Flanked by the Mozambique border to the north and the warm Indian Ocean to the east is an earthly nirvana where nature reigns: Kosi Bay. Isibindi Africa’s deeply romantic Kosi Forest Lodge is tucked away in a tangle of subtropical trees in the heart of this utopia. Here, we canoe down its breathtaking blackwater rivers, hike into its ancient sand forests in search of a vegetarian vulture, and cruise its crystal clear lakes to discover more about the locals’ age-old fishing traditions.

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 The road to Kosi Forest Lodge is a two-wheeled sand track through undulating grasslands punctuated with clusters of date and ilala palms. Civilisation dissolves quickly from view as soon as we leave the bustling border town of Manguzi, where we’ve been collected. The randomly scattered houses, where carefree children wave and high-stepping chickens scratch in their borderless grounds, become less frequent. Soon, there’s only the waving grasslands stretching as far as the eye can see. Completely remote, the lodge is only accessible by 4×4. And I can see why. The Land Cruiser engages a lower gear and we bump up the track towards a cluster of vegetation. As we pull to a halt beneath some waterberry trees, I immediately know that I’m going to love it here.

We are taken to a thatched A-frame bar. Like the rest of the reception area, this three-sided structure flows onto a broad wooden deck built around the giant mottled trunk of a Zulu podberry tree. Thandi welcomes us with a cold glass of homemade lemonade. The drink is as refreshing as the fact that Kosi Forest Lodge is part community owned and operated. The Isibindi Group has helped the local community to set up a child and healthcare project, which also provides conservation education. It’s nice to know that your money is having a positive impact on the smiling, simple-living Tsonga people who are native to the area.

As well as uplifting local communities, Isibindi Africa’s philosophy is to tread gently. And Kosi Forest Lodge is a paragon of harmonious design. Its eight thatch, wood and canvas suites blend seamlessly, and with minimal impact, into their rare surroundings. We are led to our suite down a natural corridor of lush, subtropical trees. What’s so unique about this forest is that it miraculously grows out of thick, white sand that you would typically see at the beach. Occurring only in the Maputaland region of Southern Africa and parts of the Amazon rainforest, these sand forests support a myriad of plant, bird and animal species – many of which are endemic and cannot be found anywhere else on earth.

At the end of the path, we reach the most remote suite, number eight. It’s completely secluded except for our forest companions: the rather vocal birds and cheeky vervet monkeys (I’m sure one deliberately threw a half eaten monkey apple at me) that inhabit the canopy. The front entrance is perched on a wooden deck where we remove our shoes and walk into the bedroom. Exposed wooden beams and a plush bed shrouded in a mosquito net make the darkly lit room even more intimate. The luxuriously appointed bathroom flows outdoors into a reed-enclosed boma featuring a bath and a shower where stepping stones and sand make up the floor and the sky and ancient milkwood trees replace the ceiling.

At sunset, we head to the swimming-pool deck. Sunlight turns the still waters and sparse shores of Lake Shengeza golden, where a local herds his painted Nguni cattle homewards. With an enormous camera set up on a tripod, a British guest is attempting to capture a spray of water from the hippos wallowing in the shallows. Justin, who has serious camera envy, makes a friend as I enjoy the pure magic of the evening. Pink-legged flamingos filter feed in the shallows while the uncooperative herbivores fill the orange sky with the deep grunts of laughter. Flame lanterns light up the sand path to the main lodge where we nurse a drink at the bar and feast on warm cashew nuts grown in the area. Zac is in charge this evening. He’s a wealth of knowledge and helps us plan to our action-packed agenda for the following day.

Our dinner table has been set on the circular wooden deck built around a central fireplace away from the main dining area. It couldn’t be more intimate. I wrap the blanket around me as we dine on homemade soup, locally caught fish and vanilla panna cotta. Back at our room, lanterns flicker, taking some of the strain off the generator (which powers the entire lodge) and making the moody setting even more romantic. I draw the outside bath, surround it with lanterns, and stargaze as I luxuriate in the warm, floral-scented water.

The next morning, we’re up early, excited to explore the area. The 11,000-hectare Kosi Bay Nature Reserve forms the northern reaches of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, proclaimed a World Heritage Site for its exceptional biodiversity and exquisite beauty. To add to these natural treasures, the Kosi system is considered one of the most pristine and best-preserved lake systems along the Indian Ocean coastline.

It’s a wonderland of crystalline lakes, gently meandering channels, giant raffia palms, uninhabited coastlines, an aquarium full of fish and birdlife to make a twitcher’s palms sweaty with anticipation.

To ensure that their guests get to fully experience this exceptional ecosystem, Kosi Forest Lodge – the only privately owned lodge in the reserve – offers complimentary canoe trips and raffia palm walks. This morning, we’ve opted for the canoe trip, which necessitates a short walk through the sand forest to get to the channel. I feel like I’ve stepped out of bed and through the looking glass. In the early morning light, the forest has a dreamlike quality. Stray beams of sunlight steal through the thick canopy above us, highlighting little gems at random: moss-covered trunks, flitting butterflies, and cascading creepers.

We’ve barely walked a few metres when we spot two brown bush pigs foraging a little way off into the forest. We’re exceptionally lucky. Our local Tsonga guide, Joseph, tells us that this is the first time in his 20 years of working in the area that he has ever seen the normally nocturnal boars during the day. It’s Friday the 13th and I cross fingers that we don’t bump into any other supposedly nocturnal animals. There are around 60 hippos in the Kosi system and the path we’re walking along has been carved out of the forest by the herbivores during their night-time feeding sessions. These aggressive animals are one of Africa’s biggest killers and even more belligerent when encountered on land.

There’s simply no way of feeling anxious in this fairy-tale forest. Although there’s no concrete evidence, it’s believed that they emerged from ancient coastal dunes that were separated from the ocean as the shoreline shifted and sea levels dropped millions of years ago. Unlike commercial forests, which feel dead, the sand forest feels very much alive with an almost tangible air of ancient wisdom. Joseph points out a broad-leafed plant growing in the crook of another tree’s branches. “It’s an epiphyte, not a parasite,” explains Joseph. As if by magic, this bird’s nest fern derives its nutrients from the air, dew and plant debris. We encounter a pepper-bark tree stripped bare on one side of its trunk. As it is a threatened species, the locals are permitted to remove its bark (an exceptional antimicrobial) under controlled conditions only.

Sunlight floods the still waters of the Sihadla channel. A ferry, made from the giant raffia palms that tower above us, waits for one of the locals to tug it to the other side – their only means of getting across the river to civilisation. Justin helps Joseph lift the canoe into the water and we glide silently onto its dark surface like a snake, Joseph paddling from behind. The haunting cry of a fish eagle rings out in the breathless air, giving me goosebumps despite the heat. Thick foliage flanks the riverbanks, its image mirrored in the inert, inky water.

The channel we are canoeing down is known as blackwater. As leaves and branches fall into the slow-moving current and decompose, tannins stain the water, much like a teabag brewing a cup of tea. Adding to this detritus are the mangrove trees, which play a vital ecological role by stabilising the system’s sand and riverbanks, especially at the estuary. These trees are also home to an eclectic concentration of birds and creatures. Joseph spots a yellow-flecked monitor lizard sunning itself high up in some branches not far from a roosting trumpeter hornbill.

Kingfishers, terns, herons and cormorants populate the banks, waters and sky as if we’re inside a giant aviary. On the shoreline, we spot a white-faced duck and a purple gallinule in such close proximity that I’m able to capture them in one shot. Several of the bird species in Kosi Bay are at their southernmost distribution, so they are found nowhere else in the country, while the white-backed night heron, crab plover and flufftail are exceptionally rare. Twitchers can tick off a list of over 250 species, most of which are forest dwelling, making the reserve a Shangri-La for bird lovers.

All too soon, it’s time to turn around. Bruce, the lodge’s gregarious relief manager, has postponed today’s boat trip until we’ve had the chance to get back to the lodge and grab some breakfast. Our fellow guests, a Swiss couple and four Germans, are waiting on the deck ahead of time. Justin makes amends by joking about the difference between Swiss and African time and the friendly banter continues as we climb into the Land Cruiser. It’s still early but the wind has already picked up (apparently Kosi is experiencing a cold front, despite the ubiquitous sunshine). Lake Nghlange, the third and largest lake in the system, is wind whipped and the boat ride is more exhilarating than therapeutic. But we gallop across the white horses soon enough and cruise into the calm channel.

It’s here that I catch my first glimpse of the famed fish traps that the local Tsonga people have been using for centuries to feed their families. Built by the men in the family and passed down through the generations from father to son, they are an age-old tradition. In the shallow waters, crescent-shaped guide fences channel the fish into a heart-shaped enclosure from which they can’t escape. As the lakes act as a giant maternity ward and nursery for the fish, the open arms of the guide fences face upstream. This means that only fish swimming back out to sea are caught and those migrating into the lakes to reproduce are left alone.

If a man steals another man’s fish,” explains our Tsonga skipper, George, “They will go to his village and find him. Then, they will tie his hands and his feet together and pour ants on him. This doesn’t sound like the worst punishment for what is supposed to be the greatest sin among the fish-loving tribe, until I find out that these large-headed ants have powerful pinchers, which can deliver a searingly painful bite and leave two puncture marks in the flesh.

While the men attend to the fish traps, the women in the tribe busy themselves weaving baskets and curios. The thick wall of reeds lining the channel has been cut in places for this purpose and Nguni cattle fatten themselves on the lush riverbanks. But these are the only signs of civilisation.

This is where Mother Nature reigns supreme with her unspoilt kingdom of creatures big and small. Hippos snort and grunt like grumpy old men; pygmy cormorants preen their feather wetsuits; and pied kingfishers hover in stealth mode before dive-bombing they prey.

The water here is crystal clear and, below, shoals of fish turn in unison, flashing silver in the sunlight. It’s also warm, so I take a dip with one of the German girls on our tour. We picnic on the peaceful shores of lake Nghlange beneath the overhanging branches of a massive mangrove tree. A hippo grunts from behind a nearby clump of vegetation but the oxygen-rich air and the sunshine has lulled everyone into a semi-soporific state and no one seems particularly concerned. After lunch, we walk through the shady sand forest to Banga Nek, a six-kilometre sweeping stretch of sand the colour of wheat on the Indian Ocean. Here, the only evidence of civilisation is the turtle research station at the far end of the empty beach. In the summer months, loggerhead and leatherback turtles – which can tip the scales at 200 and 700 kilograms respectively – come here to lay their eggs. It’s the perfect excuse to return to this paradise.

But we can’t leave before we’ve seen the only fruit-eating vulture in the world – a palm-nut vulture. So the next morning, we’re up early to hike through the giant raffia palms. Towering up to 16 metres in height, their leaves can reach an astounding 25 metres in length, making them the longest in the plant kingdom. The swamp forest near the fourth lake has the largest concentration of trees in country and this is our best chance of spotting one of the rare vultures, which feast on the raffia palm’s fleshy fruits. To call them vegetarian is not entirely correct, as they supplement their diet with fish, crabs and molluscs and locusts.

The morning is warm and the sand it thick and boggy in places. We’re just about to turn around unrewarded, when our guide, Tembisa, points to a low-flying bird with brown wings. It’s a juvenile and we follow its course towards a grove of palms in search of mom. Finally, we’re in luck. Sitting proudly on top of a raffia palm flower is the smallest of the Old World vultures, regarding us with pink-rimmed eyes. She ruffles her tail feathers as if to say she’s been waiting there for us all morning. Once we’ve captured her image, we return to the lodge and refuel with a gratifying breakfast of fresh fruit and eggs made to order with all the accompaniments.

I feel heartfelt appreciation when we say our goodbyes to Zac and Bruce who have made us feel right at home at Kosi Forest Lodge. For me, it’s been just the right mix of rustic and romantic, remote and luxurious, secluded and social. And Kosi Bay is unlike any other place I’ve been to. I feel like I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole into a magical faraway land. And I can’t wait to return.