The iSimangaliso Wetland Park Eastern and Western Shores is one of our favourite places to visit… we’ve been often, usually staying outside the park in one of the many self-catering options available in the town of St Lucia, but this time around we had the privilege of staying at the beautiful Makakatana Bay Lodge, nestled within the coastal forest on the shores of Lake St Lucia in the Western Shores part of the park.

And besides the luxury accommodation, delightful décor and absolutely delicious cuisine, the real privilege is the fact that it is the only privately owned lodge in South Africa’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site!

The Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, as it was known as at the time – and now known as the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, was inscribed as South Africa’s first World Heritage Site in December 1999. Since then, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park has expanded significantly and stretches from Maphelane in the south to the Mozambique border in the north, with its marine protected area (MPA) joining Mozambique’s protected waters. As a result, the World Heritage Site is now 1,328,901ha in extent (marine and terrestrial combined) and is now South Africa’s second largest protected area after the Kruger National Park.

Makakatana Bay wetland drive - pic S. Paton

Owned by Hugh and Leigh-Ann Morrison, an ‘old’ Zululand family with a rich history in Zululand, Makakatana Bay Lodge, which has been in the Morrison family for over 100 years, certainly sets the bar high when it comes to warm welcomes and hospitality. From the moment we stepped into the main lodge, we were greeted with warm smiles and friendly faces. The wonderful staff dedicated to ensuring that every guest has a comfortable and memorable stay, taking care of our every need.

Much of the lodge is elevated and accessed by raised wooden walkways, which is just as well with the excessive rain the region has been having! The main lodge blends seamlessly into the surrounding coastal forest is inspired by the natural beauty of the area, with earthy tones, natural materials, and plenty of wood accents. Its décor stylish with an African flair having been decorated by Leigh-Ann herself, stunning original art adorns the walls (much of it Leigh-Ann’s own work), several of which are available to purchase, with quite a few added to my wish list!

The stylish décor continues into our suite, which is beautifully appointed with comfortable furnishings, luxurious linens, and stunning views over the wetlands and the forest. The decor is understated yet elegant, creating a sense of calm and relaxation – just what you need for a restful night’s sleep, with an outdoor shower and bathtub privately nestled within the forest. A red duiker was the only company I had whilst under the warm spray of the shower – had I woken a bit earlier I would have had a troop of vervet monkeys eyeing me out.

The open-plan design of the main lodge creates a sense of space and airiness, allowing guests to feel connected to the environment around them through the floor-to-ceiling windows. The dining room and the surrounding veranda is set against a backdrop of lush greenery providing a panoramic view of the surrounding coastal forest. The tables are beautifully adorned, the woven grass placemats giving a sense of place to the otherwise elegance of shining silverware and beautiful glassware, setting the stage for an unforgettable dining experience. We linger long over our meals, all enjoyed on the veranda, a basket of blankets nearby should there be a chill in the air. Such is our enjoyment of the space, and of course, the delicious cuisine!

Our meals, expertly created by chef Nadia and her team, are a fusion of flavours that tantalise the taste buds and are a feast for the eyes. All are beautifully plated and delivered with a compelling smile by Mnonto our waiter/bartender/barista (he made the best cappuccinos) – he was chuffed to tell us that he is also from eThekwini and loves working at the lodge, which is so much better than his previous position as a waiter at a Durban restaurant.

Nadia chooses local and seasonal produce where possible, sourcing the freshest ingredients from local farmers and fishermen to create a menu that showcase the best of South African cuisine. From succulent grilled seafood to hearty game meats, every dish is a masterpiece of culinary artistry, bursting with flavour and colour. A few of my favourites were the smoked salmon salad, berry sorbet, a scrumptious mussel pot, and cardamom and star anise infused creme brûlée. The gluten free breads and cake she made for me an absolute treat.

The ambiance throughout is one of tranquillity, and a oneness with nature. And thanks to its remote location and the sights and sounds of nature, Makakatana offers the perfect escape to reconnect with your inner self. It was quite tempting to pass on the game drives and just curl up on the deck of our suite with a book… or take a nap on the wonderfully comfortable king-size bed! But game drive time was calling.

The safari options offered to guests depend on the length of their stay, and include western shore safari drives, a boat cruise and a full day beach and bush safari drive through both the eastern and western shores.

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, it offers a completely different experience, with giraffes in abundance, great herds of waterbuck and plenty of buffalo. It is also 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 had 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 (which unfortunately have since been relocated due to the high poaching threat), buffalo, zebra, red and grey duiker, and wildebeest. And the numerous pans and wetlands offer visitors the opportunity of seeing hippos, crocodiles, an abundance of bird life – with over 500 species listed, and several species of waterlilies.

On the eastern shore, you’ll find the Indian Ocean, picturesque bays, and long sandy beaches, where you can soak up the sun, swim in the clear waters, and even spot dolphins and whales. As well as a range of wetland habitats, including estuaries, mangroves, and swamps, which are teeming with birdlife and other wildlife.

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority is committed to conservation and sustainable tourism and has implemented several initiatives to protect its wildlife and ecosystems. These include anti-poaching patrols, reforestation programs, and waste management systems as well as working closely with the local community, supporting education and development projects. Makakatana Bay Lodge, through their concession fees and contribution to the park, support iSimangaliso in these initiatives.

I spend some time chatting to Leigh-Ann about Makakatana’s conservation and sustainability initiatives, and she tells me that in addition to this they are very conscious about the environment and the effects that they have on it. She tells me that they control and monitor their water usage and wastage and have implemented a recycling program for their waste bottles, tins and plastics. The sorted waste is taken to a holding area outside the reserve and from there is collected for recycling by the local community – which in addition to dealing with the waste provides and income for the community members involved. They are hoping to expand this to include paper in the near future.

They have an energy saving system in place, and as we speak, she tells me that their new solar system is being installed – this will not only make them less reliant on the power grid, but also add to the reduction of their carbon footprint. Being in a conservation area they are very aware of keeping their light pollution to a minimum, they have their own beehives, and are active in removing alien vegetation. There is a water filtering system on site, and they serve filtered water in glass jugs to ensure that they don’t use plastic bottles. And of course, they have a no plastic straws policy, with paper straws available on request.

The conservation levy that the lodge charges goes towards organisations and projects that ‘are very close to our hearts’ she tells me – these include African Wildlife Vets which is a non-profit veterinary organisation in Zululand, the Ezemvelo anti-poaching unit (the funds raised go towards purchasing equipment like binoculars and trap cameras) as well as Destiny House Children’s Ministries in Mtubatuba, which exists to empower and enable children to fulfil their God-given destiny. They provide a loving home for 24 orphaned and abandoned children and provide an Early Childhood Development Programme to the wider community.

Besides the game drives within the Western and Eastern Shores, there are a couple of experiences that are exclusive to Makakatana Bay guests… a picnic lunch and beach time at one of the many bays within the Eastern Shores and a boat cruise that takes you beyond where the general public go along the narrows.

We head into the Eastern Shores and drive along a narrow road through pristine coastal vegetation to a clearing in the forest, here Megan our guide shows us the steep sandy track down to the beach and the beautiful bay – a momentary shower passes and for the next couple of hours we explore the rocky shores, walk on the beach, and brave the cooler temperature with a quick dip in the bay. A delicious lunch under mottled sunshine follows, washed down with a Hunters (cider) or two. Many of the roads are water-logged, some accessible to 4×4 vehicles only and a few of them completely impassable.

The following morning, after a hearty breakfast, we set out for the boat cruise, which under normal circumstances would start at a private launch spot within the western shores but due to the excessive rain the road was inaccessible which meant a drive through to the main boat launch site in St Lucia. We are welcomed aboard the Makakatana boat by our skipper and boat guide Warwick Kriege, and safety drill done, we set off to explore the lake hoping to be greeted by the array of wildlife, birds, and trees that call this place home.

Gliding through the still waters, we keep your eyes peeled for hippos and soon spot a pod of them near the lake shore, they bob up and down in the water, their beady eyes and fleshy pink faces peeking above the surface – a baby stays close to its mother, braving the open water on occasion to check us out, or at least that’s what I told myself. These herbivorous beasts might look docile and relaxed in the water but are among the most dangerous in Africa. We keep our distance so as to not disturb them.

As we make our way through the channels of the lake, we see stark tree trunks and leafless branches where once lush mangroves lined the banks. Mangroves, with their twisted roots and branches, provide a vital habitat for many species of birds and fish, making them an essential part of an estuarine ecosystem. Unfortunately due to excessive rain and higher water levels over an extended period of time, as well as the subsequent silting, they are dying.

And speaking of birds, we keep a look out for water birds such as the goliath heron, which can often be seen standing like a sentry in the shallow waters, and the African jacana, whose long toes allow them to walk on lily pads. But again, the higher water levels put paid to us seeing them, but we do see a brown-hooded kingfisher, its white and blue wing feathers quite distinct as it takes off from its perch, propelling itself upwards in preparation for a dive into the murky lake waters to catch small fish.

Drifting along slowly, the iconic call of an African fish eagle breaks the silence, we pause for a coffee break, opportunistic barbel swim around the boat taking advantage of what our presence might bring. A chunk of deliciously sweet honeycomb is our dessert – from the hives at the lodge, Megan tells us.

We spot a few more hippo but they high-tail it into one of the many channels leading out of the lake. There are far fewer hippos than normal, Megan explains that this is due to the higher water level in the lake… hippos need to be able to stand so most had moved to shallower water bodies, which are plentiful after the rain.

The same applied to the Nile crocodiles as the sandy banks that they would usually be basking on were submerged. But, she said, don’t be fooled, as we could have past several lurking just out of sight waiting for their next meal. These prehistoric creatures are known for their stealth and ferocity, making them a formidable predator, and with an estimated 1200 plus of them in and around the estuary I wouldn’t be surprised!

The weather during our stay at Makakatana Bay Lodge wasn’t the greatest, starting off with strong winds – which of course had both birds and beasts heading for cover. During the course of our few days we had everything from gloomy skies and patches of sunshine to the glorious sunshine of our last day and the wind-driven soft rain of the day before that had us choosing to head for ‘home’ to enjoy sundowners in comfort. Together with Swiss guests, we had at least enjoyed an authentic African Spa, a game drive bush massage, and a fresh rain facial.

The game viewing and birding may not have been as prolific as usual due to the weather, but we still saw zebra, giraffe, buffalo, wildebeest, nyala, kudu and a sizable herd of waterbuck, amongst others. Red-billed teal, Senegal lapwing, and malachite kingfisher were plentiful, and we even watched the drama of a western osprey being persistently dive-bombed by a pied crow.

The vegetation was lush, and all shades of green, the hippo trails through the wetlands were resplendent with the blooms of waterlilies. A ‘butterfly bush’ – for lack of a botanical identification, was amass with butterflies, either laying their eggs or feeding, we weren’t sure, but a delight to see all the same.  

So, whether you’re exploring the eastern or western shores of iSimangaliso Wetland Park, you’re in for a treat. With its stunning landscapes, diverse wildlife, and rich history, the park is a true gem of South Africa. So grab your sunscreen, your binoculars, and your sense of adventure, and get ready to explore this incredible destination.

Read the story in Responsible Taveller digital mag HERE