The Rough and the Smooth
The hunt for the rosy-throated longclaw. While it may have the ring of a movie title, it is bizarrely the motivation for a family holiday, an expedition trip to Hluhluwe in Kwazulu-natal, to find two rare birds or “lifers” (a first sighting in one’s lifetime). Strange as though it may seem for a couple with three daughters to follow a family of six on a birding trip, there was method in our madness. The ease of local travel with youngsters, great company, a warm climate, and something different and educational was our inspiration. And I omitted to add, Durban provided a simple reason to sample the finest hotel in the city, The Oyster Box, making the round trip a blend of earthy adventure meets luxury city break.
Our first base, Hluhluwe River Lodge, acted as a prime location for us to explore the Umfolozi-hluhluwe Game Reserve, False Bay Park, Phinda Private Game Reserve, and St. Lucia, as well the walks at the River Lodge.
The family we travelled with, the Buckhams, are a prolific birding family, “atlasing” birds and recording their location on a South African app known as Birdlasser. Daily searches took us through the sand forest and lush coastal bush, amidst the acacias, down jeep tracks, across rickety wooden bridges, and the shallows of a croc- and hippofrequented water’s edge which is where we found the rosy-throated longclaw in all its pink and orange glory flitting from tuft to tuft.
But the grail of our stay was the Malagasy pond heron. A lifer for many local birders, Phinda Private Game Reserve has been taking fanatical local ornithologists into the neighbouring Mziki shareblock since the species was discovered there several weeks earlier and lit up birding social media groups like wildfire.
We scouted typical sites around the dam for 90 minutes while casually ignoring hippos, crocodiles, waterbuck, and zebra. We finally spotted the rare treasure, and exposed it to a paparazzi blaze of long lenses.
The weather was sublime as the sun set early and the day wrapped up, so we headed home to the River Lodge for aubergine in phyllo pastry, hearty lamb chops, and crêpes with ice cream, accompanied by a tame and hungry genet at our feet throughout. The nightly three course dinners were impressive throughout, enhanced by the ability to sit outside with the sounds and climate of the bush. Sitting around the fire pit each evening – positioned between the glossy
wooden bar and the colonial lounge – owner Gavin Dickson regaled us with stories of guests who experienced close shaves.
On our last night, we took a walk around the forest paths of the lodge, with one of the leading experts on spiders in South Africa, Ryan Tippett. Armed with head torches only, we winded our way through the blackness of the indigenous sand forest with the seven kids. We tracked the elusive cork-lid trapdoor spider, the brown button – or brown widow – and allowed a scorpion to walk across our palms under fluorescent light, even though it can sting (but not fatally).
The Buckhams demonstrated one clear principle: to seize the day. Hluhluwe River Lodge offers a great base, but it is up to you to take the nyala by the horns.
After three nights and our companions moving onwards in the search of more birds, the girls and I drove to Durban for an altogether different style of break.
The Oyster Box in Umhlanga has been the finest luxury property in the city for almost seven decades. Owned by internationally-renowned Red Carnation Hotels and legendary hoteliers Bea and Stanley Tollman, the establishment oozes old-world opulence spiked with modern flair and bold colour. It is a wish list tick for luxury travellers and parents – a rare bird.
Perched on the shoreline overlooking the lighthouse of Umhlanga, the iconic red and white Ocean Terrace and magnificent pool plays host to the kids, with important little parental pleasures like complimentary sun cream and pizza delivered to your sun lounger – one less meal at a table with a four-year-old!
The Terrace also serves buffet breakfasts, including a waffle and pancake station with every confectionery under the sun producing gasps of delight, while in the evening there is an à la carte menu as well as a curry buffet (an absolute must while in Durban).
With five of us, we opted to stay in a two-bedroomed garden villa and loft, with a ground floor lounge and doors which open onto its own heated splash pool. The doorbell rang, and a housekeeper turned up carrying an ice bucket with white wine, and a platter of sweets, chips, and yoghurt for the kids. Morning and evening a newspaper hung on the door and small details like TV controls, sterilised and wrapped, have been considered. Levels of luxury lie in the finer details.
High Tea, starting mid-afternoon, brings together the delicacy and decadence of specialist teas, finger sandwiches, spring rolls, meringues, cupcakes, and the list goes on. The spa of The Oyster Box in the gardens of the property was named as World’s Best Spa in 2015, and the quiet white space, modernity, and serene professionalism of its therapists were as good as I have experienced anywhere.
One would assume The Oyster Box is “fancy”, but it is surprisingly unpretentious. It is a pet-friendly hotel and I saw dogs sitting with guests having coffee. Service is slick but amazingly understated, opting for engaging and warm when required. The Kids Club lays on hourly trips to the beach, sports challenges, arts and crafts, as well as board and electronic games, with a broad spectrum of age appropriate concepts that work in a supervised, safe, and cosy bean bag environment.
The litmus test for most fathers on any given holiday is if one’s wife and children are (for the most part) happy. To achieve this, I strangely believe that travel with some degree of polarity is highly recommended. Luxury, adventure, rest, high energy, a sole purpose, no purpose, substance, frivolity, education, and mindlessness. Life should be like that; balance is beautiful, when and where possible.
For more information on Hluhluwe River Lodge, visit www.hluhluwe.co.za. For more information on The Oyster Box, visit www.oysterboxhotel.com.
The Oyster Box
Hluhluwe River Lodge
Hluhluwe River Lodge
The Oyster Box