Sodwana Bay-Land of the alcoholic palms

Sodwana Bay

Sodwana Bay is one of South Africas most diverse biosphere.  The scenery is just stunning!! Set in a subtropical setting with remote unspoilt beaches, coastal dunes, forests and SCUBA diving, Sodwana should be on any travellers bucket list. But of course, its not all about the scenery. There is also some really fascinating history about the area that has added to the soul of this coastal paradise. One such story is the how it became known as the ‘Land of the alcoholic palm’. Most local South Africans who frequent the area are familiar with the infamous R@R drink. ( a concoction of rum and rasperry cooldrink that originated in Mozambique and made its way doen the throat of most Sodwana Bay visitors). But this story is a way different. So hang in there and allow us to take you back in time.

The year was 1550 and all is well

In about 1550, it is said, there lived a man by the name of Tembe whose home was the on the shores of Lourenco Marques. ( Later to be known as Maputo). His people had long ago wnadered into this area from Zimbabwe. Where the waves of the Indian Ocean surge into this great bay, they settled to grow crops, to fish and learn from the passing Arab and Portugese traders. They became porters and peddlars, carrying beads, cloth and other imported novelties such as maize and even domestic cats into the interior of South Africa to barter for ivory, gold, copper and animal hides. As the years passed, the people of Tembe prospered and increased in numbers.

Let’s not split Sodwana Bay hairs

Hairs where not split. What was split was the family. The people of Tembe began to quarrel as seems to be the norm with us humans when greed and power take over. So the people split into 2 factions. One group retained the name of Tembe and the second called themselves the Mabudu (spelt Maputo to the Europeans and was the name given to the lower reaches of the Usutu River and to the city formerly known as Lorenco Marques). Mabudu’s people migrated south from the bay and made their way into the flat, sandy, tree covered area close to Sodwana Bay known as Tongaland. The Zulu’s had always reffered to all people living in Mozambique as Thongas which means ‘a ruled race’.

She sells sea shells on the sea shore

This area which is approximitley 9,000 square kilometres was a wilderness yet almost untouched by human exploitation. During the Cretaceuos Perid, 60 million years ago, the whole area was under trhe sea. This accounts for the salty, sandy soil which is full of shells. The whole area from just north of Sodwana Bay to False Bay is a living  and working museum on marine evolution. False Bay is the widest section of Lake St Lucia, hemmed in by two peninsulas – the Nibela to the north and the Nhlozi to the south. It is a unique area that offers visitors the opportunity to experience the joy of discovering the smaller species. The area is comprised of a variety of habitats including woodland, thornveld, open savannah, shoreline, and one of the richest remaining pockets of sand forest left in Southern Africa. These habitats provide excellent bird-watching and are home to an abundance of smaller game species. Whether on foot or horseback, the Park is sure to reveal the little wonders of nature like antelope and primates, birds and butterflies.

Water, pans and the occasional crocodile

Water in the area collects in hollows in the sandy plains, forming lakelets and pans. Rivers such as the Pongola ( just north of Sodwana Bay), have a complex course to the Indian Ocean over these sandy flats. The slope of the land is virtually non-existant which results in the rivers dawdling and meandering slowly through the land. The only incentive to flow is the water pressure from behind during floods, heavy rainfall and burst river banks. These lakes area valuable feature in the land of the old Tonga. They are shallow, warm and full of nutrients. Barbel and tiger fish live in the lakes. Crocodiles feed on the fish and the occasional mammal;hippos sllep in the water and feed on the lush vegetation. Aqautic birds revel in the entire area-flamingoes, kingfishers, fish Eagles and comorants all feed on the banquet of fish, frogs and and small water creatures.

A tropical paradise known as Sodwana Bay

The vegetation of the area resembles a collection of tropical plants.  Thete are more than 175 different species of trees. many of them get huge. The rivers tunnel beneath these trees to create an enchanted world that stirs the imagination. The most notable tree is the Wild Fig. These forest giants line the banks of the rivers, especially the Pongola. Monkeys use the branches to cross the rivers. A multitude if birds build their nests in them. And their fruit provide nutrition to a multitude of wild animals.

And finally….The alcoholic tree!!

As you near the coast of Sodwana Bay, the forest thins and palms replace the trees. It is here we find Lala Palms. The word Lala means ‘sleep’ in Zulu. A fitting name for the alcoholic tree. The Lala Palm has provided a generous amount of free alcohol that many men, an d the occasional animal have seldom, if ever, known what it is like to be sober. They are born drunk and die drunk. To remain in this state, all they have to do is cut a groove into the stem of the Lala Palm, fix a leaf into the groove to act as a spout, and tie a calabash to the trunk in such a way that the sap will drip from the leaf  into the container. Fresh, the sap is a delicious soft drink. 24 hours later is has fermented into a powerful alcoholic drink. Locals believe it has an alcohol percentage of between 5-10%.

Take me drunk, I’m home

in this warm environment of water, trees, fish, wild game and …..alcoholic palm trees, it probably goes without saying that the Tembe people lived a cheerful and relatively carefee life. But please…don’t go crazy now and hammer back a few litres of Lala Palm juice. We know the curent Coronavirus lockdown is hampering your style, but we don’t want to be the blame for your Lala.


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