Central to the region is the little town of St Lucia which lies at the southern-most entrance to the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a World Heritage site that stretches all the way from Kosi Bay in the north, to beyond St Lucia in the south to include Maphelane Nature Reserve. iSimangaliso is high on the ‘must visit’ list of many travellers and St Lucia serves as something of a tourist hub for the park and has grown substantially from the sleepy little fishing village, perched below a canopy of trees, to the feeder town that is geared for domestic and international eco-tourism today.
iSimangaliso Wetland Park:
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.
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. This is one of the few destinations where a visitor can go diving in the ocean before breakfast, watch whales, hippos and crocodiles before lunch, and see the Big 5 in a game reserve on a late afternoon game drive.
The coastal Eastern Shores side of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park is famed for its wetlands, water birds, crocodiles and marine species. The entrance to the eastern Shores is from St Lucia town.
The Eastern Shores section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park (Greater St Lucia Wetland Park – declared South Africa’s first World Heritage Site in 1999), has fabulous facilities and great hides – such as the Mfazana bird hide overlooking the Mfazana pan and the Mfabeni viewing deck (near Cape Vidal) amongst others – this region has more than 420 bird species recorded. Look out for Samango monkeys at Cape Vidal, as this the southern limit to their distribution in South Africa – and beware, they are just as pesky as vervet monkeys, so don’t leave your care open or food unattended.
Enjoy a picnic in the presence of hippos at Lake Bhangazi on the Grassland Loop, or a sheltered braai at the shady picnic site at Mission Rocks (away from the beach but you can still hear and feel the ocean breeze). During the summer months when the Park gates close at 7pm one can catch a sunset and head back before closure without excessive rushing – Catalina Bay viewing deck on the Eastern Shores is the best.
Or walk one of several trails in the Nature Park section of the Eastern Shores (both these are free of entry fees). Enjoy a beach walk from Mission Rocks southwards towards Perrier’s Rocks – about 3km to reach the three gorgeous half-moon bays where one can snorkel and then picnic. Or head north from Mission Rocks towards Bat Cave and take a dip in shallow rock pools – it is important to do this at low tide! The beach at Cape Vidal is lovely to walk, swim and snorkel.
The Eastern Shores offers great game viewing opportunities, whether from one of the hides or driving one of the many loop roads in your own vehicle. Look out for elephant, rhino, buffalo, leopard, hyena, zebra, waterbuck, wildebeest as well as a number of smaller game species. Birding during the summer months is popular with a number of migrant specials to the area.
Should you prefer to not use your own vehicle there are several tour operators in St Lucia that offer guided game drives – and is the only way to experience the park at night.
The Western Shores 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.
The Western Shores 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.
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 so 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 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 species.
Sodwana Bay, one of the top ten dive destinations in the world, boasts coral reefs containing over 1200 species of fish as well as a variety of underwater seascapes and marine flora and fauna. Reef diving in Sodwana Bay provides divers from around the world with an amazing opportunity to explore the World Heritage Site’s unmarred coral reefs, home to a grand diversity of sea life and is ideal for both shark diving and reef diving all year round. The best conditions are from April through September. Visibility in Sodwana’s waters can vary between 10 and 40 meters, averaging around 15m. Water temperatures are mild measuring between 24 and 28ºC and requiring 3mm or 5mm wetsuits.
There is much to explore on Sodwana Bay’s reefs, which are mostly located at around 18m, sometimes less. Amongst the hard corals, caves, pinnacles and blowholes, divers will come across an abundance of sea creatures and life forms.
Over 1200 fish species grace the waters of Sodwana Bay as well as sharks, bottle-nosed dolphins, turtles (leatherback, loggerhead, hawksbill and green), humpback and southern right whales and whale sharks. Shark species you are likely to meet in the bay’s crystal waters are the bull/Zambezi shark, thresher shark, copper shark, ragged-tooth shark, dusky shark, tiger shark, black tip shark and hammerhead. Other interesting fish life you can observe are reef fish, pelagic fish, moray eels, manta rays, spotted eagle rays and ribbon tail skates. Sodwana Bay’s sea conditions are perfect for night dives when the coral polyps emerge and invertebrates can be seen scuttling across the reefs.
Experiencing Sodwana Bay’s scuba diving will leave you with no doubts as to why it is considered South Africa’s diving mecca. But if you aren’t keen on scuba diving, don’t fret, you can opt for an ocean snorkelling safari over one of the reefs to get the feel of the experience – it might even encourage you to try scuba.
There is nothing more exciting than the possibility of seeing Loggerhead and Leatherback turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs. Witness the extreme effort and determination as they haul their bulk across the shore to lay their eggs in carefully prepared nests, often on the exact beach that they themselves hatched from. During the summer months, generally from November to end February, you can have the privilege of a turtle tracking experience in the company a turtle expert to help monitor the turtles’ behaviour and nesting numbers.
The Kosi Bay Nature Reserve is an unspoilt area surrounding the rare and beautiful Kosi Bay lake system and is a pristine tropical paradise of crystal clear water, marshland, swamp and coastal forests that is home to about 250 species of bird. There are number of rare bird species in the Kosi system, many of which are at the most southerly limits of their distribution and are not encountered elsewhere in South Africa. Amongst the rare water/estuary associated species are Flufftail, Whitebacked Night Heron and the Crab Plover. The raffia forests are also home to the Palmnut Vulture a Red Data species, and the only fruit-eating vulture in the world.
Kosi Bay supports a great variety of fish and other aquatic fauna due to the different physical characteristics of the lakes. A characteristic sight on the estuary is the fish kraals – the rural people in the area use traditional fishing methods to harvest the numerous fish species in the estuary. Fish kraals or traps, which have been passed down from father to son, are spread throughout the estuary, providing an important source of protein to the local people.
Hippo and crocodile bask in and around the lakes and the reserve provides a haven for a variety of rare fish, flora and fauna. The Kosi lake system consists of four large lakes and a series of inter-connecting channels that eventually drain via a sandy estuary into the Indian Ocean. The system is characterised by grassland, interspersed with lakes, pans, streams, marshes and swamps.
Head to the wooden jetty at Kosi Bay’s Lake Nhlange (Third Lake) where, on a good day, you are rewarded with a full 360 degrees of brilliance, or go snorkelling at Kosi Mouth. Grab your snorkelling gear, pack a picnic basket, get a permit and head out in 4×4 only – necessary because the sand is soft and the tyres choose their own path. Pause on the ridge to appreciate the spectacular views of the sea, lakes and channels interconnecting seamlessly in a wonderful swirl of colour that change with the ebb and flow of the tides.
The traditional Kosi fish traps look like the stitches of an intricate tapestry, displaying a random kind of symmetry. We make our way down and on closer inspection see a couple of Tsonga fishermen, one fishing the traditional way, another with fly fishing rod in hand. The fish traps (or kraals as they’re sometimes referred to) are passed down from father to son, some are personally ‘farmed’ others are ‘rented out’ for an annual fee.
The water in the Kosi Mouth is crystal clear and wonderfully warm, with an amazing variety of aquatic life – devil fire fish, angel fish, shoals of bright little fish and even a moray eel, it’s no wonder this is known as ‘the aquarium’.
Other activities on offer include seasonal turtle tracking at Bhanga Neck. It is an incredible sight watching a giant leatherback or loggerhead turtle heave her way up the shore to lay her eggs in the sand – they make their way home having swum the length of the continent in a return journey to the beach where they were born, often laying their eggs within meters of where they emerged as a hatchling many years previously. Check with your accommodation supplier for operator details.
Read about a previous visit to Kosi Forest Lodge
uMkhuze Game Reserve:
The uMkhuze Game Reserve section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park was established in 1912 and is one of South Africa’s oldest game parks and is so named after the uMkhuze River, which curves along the reserve’s northern and eastern borders. This 40,000ha game reserve consists of amazing landscapes of acacia savannah, rivers, pans, and riverine forest and is spectacular for both birding and game-viewing, and is home to at least 420 bird species, the Big 5 – lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and buffalo – as well as cheetah and wild dog.
The game-viewing hides at kuMasinga and kuMahlala pans offer wonderful game viewing as herds of animals gather to drink at these waterholes. The surrounding trees are often alive with bird which is an added drawcard for birders and photographers alike. The beautiful iNsumo Pan is host to hippo, Nile crocodiles and a variety of water birds – the pan supports one of only two significant pink-backed pelican breeding colonies in southern Africa. There is a picnic site as well as two bird-viewing hides located on the water’s edge at the iNsumo Pan where one might see African jacana walk nimbly across water lilies, open-billed stork poised for the catch or fish eagles swoop over the pans to snatch their prey.
The Fig Forest Aerial Boardwalk in uMkhuze Game Reserve offers a guided walk (to protect against elephants, lions, buffalo and other potentially dangerous game) through a magical landscape of soaring, ancient sycamore figs and other riverine forest species – it is said to be the only unspoilt, indigenous fig forest of its kind in Africa. The forest enchants with its rich bird life and massive trees – some of which have a circumference of 12m and are upwards of 400 years old. They bear fruit all year round, providing an ever-ready banquet hall for bird and animal species. Enjoy being immersed in nature, surrounded by birdsong and the magnificence of the forest.
The easiest way of getting there from the N2 is through the eMshopi Gate on the eastern side of the reserve or if you’re coming from the R22 (which heads north from Hluhluwe towards Kosi Bay) head left (from the Hluhluwe side) and right (from the Mbazwana side) onto the D820. Continue along this road for a further 14km and then turn left at the sign to uMkhuze and enter at the Ophansi Gate. For some variety, consider entering at one and then exiting at the other.
Entry fees vary, but should you be in possession of a KZN Wildlife Rhino Card (approximately R500 for an annual membership for a couple) all you would need to pay is the R5 per person community levy. Check the iSimangaliso website for more details.
Not only is this quaint little town the gateway to the iSimangaliso Wetland Park World Heritage Site, it also offers visitors a wealth of activities and experiences all of its own, including beach, bush and ocean.
The town lies in the heart of unspoilt beauty and life here is rather laid back and peaceful, if the monkeys, little duikers and occasional hippos that roam the streets freely are anything to go by. It is the doorway to a world of fresh-water pans, lakes, mangrove and reed swamps, marshy grasslands, coastal dunes and an abundance of wildlife. There are myriad accommodation options, restaurants, supermarkets and other tourist facilities within the town, and no limit to activities in the area – everything from hippo cruises, boat-based whale and dolphin watching and deep sea fishing to horse safaris, game safaris, kayaking safaris and turtle tours and to the beautiful un-spoilt beaches with their high sand dunes are perfect for walks, volleyball and sunbathing.
The beaches in the region lend themselves to early morning walks where one can walk for miles, often without seeing another soul.
Horse riding on the beach or in the bush:
From a leisurely stroll to an exhilarating canter, there can be no greater thrill than horse riding on the beach – feel the wind in your hair and the sea spray on your face as you head up the beach along the water’s edge. Or try game viewing on horseback in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and hopefully get to see zebra, wildebeest, bushbuck, warthog, duiker and impala. Or perhaps even a combination of the two!
Whale watching and ocean safaris:
Whale watching is popular between the months of May and November, when humpback whales make their way north from their Antarctic feeding grounds, heading for the sea channels between Mozambique and Madagascar. Here they give birth to their calves, only leaving when the babies have developed enough thick blubber to withstand the icy temperatures down south.
An encounter with a whale is an experience not to be forgotten, with Humpback Whales seen throughout the season – whale watching in South Africa has taken on a whole new meaning with KwaZulu-Natal now the hub of the Humpback Whale.
The Advantage Charter is the only legal boat based whale watching permit holder within this World Heritage Site, and in the safe hands of experienced and renowned skippers you will be taken through the waves in search of the gigantic Humpback Whale. You may be fortunate to witness this 40-ton acrobat breaching a mere 50 meters away from the boat or maybe just swimming alongside. A variety of pelagic bird life, dolphins, sea turtles in season, shark, marlin, whale shark and other interesting marine mammals and cetacean may also be seen. The tour duration is approximately two hours with 30 minutes on either side to get you to-and from the launch site. This in itself is an adventure, as you meet at a central booking office, from where you will be taken to the launch site with a 4 x 4 truck onto the beach.
Walking along the boardwalk:
Enjoy a gentle stroll along the boardwalk surrounded by mangroves and reeds and a plethora of bird sounds. Just don’t attempt this in the evening or at night as you may be surprised by a resident hippo or crocodile!
Estuary boat cruises:
Another fun activity is a cruise up and down the St Lucia estuary where you’ll almost certainly spot hippos and crocodiles, admire the mangrove trees, see iridescent malachite kingfishers hawking for tiny tilapia fish, and almost certainly hear the wild call of an African fish eagle.
iSimangaliso boasts one of the most significant populations of Nile crocodile in Southern Africa and in a recent aerial count, the density of basking crocodiles in one section was recorded as the equivalent of 99 individuals per kilometre! There are in excess of 1000 adult crocodiles living wild in the Park, predominantly in the Lake St Lucia estuarine system.
The Zulu name for hippo is Imvubu which means ‘river horse’. This thick-skinned, hairless and barrel-shaped mammal grazes on water grass in rivers and lakes and on the lush grass on riverbanks and plains, much like the equestrian version. But unlike a horse the hippo is a dangerous animal killing an estimated 500 people per year in Africa. You are sure to see a number of hippos in the water, and if you’re lucky, maybe out of the water grazing.
Birding in the Gwala Gwala Forest:
A walk along the iGwalaGwala Forest trail with a local birding guide (ask for Themba Birding) is a most rewarding birding experience and will have you adding numerous ticks to your birding list.
Meander through the the filtered light where the coastal forest is alive with birdsong and in addition to Livingstone’s Turaco, Narina Trogan and perhaps even a blue-mantled crested flycatcher you might even spot a duiker, bushbuck or even a wandering hippo.