Get Your Feet Wet
Words Fiona McIntosh
After a 10-year absence, Fiona McIntosh returns to iSimangaliso Wetland Park to discover that this ecological hot spot really does live up to its name, Place of Miracle and Wonder.
Did you know?
iSimangaliso Wetland Park:
• is home to one of Africa’s largest estuaries, Lake St Lucia
• has the largest congregation of hippos and crocodiles in South Africa
• is the last significant breeding ground in Africa for leatherback and logger-head turtles
• comprises eight interlinking ecosystems
• boasts three major lake systems
• features 192 km of unspoilt coastline and beaches
• contains more than 100 species of coral in the marine section
• includes 25 000-year-old coastal dunes
• is the habitat of 36 snake, 80 dragonfly, 110 butterfly and 526 bird species.
I am certain that all South Africans will remember where they were and what they were doing on the day the father of our nation, Madiba, passed away. I was in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, one of South Africa’s first World Heritage Sites.
Two days previously, four lions (the first of three groups) had been released into the uMkhuze section, earning the park not just much-coveted big five, but – thanks to the presence of whales and sharks in the marine section – big seven status. And, once you add the turtles and the abundance of marine life on the coral reefs into the package, iSimangaliso is a serious contender for the title of most ecologically diverse park in Africa.
In 2001, when Madiba visited the park to witness the footsteps of the first elephants in the area for 100 years, he said, ‘iSimangaliso must be the only place on the globe where the world’s oldest land mammal (the rhinoceros) and the world’s biggest terrestrial mammal (the elephant) share an ecosystem with the world’s oldest fish (the coelacanth) and the world’s biggest marine mammal (the whale).’
Thus, it was a fitting dedication when Mavuso Msimang, iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority Board chairman, announced, ‘The iSimangaliso Authority dedicates the historic reintroduction of lion into iSimangaliso to the memory of our leader and former president Tata Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.’
But, if iSimangaliso is one of the most diverse parks in Africa, it is also among the most underrated – something that deserves to change, now. During our week in the park we were awestruck by the sheer number and variety of animal sightings – particularly of rhinos, which we encountered at least twice a day. (No surprise to later discover iSimangaliso has the highest population and density of black rhinos in the world.) Likewise, the number of hippos and crocodiles we spied on a sunset cruise on Lake St Lucia Estuary was mind-boggling.
We were privileged to catch some rare views too, including a leopard stalking warthogs in broad daylight. And there were wonderfully entertaining moments, such as when we encountered hippos wandering the streets of St Lucia, the coastal gateway town to the park (I kid you not – there are even signs warning unsuspecting travellers to watch out for the nocturnal visitors who ‘mow’ the residents’ gardens neatly) and watched a pair of curious giraffes checking out the new signage at the recently launched Western Shores section of the park.
It was a fascinating, eye-opening voyage of discovery. For years, I have been a fairly regular visitor to Sodwana Bay, the scuba-diving mecca of Southern Africa, and the diving centres at Thonga Beach Lodge and Rocktail Bay Lodge, but most of iSimangaliso was unknown territory to me. To confess, I couldn’t name half of the 10 sections that make up the vast reserve and are appropriately referred to as iSimangaliso’s ‘10 jewels’. And even the bits I had explored on past trips had now been transformed beyond recognition.
My previous visit to Cape Vidal, our first port of call, had been over a decade ago, back when the dirt road through the timber plantations was largely the domain of fisherfolk and 4×4 owners. If there was any wildlife in the section then, it was hidden in the trees. But you should see it now! One of the first things iSimangaliso CEO Andrew Zaloumis did when the park was proclaimed was clear the plantations and tar the road. The change is quite extraordinary. The natural vegetation has recovered and extensive relocations have resulted in game-filled plains.
So, instead of making a beeline for the beach, we spent more than three hours on the 32 km journey from St Lucia to Cape Vidal, leaving the main drag to amble down the loop roads to beautifully located hides; stopping to watch buffaloes scratching themselves against telephone poles and to give way to white rhinos lumbering, seemingly oblivious, down the middle of the tar – the animals definitely have right of way here.
The detour to Mission Rocks, however, was the pièce de résistance. We hiked to the dune-top viewpoint, from where we surveyed the park in all its grandeur, gazing first over the plains and Lake St Lucia, all the way to the towering Lebombo Mountains that form the reserve’s north-western border in the distance; then turning our eyes to the magnificent coastal dunes and turquoise blue of the Indian Ocean to the east. It was low tide, so we scrambled down to the rocky shore and marvelled at the striking green seaweed, the multi-hued anemones, the scuttling crabs and darting fish of the rock pools. It was like stepping into a perfectly formed marine-biology classroom.
But the highlight was yet to come. At the end of the road was the newly upgraded Cape Vidal campground, just steps away from the beach. By day we walked for hours along the long, empty sands; watched the fishermen; bodysurfed and snorkelled in the lee of the rocks; then, at dusk, sat by the braai enjoying visits from bush pigs, genets and red duikers. Two nights at Vidal was the perfect way to wind down and escape from the rat race. Now we were truly in holiday mode.
Our whistle-stop tour of the park took us from St Lucia through the new Western Shores section, where we saw giraffes and elephants and communed with the birds on the uMthoma Aerial Boardwalk, set in a Cape ash tree with magnificent views out over the St Lucia Narrows. En route to uMkhuze for the lion release, we stopped off at False Bay, the widest section of Lake St Lucia, where we enjoyed an exhilarating mountain-bike ride along the lake shore and into the forest, spying more cute red duikers as we weaved between the trees.
Arriving at uMkhuze mid-afternoon gave us time to settle into the spacious safari tents at Mantuma Camp, nestled deep in the bush, before kicking off the evening with a couple of hours of birding (uMkhuze boasts around 420 bird species) and game viewing at the new Nsumo hides and the renovated kuMasinga hide. This was perfectly rounded off by sundowners under the magnificent fever trees at Nsumo Pan picnic site, where the hippos were just making their way out of the water. A very early start the following day had us embarking on the Fig Forest Walk, a wonderful tramp along boardwalks set high up in the magnificent fig trees (said to be 300 years old) from where – thanks to our eagle-eyed guide – we had a close, and rare, sighting of a Pel’s fishing-owl.
The grand finale was a stay at Thonga Beach Lodge, an upmarket, exclusive destination in the coastal dune forest overlooking Mabibi Bay. Again, it was the sense of space that made the place so memorable: the expansive views from the decks, the pristine golden beaches on which you could stroll for ages without ever seeing another soul.
But we were also wonderfully spoilt. Thonga is the kind of place where you can relax and do nothing – de-stressing in the spa, enjoying romantic dining alfresco on the deck and lazing around the pool. Though there’s also a host of activities for more active types, such as canoeing on Lake Sibaya, snorkelling and diving.
The cherry on top, however, was heading back out after dinner on a turtle tour. Watching an enormous leatherback haul herself up the beach, then dig a hole in the sand and drop her eggs was truly magical.
So, iSimangaliso (‘miracle and wonder’ in isiZulu) is about as apt a name for the park as can be. I came away asking why I hadn’t spent more time in this fascinating corner of SA before. That’s definitely going to change.
GOOD TO KNOW
When to go
iSimangaliso Wetland Park is a year-round destination with great game viewing and birding. Daytime temperatures average between a pleasant 23 and 29°C. Whales cruise by from June to November, while turtles are found on the beaches between November and March. Scuba-divers can get a look at ragged-tooth sharks between November and January and snorkellers have a chance to swim with the biggest fish in the sea, the gigantic whale shark, in the summer months.
A 2.5 hour drive from Durban’s King Shaka International Airport will take you to the Eastern and Western Shores areas of iSimangaliso. Airlink and SA Express fly daily from Johannesburg to Richards Bay, which is a one-hour drive from the park.
Where to stay
There are options to suit all budgets and interests: scenic and well-equipped campsites, self-catering cottages, luxury lodges. These are some of our favourites:
The new, extremely affordable and comfortable self-catering chalets set high in the coastal dunes at Mabibi. The camp is only accessible by 4×4.
035 474 1504, www.mabibicampsite.co.za
The Cape Vidal and the Sodwana Bay GwalaGwala campsites: when it comes to location, these spots are hard to beat.
The Mantuma safari tents at uMkhuze offer an out-of-Africa bush experience, with a lovely swimming pool to boot. Light meals are available at the Rhino Dine-O.
033 845 1000, www.kznwildlife.com
The recently refurbished Thonga Beach Lodge offers 12 thatched, air-conditioned bush suites, raised on stilts in order to have minimum impact on the fragile dune forest. Each one is large and spacious, yet intimate and private, with romantic touches such as a deep oval bath (complete with candles) and a private balcony. The Deluxe Ocean View Suite, with superb ocean vistas and a private plunge pool, set on an expansive deck surrounded by milkwoods is perfect for honeymooners.
035 474 1473, www.isibindiafrica.co.za
Source: AA Traveller