Click on the image to see a gallery of photographs for this story.

The lumpy leather moved squishily under me; I grinned nervously for the cameras and hung on tightly. There was something wrong with this picture: instead of sitting on a beach, I was sitting on an alligator. “Gee up!” said the man who looked like Crocodile Dundee’s tougher brother. “Eep!” I said, and dismounted with more regard for my fingers than my dignity.

Children pointed and laughed. For them, it was just another day of family fun. For me, it was another day of harrowing research and a visit to a crocodile farm was all part of the plan. Holidays with kids are not to be undertaken lightly. You need to have something up your sleeve when someone tugs on it and whines, “I’m boooored”. Plan A, of course, is to go to the beach and tan quietly on a towel while the kids frisk in the sea under the watchful eye of trained lifeguards, or bury you up to the neck in sand while you snooze.

The KwaZulu-Natal north coast has been one of South Africa’s top family holiday destinations for decades, and Plan A is what it does best. From Addington Beach to Zinkwazi there are more golden, safe swimming beaches than you can throw a beach ball at.

The area they call the Dolphin Coast starts in Umhlanga Rocks and ends at the Thukela River Mouth, but I started in Durban, partly because I wanted to make sure that the rickshaw men and the bead sellers were still there (they were), but mainly because I wanted to see the dolphins.

Ushaka and the sharks

Ushaka Marine World is ambitiously named, but if you’re a kid on holiday, Uskhaka might as well be the world. Besides the top-class aquarium, dolphin stadium, shark tanks, snorkel pond and water slides, it’s got its own helicopter pad, beach and a bevy of restaurants, surf shops, burger joints and ice-cream parlours.

The dolphin show was everything I had hoped for. The dolphins came on in twos and threes, leaping and dancing and zooming around the glass fronted pool at silly speeds. But my favourite was a solo act. Gambit is the oldest dolphin there – in fact, he’s as old as I am, only much more athletic. A veteran performer, he has been winning the hearts of holiday-makers for over 30 years. I was too shy to put my hand up, so a schoolgirl from Pretoria gave Gambit a kiss.

My next meeting was with a much less-loved marine animal. The Natal Sharks Board has its headquarters at Umhlanga Rocks and  tries to educate the generally terrified public about one of the planet’s greatest predators. You may doubt my sanity, but a shark dissection is a pretty cool family outing.

You’ve noticed how kids love taking things apart (usually expensive things)? Well, nothing beats taking a shark apart. It doesn’t even smell that bad. Honest. For the squeamish, I’ll leave it there, except to say that there were little children, old men and giggly teenage girls in the audience and that all were quite happy to take a close-up look at the inner workings of a dusky shark.

A head for heights

On a rainy day, when your boat trip has been cancelled and the outlook on the beach is gloomy, the locals go to the Gateway Mall, but I went one better. Climbing a lighthouse might sound like it belongs in a book called Fifty ways to lose your little ones but ‘lighthousing’ is fast becoming an international tourist attraction.

A division of the National Ports Authority offers regular guided tours of several of South Africa’s lighthouses. Admittedly, the Umhlanga Rocks Lighthouse – the one I went to – is not one of them. I just wheedled my way in and climbed the squeaky green stairs with sweaty palms and pounding heart. Cooper’s Lighthouse in Durban has been made child and clumsy-clot safe with extra railings. Although neither is generally open to the public, you can make arrangements to visit the towers if you phone ahead. Climb one, and the kids will have something to boast about.

If oneupmanship is an issue, and your children’s classmates have gone to Cancun for Christmas or are sending them SMSs from the alps, you might be persuaded to shell out a little extra to show them how lekker local is. For the price of a train ticket in London, you can send them whirring through the sky in a microlight, an aircraft so ridiculous that gravity forgets to work because it’s too busy laughing. Enthusiasts disagree. According to one teenager fresh off her first microlight ride, “That was so cool it wasn’t even funny.” The best part is that you can see humpback whales and dolphins as you fly low over the sea, with no glass or cockpit to interfere with your view.

For the price of a round of  beers in Bavaria, you can take the whole family quadbiking. Whooping through cane fields and tearing up and down dirt-tracks will soon see them laughing and racing. Although quadbike hire is by the hour, Paddy at Cane Cutters isn’t one to clock-watch. Don’t tell him I said so, but he doesn’t really mind if you take a little extra time to enjoy his beautiful beach, which you can only reach by quadbike or mountain bike. Just remember – no riding on the beach!

At Crocodile Creek where you found me earlier, Sean is the tour guide who looks like he could have shown Steve Irwin a thing or two. His missing index fingers do nothing to detract from his croc-wrangling image, even when he eventually tells you that neither had anything to do with crocodiles. (If you really want to know, one finger was lost when a black mamba bit him, and the other was a circular saw incident. The mamba is on display, safely behind glass.)

Given their distinct lack of cuddliness, it’s not clear why crocodiles exert such a fascination over children. The Nile crocodile is the most dangerous of all, so any rides are restricted to their American cousins, the alligators. A women with two toddlers was almost apologetic that they were back for the second time in a week. “We were here on Tuesday and ever since then, Emily has not stopped asking to see the crocodiles again.”

Suggesting a visit to nearby Flag Farm to anyone over 10 will probably result in a severe case of eyeball rolling, but the littlies will love it. I watched a gaggle of excited six-year olds line up to milk a cow, ride a pony, chase the chickens and feed the goats. “What do we call a baby goose?” asked their guide (you could tell she was in charge because she was wearing a furry hat with cow horns). “A swan!” came the answer. Well, it was only the beginning of their visit.

Holidays without adults

When I asked a friend of my father’s if he had any advice for me about holidays with kids, he said, “Yes – leave them behind!” Maybe it hadn’t occurred to him that children are sometimes just as keen to get rid of their parents. In America, they have an ingenious arrangement called Summer Camp. Like television once did, it’s taking a while to get to South Africa, but six years ago an enterprising lawyer, Zoë Ellender, and her husband started a summer camp in Zinkwazi.

Anyone lucky enough to spend a week at Sugar Bay will make at least a hundred new friends and go back to school 100 per cent cooler than before. They’ll have a perfect tan from mornings spent learning to surf in the sea or kayak on the lagoon. They’ll be able to do new skateboarding tricks and crow about flying upside down on the tree swing. The only problem is that, like Emily, they will insist on going back. Sugar Bay has a 98 per cent return visitor rate.

So there you have it: Plans B through to J should help you make your next North Coast family holiday fun and affordable. But you still want to know about the beaches. After all, that was Plan A.

The big wave

The cyclone that hit the coast of KwaZulu-Natal in March 2007 sent tidal waves crashing into homes, shops and restaurants. The pictures were so sensational they flew around the Internet. Everyone stared and said “The Wimpy under water? Woah!” and then promptly forgot about it. I did until I got to the beach at Umdloti and noticed that half the car park was missing.

Umdloti and Ballito, where pavements and parking lots are close to the sea, were worst hit by the storm. Vast amounts of sand were swept away, exposing the black rock that lies beneath, while broken sewage pipes and chunks of rubble in the surf made many beaches downright dangerous. Naturally this put a dampener on tourism.

Collette Bundy and Dolphin Coast Tourism have been working hard to fix this. According to Collette, things are now almost back to normal. Most of the beaches were already open when I visited in September, with the odd tractor dragging sand back out of the sea, and the occasional pile of rubble waiting to be carted away. But the main swimming beaches were free of sewage and the Navy divers had removed the concrete from the sea bed.

Tinley Manor, Zimbali and Zinkwazi beaches, where development kept a respectful distance from the sea, were almost unscathed. In a short time, natural processes restored the sand and smoothed away signs of the storm: a lesson in nature’s power to destroy, and to heal.

It’s even possible that there was a silver lining to that cyclone cloud and, with luck, the lessons learned will mean that the smart new walkways and car parks won’t trespass on the edge of a coast which, despite our attempts to tame it with umbrellas and ice-cream, will always be wild.

Meantime, the north coast is picking itself up and people are wearing their friendliest smiles to welcome back visitors. And we will be back. After all, a seaside holiday is an indispensable part of growing up, like cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians. Excuse me while I ride my alligator into the sunset…

First published in Getaway magazine, December 2007

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