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Sanctuary of superlatives – the iSimangaliso Wetland Park

Text and photography: Scott Ramsay. Article from the September 2012 issue of Getaway Magazine.

There are very few places you can swim with dolphins in the morning and photograph rhinos in the afternoon. One such spot is the spectacular iSimangaliso Wetland Park, which conserves the most naturally diverse place in the country. Yet South Africa almost lost it all.

Sunrise on Lake Nhlange, the biggest in the Kosi Lake system in the far north of iSimangaliso. These coastal lakes are some of the largest in the country, with plenty of wildlife, including hippos, crocodiles and rare palm-nut vultures.

Perhaps one of the first visitors to South Africa’s northeast coast was a Zulu man called Jeqe, the personal assistant of King Shaka. When the king died in 1828, Jeqe was doomed to being buried alive with the body. Instead, Jeqe fled to the north, where he discovered the land of the Thonga people and he couldn’t believe his luck. Not only had he escaped certain death, he had stumbled into a sub-tropical paradise of lakes, rivers, beaches and forests.

The diversity of life made a deep impression on Jeqe. Once it was safe for him to return to the hills of Zululand, he told his people of his travels through this special region. ‘I saw wonders and miracles in the flat land and lakes of Thonga,’ Jeqe was quoted as saying. Today, the Zulu people still pay tribute to this region in one of their sayings: ‘Ubone isimanga esabonwa ujeqe kwelama Thonga,’ which translates as: ‘If you have seen miracles, you have seen what Jeqe saw in Thongaland.’

Almost 200 years later, the word iSimangaliso – which means ‘miracle and wonder’ – was sourced from this proverb to name the protected area that conserves what was formerly known as the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park. It was South Africa’s first World Heritage Site, declared in 1999, deemed worthy of global importance because of its outstanding natural features.

Miracles aplenty

At first iSimangaliso can seem daunting to explore. It’s the country’s third-largest protected area at 332 000 hectares, which is roughly a sixth of the size of Kruger National Park. But while Kruger is a relatively homogenous reserve, iSimangaliso is a collection of terrestrial and marine ecosystems stretching about 250 kilometres long and 50 kilometres at its widest, and includes bushveld, beach, ocean, lakes and rivers.

Below, from left: iSimangaliso conserves the largest population of hippos in the country; the fish traps in the Kosi Lake system have been used for more than ; 700 years by the Thongan people; ghost crabs emerge in their hundreds during low tide; iSimangaliso's beaches extend for more than 200 kilometres.

It incorporates places as diverse as uMkhuze (with traditional African wildlife), Kosi Bay (a series of four lakes used for centuries by Thongan fishermen), Lake Sibaya (South Africa’s largest freshwater lake), Lake St Lucia (Africa’s biggest estuarine system) and the so-called Western and Eastern Shores, comprising woodland, grassland, swamps and forest.

The shoreline and Indian Ocean component is as impressive. Forested coastal dunes stand more than 150 metres tall. Sparkling beaches stretch for hundreds of kilometres, while ” offshore is an expansive marine protected area, extending three nautical miles out to sea, which includes the most southerly warm-water coral reefs on the continent.

The best introduction to the park is with Kian Barker, a former game ranger-turned-field guide who lives in the town of St Lucia, where hippos and leopards are sometimes seen in the streets. (St Lucia is the only urban area in the world entirely surrounded by a natural World Heritage Site.)

One evening, Kian took me and other guests on a night drive on his open-topped Land Rover through the Eastern Shores sector. Despite being the middle of winter, a warm breeze blew off the Indian Ocean. This seemed miraculous in itself; while the rest of the country hunkered down as an icy cold front swept across the subcontinent, the far northeastern corner of KwaZulu-Natal remained balmy.

‘It’s because of the warm Agulhas current,’ Kian explained as we set off under the stars. ‘It’s the biggest and strongest in the world, and carries warm water down from the equator. Even though iSimangaliso is quite far south on the African coastline, we always seem to have tropical weather.’

The rare Setaro's dwaft chameleon is found only at iSimangaliso and in small parts of southern Mozambique. The unmistakable umbrella thorn at uMkhuze.

Before we had gone 10 metres beyond the park’s gates, Kian hit the brakes and jumped out of the Landy, gently plucking a tiny chameleon from the edge of a leaf. ‘It’s a Setaro’s dwarf chameleon,’ he elaborated on the tiny creature, no longer than about four centimetres. ‘And it’s found only here, and nowhere else on Earth. The future survival of this species depends almost entirely on iSimangaliso.’ The sultry temperatures, high rainfall, warm ocean and varied landscapes have created an extravagance of animal life that is unrivalled in Southern Africa and includes some of the rarest creatures on the continent.

Understanding iSimangaliso

The park comprises 10 sections, which together form one contiguous protected area.

  • Kosi Bay. On the border of Mozambique, Kosi Bay is actually a series of four lakes of varying levels of salinity, connected by reed-lined channels. It’s here that the local Thongan people have fished for more than 1 000 years, using ingenious fish traps in the lakes.
  • Coastal Forest. This section of thick dune forest runs along the coastline and includes the beaches of Black Rock, Rocktail Bay, Island Rock and Mabibi.
  • Understanding iSimangaliso: The park comprises 10 sections, which together form one contiguous protected area.Lake Sibaya is South Africa’s largest freshwater lake. Guests staying at Thonga Beach Lodge are allowed to canoe on the lake, which is otherwise off limits to fishers and boaters.
  • Sodwana Bay is a mecca for scuba divers and anglers.
  • uMkhuze. Just 40 kilometres west of Sodwana, this 40000-hectare wildlife reserve comprises lakes, forests and riverine habitat and is a must-visit. Look out for black and white rhino, buffalo, elephant, wild dog, cheetah, hyena and birds from a list that is among the longest in the country.
  • False Bay is an inland area on the wild western shores of Lake St Lucia.
  • Western Shores, on Lake St Lucia, is a good area to spot elephant, buffalo, rhino, giraffe and tsessebe antelope.
  • Lake St Lucia is the centrepiece of the southern portion of iSimangaliso and South Africa’s largest estuarine system. At 80 kilometres long and 23 kilometres wide, it’s also home to the biggest hippo and croc populations in the country.
  • Eastern Shores. This is the most popular part of the park and incorporates several game-viewing roads and lookout points, as well as the most popular campsite at Cape Vidal beach.
  • Maphelane is in the very south of the park, below the town of St Lucia. It’s a popular spot for fishers and boasts the tallest dune (183 metres) in the park.

Field Ranger Jabulani Simelane guides visitors into the spectacular fig-tree forest at uMkhuze, where rare birds such as Pel's fishing owl and African broadbill can be seen.

We set off again, Kian’s spotlight illuminating better-known species such as kudu, buffalo, bushpig and plenty of waterbuck and bushbuck (iSimangaliso has the densest population of them on the continent). All the antelope provide rich fodder to iSimangaliso’s biggest terrestrial predator. ‘I usually see a leopard two drives in every 10,’ Kian told me. They really enjoy it here – they’ve even been spotted walking on the beaches.’

For visitors intent on seeing the Big Five, the park offers four: in addition to leopard, there’s buffalo, elephant and rhino (both black and white), but no lion (there are tentative plans to introduce them in the future). But there is almost everything else. In fact, the park conserves more animal species than either Kruger or the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

Red duiker are common sights in the Coastal Forest section‘Hold your breath, because here we go,’ Kian explained. ‘At iSimangaliso, you’ll find more than 3400 animal species, including 129 mammals. You’ll find more birds (526), reptiles (128), amphibians (50), fish (more than 1 400), butterflies (282), spiders (228), dragonflies (54) and snakes (36) than any other place in the country.’ The park also hosts the nation’s largest populations of hippo (at least 1200) and crocodile (more than 1600), as well as the highest number of southern reedbuck and red duiker, the latter of which is endemic to South Africa.

Other endemic mammals found here are the Tonga red squirrel, Natal red hare and Hottentot golden mole. The park also boasts KwaZulu Natal’s largest populations of thick-tailed bushbaby, samango monkey, side-striped jackal, banded mongoose, brown hyena and four-toed elephant shrew.

Every few minutes there was something new to look at, and although we didn’t see leopard, no-one seemed to mind. iSimangaliso doesn’t have the numbers of animals of a Kruger or Kgalagadi, but the park’s sheer diversity is plain to see.

Ocean wonders

Even though the Eastern Shores section of the park, near the town of St Lucia, is the most popular and accessible, nowhere can iSimangaliso’s diversity of life be more keenly experienced than in its centre, about 100 kilometres north of St Lucia. The close proximity of ocean and bushveld is a heady natural concoction that borders on sensory overload; it’s unique in South Africa and perhaps the world.

At Sodwana Bay you can go for a morning dive and take in coral reefs with whale sharks, turtles and thousands of techni-coloured reef fish. Then drive 40 kilometres west and by lunch you can be searching the bush for elephant and hippo in the uMkhuze section. In the evening, you can listen to hyenas howling from your tent at the unfenced Mantuma Camp.

Sodwana Bay is a prime scuba-diving destination and a favourite among fishers too. It can get very busy, both on and below the water’s surface, but it’s worth it because the conditions are almost always good.

If crowds make you squirm, head slightly north into the Coastal Forest section, where two private lodges have exclusive use of the offshore reefs. At Rocktail Beach Camp and Thonga Beach Lodge, the diving is a bit pricier, but there are no other people – it’s just you and kilometres of pristine coral reef.

Dive instructor Darryl Smith of Mokarran Dive Charters at Rocktail has been diving these waters for 13 years. We launched one morning, heading to a reef a few kilometres offshore. Dropping into the warm turquoise embrace of the Indian Ocean, a welcoming committee of hundreds of yellow-tail snapper fish surrounded me, drifting on the current like pirouetting ballerinas. It was hard to leave them, but there was so much else to admire. Thousands of  fish, going about their daily business with delicacy and grace, clown triggerfish, Moorish idols, yellowtail rockcod and the dangerous but beautiful porcupine fish. Around the corner was a distinctly grumpy-looking potato bass. We came across a honeycomb eel, mouth gaping and lurking inside its chosen patch of coral reef, and two sharp-nosed brown rays hustled out from the ocean sand, gliding off with mesmerising ease.

Then Darryl tugged my fin and pointed to something drifting right over us, its beady eyes checking us out. Finally, a turtle! I swam alongside it for a few minutes, and couldn’t stop smiling. The ocean’s good vibes were infectious.

Horse riding alongside Lake St Lucia is a great way to see the reserveBack on the surface, our group of divers swopped notes on what must rank as one of the most impressive nature experiences in South Africa. ‘Unlike on land,’ Darryl said, ‘humans really are just visitors here. It’s a true wilderness where the fish really don’t mind your presence. At Rocktail, they actually trust us, because in the past most fishers have stayed down south near Sodwana, leaving us in peace.’

The waters of iSimangaliso owe their clarity to the paucity of major rivers flowing into the ocean along this stretch of coastline. ‘No silt means clear oceans,’ Darryl explained. ‘This clarity promotes the growth of coral, and the warm waters of the Agulhas Current provide ample energy for more than 1 000 species to thrive.’ Perhaps the rarest of these is the coelacanth, Earth’s oldest living creature and a fish whose physiology hasn’t changed for about 400 million years. The deep-sea canyons of iSimangaliso are one of only a few places in the world to provide refuge to these ancient relics. ‘They hide down there during the day,’ Darryl explained, ‘then move up at night into shallower water to feed.’

More easily seen than coelacanths are manta rays, whale sharks and dolphins. Then there’s the largest living creature – the blue whale – which sometimes makes an appearance, albeit rarely. However, humpback whales are regular visitors during winter as they migrate through the Mozambican channel. Divers generally don’t go too close to them because it’s illegal to approach a whale closer than 300 metres, but sometimes the curious leviathans swim up to boats and divers.

Turtles and titanium

Researcher Jenny Tuck measures a leatherback turtleProbably the two best-known species of iSimangaliso’s oceans are the critically endangered leatherback and endangered loggerhead turtles that come to nest and lay eggs on the park’s beaches every October and November. The hatchlings leave the nests a few months later in January and February, another good time to visit the reserve. (Turtles are easily disturbed by people and vehicles, which reduce their chances to lay eggs, so visitors are allowed onto the beaches only in the company of approved specialist guides – see Top Things to Do for more information.)

These are impressive creatures: leatherbacks can weigh more than a tonne and dive many hundreds of metres to feed off deep-sea jellyfish, while the loggerhead is smaller (it can weigh in excess of 140 kilograms). Both have suffered huge declines in population numbers, largely as a result of long-line fishing trawlers that haul them out of the water indiscriminately.

The turtles lay up to 800 eggs each on the northern beaches of iSimangaliso, but only one or two hatchlings out of every thousand will make it to the breeding age of 10 years (loggerheads) and 25 years (leatherbacks).

The park is seen as vital for their conservation. ‘iSimangaliso is the most important breeding ground for these populations of leatherbacks and loggerheads,’ said Dr Ronel Nel, a marine biologist based at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

Since 1963, conservationists have monitored the turtles as they come to breed on the beaches here, and the study is one of the longest of its kind in the world. The results are encouraging. Initially there were just 10 leatherback and 100 loggerhead females nesting every year, but today both numbers have increased eight-fold and this breeding group represents 75 per cent of the total southwest Indian Ocean population. ‘Each sub-population of turtles breed only among themselves,’ Dr Nel explained, ‘so this southwest Indian Ocean population is genetically distinct from any other in the world. That’s why it’s critical to conserve them. If this group dies out, that’s it.’

Almost never happened

However, the turtles and iSimangaliso’s other creatures almost lost their sanctuary during the 1990s, when mining companies wanted to dredge large parts of the shoreline and forested dunes for ilmenite, a mineral which is processed into titanium. This black sand may be valuable as an industrial and consumer product, but it’s vital to the survival of turtles.

The ilmenite in the sands of iSimangaliso is critical to the survival of these endangered turtles,’ Dr Nel told me. ‘They have no sex chromosomes, so anything above 29 ° Celsius, it’s a female and anything below, it’s a male. Without ilmenite’s warmth, most hatchlings would end up as males, effectively dooming this population to extinction.’

Fortunately, concerned citizens and organisations fought back and mining was banned in 1996, ensuring that not only could the turtles carry on thriving, but the rest of this beautiful park was saved from industrial degradation. A few years later, iSimangaliso became the country’s first World Heritage Site. From almost being dredged to oblivion, the park is now a sanctuary to natural diversity and a beacon of conservation.

Top things to do in iSimangaliso
  • Go turtle-watching with Kian Barker of Shakabarker Tours. Kian is one of the most knowledgeable and entertaining of guides who have a concession to take visitors into iSimangaliso. During summer, he offers walking beach tours at night to watch turtles nesting and hatching of eggs. Shakabarker Tours run a variety of other excursions, including night game drives. Turtle tours cost R1950 a person and include dinner, breakfast and refreshments, while night drives are R350 a person, including tea and coffee. Tel 035-590-1162, email, website.
  • Visit the crocodile breeding centre near the entrance of the park at St Lucia town. Here you can see three croc species as well as American alligators and various snakes up close. Crocs are fed at 15h00 on Saturdays and 11h30 on Sundays. Costs R35 an adult and R20 a child from Monday to Friday and R45 an adult and R30 a child over weekends. Tel 035-590-1386.
  • Scuba dive at Sodwana Bay, Rocktail Bay and Thonga Beach Lodge to spot a myriad underwater wonders. Reefteach operates dives at Sodwana Bay and these start from R285 a dive with equipment rental at R25 an item. Reefteach, tel 035-571-0231, email, website. For Rocktail Bay, contact Mokarran Dive Charters, which offers dives from R430 a dive and equipment rentals from R60 an item. Mokarran Dive Charters, cell 084-953-0487, email, website. Thonga Beach Lodge offers dives from R460 a person for the first dive (from R410 subsequent dives) and full gear rental costs R220. Tel 035-474-1473.
  • See plentiful wildlife at uMkhuze. Day entry fees are R35 an adult and R25 a child. Check out the rebuilt kuMasinga Hide on Nsumu Pan or do a two-hour walk through a fig-tree forest with an armed ranger. Tel 035-573-9004.
  • Tour the Kosi Bay lakes by boat with guide Stephen de Lange. He gives an excellent overview of the lake system and Thongan fish traps and you may see hippo, crocodile and the rare palm-nut vulture. You’ll also be able to snorkel near the traps. A three-hour cruise costs R340 a person (rates for customised tours depend on size of group). Cell 079-991-7714.
  • Take a guided boat tour on Lake St Lucia with Shoreline Boat Safaris. The boat leaves from the jetty near the entrance to the town of St Lucia and erudite guide Stacey Farrell gives an excellent overview of the lake. The two-hour cruise affords guaranteed sightings of hippos, crocs and fish-eagles. Costs R170 a person. Tel 083-457-2147, email, website.
  • Go snorkelling at the mouth of Kosi Bay and see plenty of fish and eels. No guide is needed.
  • Drive the Western and Eastern Shores of Lake St Lucia, stopping at the various hides and viewpoints looking out over the lake. You may spot hippo, crocodile, birds and a variety of antelope and ungulates. The uMthoma Aerial Boardwalk on the Western Shores is well worth a visit.
New threat to iSimangaliso

Mining may have been banned, but iSimangaliso faces another threat and this time it’s coming from Mozambique. Just 20 kilometres north of the South African border, plans are afoot to develop Ponto Techobanine, a deep-water port, inside the Maputo Elephant Reserve and neighbouring Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve. The prospects for iSimangaliso aren’t good. Peter Chadwick from the World Wildlife Fund and Honda’s Marine Parks Programme says, ‘South Africa’s coral reefs are built from the spawn of Mozambique’s reefs, so the development of the port would be terrible. iSimangaliso’s coral reefs and associated ecosystems would become silted over.’

Travel Planner

How to get there

iSimangaliso Wetland Park’s main entrance is at the town of St Lucia. From Durban, drive north on the N2 for about 225km, then turn right at Mtubatuba. Continue for about 25 km until you reach St Lucia. Follow the signs to the gate. For directions to other parts, go to website.

Gates and entry times

Most gates into iSimangaliso’s various sectors open at 06h00 and close at 18h00 throughout the year. Exceptions are the gates to Eastern Shores and uMkhuze, which open at 05h00 and close at 19h00 during summer, and Maphelane closes at 19h00 in summer. Sodwana Bay’s gate is open 24 hours a day. Entry fees range from R20 an adult at Kosi Bay (R10 a child) to R35 an adult at Eastern Shores and uMkhuze (R25 a child). There are charges for each vehicle, ranging from none at Sodwana Bay or Kosi Bay to R40 at Eastern Shores and uMkhuze.

Where to stay

There is a range of accommodation options throughout iSimangaliso, the details of which are too voluminous to include here. For more information, contact KZN Wildlife, which manages most public camps inside iSimangaliso. Tel 033-845-1000, email, website. You can also check out this website.

Camping is available at Kosi Bay, Coastal Forest, Sodwana Bay, uMkhuze, Eastern Shores (Cape Vidal), Lake St Lucia Estuary and Maphelane. Prices start at R385 a campsite for up to four people (additional adults pay from R70 and children from R35 each).

Self-catering safari tents, bungalows and chalets are available at Kosi Bay, Sodwana Bay, uMkhuze, Eastern Shores and Maphelane. Prices start from R400 a night for a two-bed hut.

Where to stay

Rocktail Beach Camp (a private lodge run by Wilderness Safaris) has 17 stylish cabins with en suite bathrooms and is well suited to families with kids. It’s in the Coastal Forest section and is just a few hundred metres from the beach. Costs from R1 579 a person a night, including all meals, but excluding drinks. Tel 011-807-1800, website.

The 24-bed luxury Thonga Beach Lodge, run by iSibindi Africa Lodges, is situated about 20km south of Rocktail, overlooking Mabibi Beach and close to Lake Sibaya. From R2 760 a person a day, including meals, snorkelling gear and other selected activities. iSibindi Africa Lodges also run Kosi Forest Lodge, near Kosi Bay. Tel 035-474-1473, email, or website.

Who to contact

iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority, tel 035-590-1633, email, website.

More info on the town of Richards Bay More info on the Zululand area

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