When you say ‘iSimangaliso Wetland Park’, most people think of Cape Vidal and the Eastern Shores – popular because it offers beach-and-bush in one destination. But what many don’t realise is that across the length and breadth of this World Heritage Site a veritable wonderland of beach and bush destinations await.
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park area is vast. It extends from the Mozambique border in the north to Mapelane in the south, spanning 280km of pristine coastline and extends inland to include False Bay Park as well as the Mkhuze Game Reserve – an area of 239,566 hectares! What makes iSimangaliso so special is the incredible diversity of habitats which include coral reefs, long sandy beaches, coastal dunes, lake systems, extensive wetlands as well as grasslands and bushveld. All offering a variety of outdoor pursuits, from snorkeling and scuba diving, to game viewing and bird watching as well as turtle tracking and whale watching in their respective seasons.
The coastal Eastern Shores side of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park is famed for its wetlands, water birds, crocodiles and marine species, while the Western Shores side is appreciated for its spectacular views over the St Lucia Estuary and its drier palmveld vegetation with its diverse mammal species and abundance of raptors. Receiving only half of the rainfall of its eastern neighbour, the Western Shores offers visitors a completely different experience, with giraffes in abundance, great herds of waterbuck and plenty of buffalo.
The easiest option is to turn off at the the Dukuduku Gate, on the road just before one enters St Lucia, or alternatively, the Park can be accessed from the major N2 highway via the Charters Creek off-ramp. If you’re pressed for time, enter at the one and exit at the other.
One thing I loved about the Western Shores is that it is a great example of successful land rehabilitation. These open palmveld grasslands were once a forestry plantation, which by nature is a severely degraded eco-system. In the short space of a decade, iSimangaliso has removed thousands of hectares of alien trees and rehabilitated the natural landscape – the amazing thing is that no new vegetation was planted, nature did what it does best… grow, with dormant seeds sprouting forth.
This rehabilitated landscape has seen the reintroduction of historically occurring game including elephant, serval, tsessebe, giraffe, nyala, white and black rhino, buffalo, zebra, red and grey duiker, and wildebeest. And the numerous pans and wetlands offer visitors the opportunity of seeing hippos, crocodiles, many species of buck and an abundance of bird life. The Park was opened to visitors in 2013.
The roads are in good condition and the ablution blocks new. There are several loops and lookout points and a great picnic site with towering trees alive with birdsong. The new uMthoma Aerial Boardwalk overlooks Lake St Lucia’s narrows and has views as far as Cape Vidal in the north and Maphelane in the south. It is also a great place to sit quietly with the binoculars as the surrounding trees and hillside are alive with birds – especially in the early morning.
Charters Creek, historically a favourite with fishermen, is a great spot to take a breather with expansive views across the lake. It is located on the Nhlozi Peninsula that juts into Lake St Lucia. Still a firm favourite with anglers (the appropriate fishing licences are required) and bird-watchers due to its lakeside setting providing great opportunities to view forest birds as well as a variety of aquatic birds, both fresh-water and marine.