Hear the word ‘Umfolozi’ and you are bound to be flooded with mental images of photographing the big five in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park using even bigger lenses. The Reserve is one of South Africa’s foremost wildlife photography destinations, renowned for producing a whole gambit of wildlife images from rhino and cheetah through to lesser-known species like the African Fin Foot, a secretive little water bird lumbered with oversized orange toes.
For those with a taste for photography of the wide-angle variety, the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is, however, somewhat less appealing. Gate times, restricted access and the unending threat of being nibbled on by lions make game reserve landscape photography testing, and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is no different. Instead, if you are in search of landscape photos from Shaka’s backyard, then you need to look further up one of the rivers that lend their name to the reserve to a point where the flow of water is markedly more restricted – a chasm.
Buried deep in the heart of Zululand, on the R34 between Melmoth and Vryheid, lies Klipkloof, an uncultivated farm that is home to the White Umfolozi Gorge. This stretch of the White Umfolozi River is the area that Dingaan once called home, a stone’s throw away from his royal residence and the site where the ill-fated Retief met his demise. Here, in and amongst the aloes, the White Umfolozi River parts a small stretch of Pongola Quartzite as it gently meanders its way to the sea.
To say that Klipkloof is an unlikely landscape photography destination would be to understate the facts. The journey inland towards the farmstead is lined with either agricultural land or the homes of the region’s inhabitants. There isn’t much space left in between the ever-present civilisation for wilderness, and to imagine that there might be a portfolio-grade photograph hidden amongst it all would be difficult for even the most enthusiastic landscape crusader.
Thankfully, as if protected by the river itself, the approach to the White Umfolozi is marked by a change in backdrop. Dwellings become more sporadic, sugarcane is replaced by virgin bushveld and, before long, you find yourself in front of a large gate that seems designed to hold the wilderness in rather than passers-by out.
Entering the property, a bumpy old track that 50 or so years ago was the only road between Melmoth and Vryheid leads you over a hill before descending towards the river. From the crest of this rise, through a low-slung canopy of thorny trees, one catches first sight of the remarkable tectonic gash that is the gorge – a narrow gap in the rock with the Umfolozi winding its way through the bottom. It is a scene that today appears completely tranquil but, as is evidenced by the enormous cliffs that flank the upper reaches of the riverbed, this cannot always have been the case. At some point in this river’s long history, there must have been a period of more violent trenching for what remains today is a profound cleft in the Zululand countryside.
Now, there are many remarkable features that distinguish the White Umfolozi from other gorges in South Africa but perhaps the most unsung of these is access. Unlike its craggy siblings, gaining the valley floor at Klipkloof is little more than a gentle stroll followed by a little bit of rock-hopping. With almost no effort at all, you find yourself at the eastern end of the ravine right at the point where the river makes an escape and heads off into the hills.
The east end is undoubtedly the most photogenic region of the entire valley, with the cliff line being significantly lower here than elsewhere but, strikingly, the cliffs themselves assume a decidedly more upright stance. The result is a gutter with vertical walls and a gently sloping base through which the turquoise waters of the Umfolozi course, depositing sand as they go. The fine silt collects in the corners of the gorge and has created a stretch of white beach several hundred meters long and looking completely out of place surrounded by cliffs and rocky thornveld.
Given that during the summer months, Zululand temperatures regularly approach those of a freshly fired branding iron, my advice is to limit your exploration of White Umfolozi to only the winter months. This is the season when the river runs at its lowest levels and temperatures are reduced to only mildly scalding. The conditions make the gorge, with its improbable little beach, an other-worldly experience. The warm Zululand air is a sublime change from the rest of South Africa’s winter cold and even warrants an occasional dip in the light blue stream. The whole location has an oddly Mediterranean feel to it and while I can’t be sure that in Dingaan’s day anyone ever indulged in sunbathing, if they did, you can be certain that the basking occurred here and not on any of the coastal beaches.
Ultimately, it is the idyllic beach that makes White Umfolozi such an attractive photography destination. It serves as both the subject for many of the area’s best photos while at the same time making an excellent spot to relax during the downtime. Landscape photography is almost by definition a never-ending wait for the light to be at its best and in the many hours between the golden glow of sunrise and sunset, I can think of no better place to spend my time than on a bleached inland beach. It is just like any normal beach except without the irritating saltwater and, in this case, the company of other people.
In fact, the only thing that you are likely to find sharing the beach with you during a visit is the odd Nguni cow and perhaps the occasional leopard, python or crocodile that are also rumoured to fancy lying about on the riverbanks. In fairness, though, the likelihood of encountering any one of the latter animals is incredibly remote and the cautionary notice near the accommodation seems to have been placed more as a tool to enhance the mood rather than as any sort of genuine deterrent. The mere fact that these creatures could be around brings about an atmosphere that is significantly more authentic than what you might find within the confines of a fenced game reserve camp.
Yet, trying to create a photograph that accurately portrays the feelings associated with White Umfolozi’s blend of wild bushveld, tranquil beach and towering cliffs is not without its challenges. Photographers are faced with a choice of two approaches to the problem. Either you head up onto the higher ground atop the cliffs and shoot down onto the shoreline below, showing off the beach and sparkling stream, or you shoot from within the gulley, showing far less of the beach but more dramatic cliff faces.
The scope for creating stellar images from both positions is excellent, helped by the fact that the slot lies almost perfectly on an east-west axis. Sunrise casts a truly outstanding warm yellow glow on the northern wall of the gorge while sunset lights a section of red cliff just west of the beach. Either way, the blend of warm air and the sublime light that arises from the absence of any sort of pollution is a perfect reward for venturing out into the sticks.
Prices: Stone Rondavels – R 175.00 pppn Wendy Houses – R 150.00 pppn Camping – R150.00 pppn
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The best part of witnessing the sunrise and sunset at the gorge is that it comes with none of the urgency that is often attached to the gate times within game parks. One is never more than 15 minutes’ easy walking from the accommodation and provided that you can hold back your fear of what might be lurking in the bush, a journey to and from the river in complete darkness is an entirely reasonable proposition.
When you have had your full of photography and the beach and it’s time to take the edge off with a G&T or two, Klipkloof offers a choice of basic lodging all designed around making the most of the gorge(ous) views and establishing gees.
The primary quarters take the form of two rustic stone rondavels each with two single beds as well as a scattering of other bedroom-appropriate furniture. Opulence is certainly not a word that will ever find its way into any description of Klipkloof’s facilities with even ‘luxury’ seemingly being just one step too far for this neck of the woods. What you are getting, rather, is a place to bath and lay your head that is functional, clean and perfectly suited to those prepared to give up some of life’s comforts in pursuit of solitude. Additionally, there are two Wendy houses that supplement the rondavels, and a half-dozen flat campsites with ground that, at face value, looks like it might have bent a tent peg or two during its time.
At the heart of the camp is a communal cooking area which features a vast deck and one of the finest fireplaces I have ever seen. Fires are built a meter off the ground on what is, in all manner of speaking, an altar for sacrificing T-bones. It is also a perfectly agreeable place to sit and catch-up with friends while watching the flames licking at logs. It must be one of the best fireplaces in all of Zululand if not South Africa.
If there is any location capable of breathing truth into the old cliché “a hidden gem” then Klipkloof is that destination. It is an unquestionably fertile area for photography, an outstanding place to simply enjoy time in nature and, importantly, a spot that sees next to no tourist activity. Next time you roll through Zululand in search of some of the local countryside, I highly recommend looking beyond the game reserves and sampling the White Umfolozi Gorge.