uMhlathuze is the gateway to Zululand. Part of the city vision declares that as a port city, it will “offer improved quality of life for all its citizens through sustainable development.” It is a city with vision and a mission, vibrant and colourful, warm and friendly. It is a destination well worth a visit … and when you’ve been once, you’ll want to return.
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