The iSimangaliso Wetland Park has it all! From deep ocean gorges and coral reefs through to the salt and freshwater marshes, forested dunes, mangroves and the drier woodland interior. This vast area in the northern reaches of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa abounds with a rich variety of biodiversity and spans from the deep ocean, to the stillness and peacefulness of the forest interior and from the kaleidoscope of colour on the tropical reefs through to the drab winter bush veld. It is without a doubt, one of Africa’s Great Game Reserves.
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park, which holds a greater diversity than Kruger National Park or Botswana’s Okavango Delta is considered as South Africa’s third largest and was declared a World Heritage Site in December 1999, although its known history extends far further back.
The first evidence of human habitation within the Park dates from the early Stone Age, while officially the St Lucia estuary was first discovered in 1552 and was first named as “Rio de la Medaos do ura” - which means the River of the Dows of Gold - in 1554, by sailors of the Portuguese ship Saint Benidct. It was only on the 13 December in 1575, the day of the feast of Saint Lucy, that Manuel Peresterello renamed the mouth of the estuary as Santa Lucia. In 1895, St Lucia received the distinctive honour of being declared as South Africa’s first Game Reserve and from that time the area has grown from strength to strength in its conservation value and reputation.
1 of 14: Pygmy Kingfisher.
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park itself, comprises 328 000 ha of exquisite scenery and extends from Kosi Bay in the north to Mapelane in the south. It also incorporates the entire Lake St Lucia, the St Lucia and Maputoland Marine Reserves, the Coastal Forest Reserve, Kosi Bay Nature Reserve and Mkhuzi Game Reserve. To the north lies the Mozambique border and the Ndumo and Thembe Game Reserves, whilst westwards lie the equally famous Umfolozi and Hluhluwe Game Reserves. This places the park in the centre of a magnificent holiday destination where everything from game viewing, bird watching, scuba diving, canoeing, deep-sea fishing and walking on a variety of trails can be undertaken.
2 of 14: Kosi Bay Fish Traps.
Apart from the habitats already mentioned there are nearly 280 km’s of pristine and tranquil beaches, which during the warm summer nights are the location of one of nature’s great spectacles, when Leatherback and Loggerhead Turtles heave themselves onto the beaches to laboriously dig holes in which to bury their eggs. These females will return over several nights when conditions are suitable to lay up to seven clutches of eggs varying between 55 and 160 eggs per clutch, depending on the size and age of the female. After a period of between two and two and a half months the eggs hatch and the hatchlings then have to run the gauntlet of predators, such as Ghost Crabs, as they rush to the sea. Many of the females bear sign of encounters with great sharks and carry huge scars or have missing flippers. The coast offshore is also the location for migrating Humpbacked Whales, Dolphins and Whale Sharks. Marlin and Sailfish attract deep-sea fisherman, whilst the warm Indian Ocean contains the southern most coral reefs and sub marine canyons in Africa. It is amongst these sub marine canyons that a population of that strangest of fish, the Coelacanth was recently discovered to be living.
3 of 14: Red Duiker.
The reefs that are found within the waters of the marine reserve are rated as being one of the top 10 dive sites in the world and are the only ones that fall within a conservation area along the Kwa Zulu Natal coastline. The Maputoland and St Lucia Marine Reserves form a continuous protected area, which is 150km’s in length and extends three nautical miles out to sea. The coral gardens, reefs and overhangs found within the protected area are home to over 80 percent of South Africa’s fish species. These reefs provide the perfect breeding ground for many marine creatures and this combined with the often-excellent visibility provide divers with an unrivalled spectacle of colour and variety. Shark diving is also good, for those adrenaline junkies, with regular sightings of Ragged Tooth Shark, Zambezi and Tiger Shark taking place, even the Great White puts in an occasional appearance and during the warm summer months, the greatest of fish, the Whale Shark can often be watched from close quarters. It is when free diving with the sharks that I have been able to really appreciate their perfection and realise that they are not the senseless killers that they are made out to be, but are often shy and not wanting of attention.
4 of 14: Striped Skink.
The area is not only for scuba divers, but there are also numerous suitable localities for snorkelling with Mabibi and Cape Vidal being amongst my favourites. Both have safe and sheltered inshore reefs suitable for swimming and snorkelling. To get to Mabibi a 4x4 is necessary and the campsite lies just ten minutes from the beach, allowing for truly uncrowded fishing and snorkelling. At Cape Vidal, there are still remains of the wreck of the Dorethea, a wooden barque that sunk in heavy seas on the 31st of January 1898. She was said to have been carrying a cargo of gold, but this has never been found.
5 of 14: Red Mangrove Crab.
Cape Vidal, along with Sodwana Bay and Mapelane, has a designated launch site for ski boats, from where deep-sea fishing, spear fishing and watching a variety of marine mammals may take place. Several species of dolphin occur along this coast, including the Bottle Nosed Dolphin, which is most commonly seen frolicking amongst the waves and the Spinner Dolphin, which is found in deeper waters and which is recognised by it’s habit of launching out of the water, spinning its body as it does so. June through to October sees the occurrence of the Humpbacked Whale, which may also indicate its presence by breeching. Should you be lucky enough to posses a hydrophone, the calls of the Humpbacked Whale may be heard over great distances and occasionally they can be heard interacting with dolphins, whose high pitched screeches seem out of place with the deep booming of the whales. Many interesting pelagic sea birds can also be seen from the deck of a ski boat, particularly after tropical storms when many of the rarities are blown southwards. Such species include the Tropicbirds, Frigatebirds, Shearwaters and Albatrosses.
6 of 14: Kosi Bay Lake System.
The myriad of lakes, islands and estuaries, from which the iSimangaliso Wetland Park gets it’s name, are all listed as a RAMSAR wetland of international importance. There are both saline and freshwater systems within the wetland park. This multitude of inland water systems is one of the main breeding localities for the Nile Crocodile and is home to the largest and most southern population of about 800 Hippo’s. The wetland is also habitat to Africa’s highest density of Common Reedbuck. The lake is one of the most important breeding areas for water birds in South Africa, supporting large numbers of pelicans, storks and flamingo’s. The best way to view the wildlife of the lake is on a cruise on the fully equipped ‘Santa Lucia’, which takes you on a two-hour journey into the “Narrows’. From here one can see Pink Backed and White Pelican, Greater and Lesser Flamingo, Rufous Bellied Heron, Yellow billed and Open billed Stork, African and Lesser Jacana, numerous duck species and in the summer months abundant waders, all while sipping ones favourite cocktail.
7 of 14: Green Woodhoope.
The St Lucia and Kosi Bay systems form the two estuary-linked lakes, with Lake St Lucia covering 36828 ha, this is supposed to make it the largest in Africa. It comprises a huge shallow lake with an opening to the sea through a very narrow estuary. In times of drought, salinity levels within the lake may rise to that of the surrounding sea. Plant and animal life have become especially adapted to tolerate these huge fluctuations in salinity. Apart from the open water expanses of the lake, there are mudflats, salt marsh, reed beds, and mangroves, all providing a variety of habitats for numerous species of fauna and flora. With the progressive neighbour relations policy in place, communities who reside within the park are allowed derive direct benefits and as a result harvest many of the plant species growing around the lake.
8 of 14: Loggerhead Turtle hauling out to nest on the pristine beaches.
It is at Kosi Bay where one can see the famous system of fish traps that the local Thonga communities have been using for generations. The traps are built in such a way to allow small fish to escape through the gaps of the traps, thereby allowing for a sustainable harvest of fish. The Kosi Bay system is refuted to be the most pristine lake system in South Africa and comprises of four lakes and a series of interconnecting channels. Where the estuary drains into the sea, there is a small channel, locally referred to as the aquarium. This spot is a brilliant snorkelling locality and is a major breeding area for many species of fish. On incoming tides and at night large numbers of Black-Tipped Reef Shark enter the estuary to feed on smaller fish, making the site an important point for the tag and release fishing program. Kosi Bay is certainly one of the best areas to see the elusive Pels Fishing Owl and the Palm Nut Vulture is regularly seen from the campsite, where they feed from the Raffia Palm Trees. The freshwater lakes include the Sibayi, Bhangazi North and South and the Ngoboreleni. All hold good populations of crocodile and hippos and support a wealth of birdlife, including Woolly-Necked Stork, White -backed Duck, Marabou and Saddle-billed Stork. Late afternoon is by far the best time to visit these localities in order to take in the breathtaking sunsets and the chorus of one of the largest variety of frogs in southern Africa.
9 of 14: Samanago Monkey.
On the western shores of the Lake lie Charters Creek, Fani’s Island and False Bay Park. All are excellent points providing opportunities to view forest birds as well as aquatic birds. Due to Elephants having been released on the western shores of the Lake, self-guided trails are no longer available, due to safety considerations. These camps are all popular platforms from which to undertake fishing excursions on the lake, with Grunter, Perch and Kob being regularly caught. False Bay contains important marine fossils of both animal and corals. These can be viewed in the interpretative centre and if you are lucky enough, you may find fossils along the shore of the lake in the vicinity of the campsite, though it must be remembered to leave the fossils where they were found.
10 of 14: Mangroves on the shores of Lake St Lucia.
On the eastern shores of the lake, the inland grassland systems are separated by Coastal Dunes, which provides haunt for the shy Red Duiker and the endangered Samango Monkey. Forest Birds abound and the ‘Mvubu Trail” at Cape Vidal is a must in order to see elusive Narina Trogon, Red Capped, Bearded and Brown Robin Chats, Green Twinspot, Green Coucal and Red-Backed Mannikin amongst others. The dunes themselves are of the late Pleistocene age having been formed over the past 25000 years. Many of the large dunes exceed 160m in height with the highest being the Mapelane dune at 183m’s, all are thickly vegetated with dense shrubbery and trees up to 30m high. What makes the eastern shores special is the variety of trails, both guided and self guided that one can undertake there. Buffalo, Hippo, Common Reedbuck, Waterbuck, Bush pig and Zebra are regularly encountered. Leopard spoor is frequently seen, though these elusive cats are normally unwilling to show themselves. Amongst the dense forest patches and leaf litter the highly endangered Gaboon Viper occurs. This snake is extremely well camouflaged and is seldom seen by people, being mainly active at night. The Wetland Park is home to a total of 53 snake species and 42 species of lizards. Five of the 50 amphibian species are endemic to KwaZulu Natal.
11 of 14: White-Eared Barbets.
To the north of the lake lies the old Missile Testing Range of Ozabeni. Thankfully weaponry is no longer tested here and these spectacular grasslands are now incorporated into the Wetland Park. Ozabeni is generally flat and low lying with numerous pans and small lakes. In days of past this area was an important route for elephant, when they migrated from Mozambique through to the south coast of KwaZulu Natal. Game numbers are not high here but bird watching is excellent with species such as White-Backed Duck, Pink-Throated Longclaw, Rudds Apalis, Natal Nightjar and Black Coucal being encountered. Local communities are allowed to graze their cattle in the reserve and this is one of the best areas to observe the variety and strength of the indigenous Nguni Cattle.
12 of 14: Sunning Hippo on the shores of Lake St Lucia.
No trip to the iSimangaliso St Lucia Wetland Park would be complete without a visit to Mkhuzi Game Reserve. This section of the wetland park is certainly one of my favourites and is an excellent point for Wildlife Photography. It is also a mecca for bird lovers with over 420 species having been recorded. There are an astonishing variety of habitats ranging from the broad stretches of acacia savannah to the slopes of the Lebombo Mountains. Rare sand forest also occurs here and this is the habitat of many rare species including Suni, Crested Guineafowl, Grey-Hooded Kingfisher, Broadbill, Neergaards Sunbird and Pink-Throated Twinspot. The Reserve has a good number of hides situated throughout and it is at these hides that with patience you can be rewarded with an ever present bustling of game species such as Kudu, Nyala, Blue Wildebeest and Impala as they move to and fro from the waterholes. White and Black Rhino sightings are excellent at Mkhuzi. Night drives provide the opportunity to view many of the nocturnal species and Leopard sightings are particularly good. No visit to Mkhuzi would be complete without taking in the Fig Tree Forest trail. Birdlife in this section is excellent and the local guides are particularly knowledgeable. Trumpeter Hornbills abound, as do the Yellow-Bellied Greenbul and Purple Crested Turaco with all three species being extremely vocal and it is often the calls which first attract ones attention to them. Mkhuzi is also renowned for it’s seasonal pans with their abundant birdlife, crocodiles and hippo’s.
13 of 14: Albizia Seed Pods.
Overall, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park offers something for everyone and is a premier tourism destination with reportedly up to a million visitors entering it each year. It offers a variety of tourism facilities from camping right through to exclusive lodges. Private enterprise is increasingly becoming involved within the park and local communities are being allowed greater access, so that they may too gain positive benefits from this outstanding area. New ventures such as horseback trails have been included into an already diverse array of activities that visitors may partake in. An extensive game reintroduction program is also in place, with elephant having been released on the western shores in 2001. Recently Cheetah were released onto the eastern shores. There are extensive alien plant eradication programs to ensure that many of the previous forestry operations are being reverted back to their natural state. Due to the size of the park, distances are deceptive, especially when travelling between the eastern and western shores, so plan accordingly. It is not a park that can be taken in quickly and could easily accommodate a two to three week stay to do the Park justice. Each season has it’s own specialities, though main holiday periods are generally crowded. For me the winter months are the best, when temperatures are cooler and game viewing is at it’s best. The summer months are undoubtedly the best for bird watching and diving, when migratory species enter the Park. The iSimangaliso St Lucia Park is certainly one that is going from strength to strength and in the future is going to become one of the major role players in African Conservation.
14 of 14: Brown Hooded Kingfisher perched on signage at False Bay Park.