Pop Up Camps
These are a wild camping concept for exploring some of Durban’s wildest areas in accommodation under a million stars- and not the same old, same old beach and barbecue offerings associated with South Africa’s bustling subtropical coastal city.
Mqeku Camp is the idyllic, very happy ending to a fun tale, which is filled with twists and turns, colourful characters and captivating scenarios.
After turning off Old Main Road in Botha’s Hill, west of Durban’s suburbia, there is only one junction, where you take a left, and then continue over wondrous passes and through colourful communities to the very end of this ultra-scenic road. Only Shanks’s pony can take you further.
Somewhere Over The Rainbow
Just like that pot at the end of the rainbow, Mqeku Camp is a treasure, so worth discovering and exploring. Sibusiso Shangase welcomes you to a beautifully kept, cleverly laid-out arrangement of level, lawned camping sites, each with a stone braai facility, all interspersed by giant granite boulders, next to the magical Mqeku River.
Susan Dlamini and Nompilo Ngcobo of Green Corridors are in the hospitality tent with drinks and platters of fresh fruits and cheeses. Even though there are canvas chairs set out, everyone is drawn to the river and we sprawl across the granite boulders that are so huge one could only refer to them as slopes, imbibing the sights and sounds.
Everything is authentically natural and we quickly feel very at home.
It is hot and sunny, the tubes and safety gear are all lined up on the rocks, ready for those who want to go tubing. There is a deep, calm wallowing pool above the first rapid, which lures in the lazy ones.
The Mqeku has its source in the surrounding mountains and the water is clear and clean enough to drink.
Susan and Nompilo spoil us further with hot cheese and onion toasted sandwiches, chicken and cheese salads, juices and coffee.
Where Trouble Melts Like Lemon Drops
The camp itself is so comforting but also so stimulating with fantastic birdlife, ponds of aquatic life, sedges, grasses and trees, that we have to be enticed to go walking. Thulas, our knowledgeable guide leads us off and up, up, up into the scarp-forested hill behind the camp and Sibusiso follows at the back.
Way Up High
The beauty of this forest is that is really is pristine. Whoever has walked it, has had the respect to maintain single-file. The path is steep but, wow, the prize at the top is awesome! We get to see the layers of hills, the different vegetation zones and right down at the feet of the hills slithers the mighty Umgeni River.
It is summer and we have had good rains so the Mqeku is healthily pumping and we have to cross it a couple of times, so hiking boots and shorts are probably the answer for comfort and safety.
All in all, it was about a two-and-a-half-hour walk, led by our humorous, very motivated guide, Thulas Luthuli.
Everyone has settled into their very comfortable tents, which even a tall person could stand up in, beds are turned back ready to collapse into and it’s twilight; that happy hour time when the transition from day to night makes everyone excited and we gather for an evening drink.
Lots of happy chatter and as we watch the light fade and the colours change, a most exciting crepuscular treat clambers onto the granite boulder directly opposite us. It is the elusive African Finfoot. He belongs to an ancient group of birds, Gruiformes, with a rich fossil history. Bright orange legs with large conspicuously lobed toes, he is the bird known for “walking/running on water”.
There are ponds and wetland areas within the camp and unbeknown to us there is a hive of activity that has been getting going within and around them. From a single high-pitched peep, within minutes the entire froggie-chorus creates a complete cacophony- from belching oboes to sweet tinkling triangles. We take our torches out and it is nothing short of fantastic to see the number of frogs and the diversity.
So, between the frogs and the rushing river, we battle to hear one another but that’s fine because our mouths are otherwise occupied; more delicious food from the bush kitchen; vegetarian and meat kebabs, salads and hot pasta.
Once in a Lullaby
It is exciting to go to bed when you just know that you’re not going to need a lullaby or any other sleep inducer. There is another strong factor of utter mental unwinding; there is no cell phone reception whatsoever and that is a complete treat. One of the few remaining areas of this “health retreat” perk.
Early coffee with the bird morning chorus and a pre-breakfast walk, but this time a far more sedate kind-of amble.
An Appetising Amble
Another very knowledgeable guide, Joe Jiyane, joins us. We backtrack along the road which brought us into Mqeku, which runs parallel to the Umgeni River. Joe, Thulas and Sibusiso take turns in stopping us to give us various forms of fascination, from birds, to arthropods, trees and associated cultural uses and stories.
Sibusiso Shangase, our host, carries the same surname as the local chief. He has lived there most of his life and is very proud of his achievement. He tells marvelous stories about the history and the general customary ways of the people.
Life in this valley is completely authentic and I don’t think has changed much at all over the generations. The only conspicuous change is how many people have left their area, seeking the life-style of urbanisation. As we walk along the road the local people greet us as they get on with their simple lives.
Green Initiatives Creating Opportunity
Joe tells us about one of the strands of the massive interconnected web of interventions Green Corridor has created to uplift communities in conjunction with their local environments. There is a recycling project where pavers are created in a clever combining of invasive water-hyacinth and Spanish-reed and plastic.
At the end of the road, just before it bridges the Umgeni River, is Mfula store, which used to be a thriving bustle and a pumping throng on weekends. Again, due to the mass desertion of the area, the store is quiet but imperative to the locals. The storekeeper has a lot of mango trees and he makes and sells bottled green-mango atchar; one of the helpful introduced species and practices.
Our stomach enzymes affect our pace and soon we are back with the wonderful Susan and Nompilo and their wonderful food; scrambled eggs and bacon and hot crumpets with syrup and a hot cup of coffee.
We only had the one night in Sibusiso’s magical Mqeku Camp, but it felt as if we had been away for a week. He can be very proud of his camp; not an alien plant in sight, not a hint of litter. Perhaps granite boulders heighten gravity but whatever it is, something draws you in at Mqeku Camp and you will want to return.
Pop Up Options
Apart from Mqeku, there are three other sites- Maphepetheni, on the edge of a cascading series of waterfalls and rapids overlooking a deep gorge; a gorgeous location on the shores of Mnini Dam with excellent bass fishing, canoes for hire and a range of hiking trails; eNanda Adventures on the shores of eNanda Dam- an ideal spot for mountain bikers, hikers and canoeists.
You have the option to self-cater or let the guides cater for you. All the Pop Up Camp sites are managed in conjunction with the local community and include 24 hour security.
Rates include transport to the site, or a guide can be sent to help you find your way.
- Fully catered: ZAR650 per person
- Self catering: ZAR400 per person
- Min 4 pax per group
- Inclusive of all entry fees, transport, guides
A bush baby at heart, Hilary McLernan is a qualified field guide, a keen birder and author of educational books who finds her deepest connection with life communing with nature. She has spent more time crossing African plains and traversing wild country than most and her happy place is her home in the bush on the Botswana/Zimbabwe border.