The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is one of the outstanding natural wetland and coastal sites in Africa. It’s diversity of ecosystems makes it a UNESCO World Heritage Site of importance.
The Park includes Lake St Lucia, the St Lucia and Maputoland Marine Reserves, the Coastal Forest Reserve, the Kosi Bay Nature Reserve and Mkhuze Game Reserve– some 328 000 hectares of pristine natural ecosystems, and the country’s third largest protected land mass. These ecosystems include scenically beautiful and pristine and extensive wetlands, breathtaking wilderness beaches with coral reefs, dunes, interesting estuaries, grasslands and wildlife reserves. It is a special place.
Over 50% of the birds in KZN are located near the St Lucia Lake and its estuary; moreover, there are 155 species of fish, of which 71 use the waters of the lake to reproduce and 24 are key species for the marine ecosystem. Near the lake, more than 2,180 species of bush and wild flowers have been documented and many mammal species inhabit the area, some recently re-introduced.
Lake St Lucia. In 1895, St Lucia received the distinctive honour of being declared South Africa’s first Game Reserve and from that time the area has grown from strength to strength in its conservation value and reputation. It is part of the largest estuary on the continent and at the center of an amazing ecosystem.
Boats depart from the St Lucia town pier to tour the lake. The town has many options for simple food and accommodation as it is used as a base and collection point for tours. Kayaking cannot happen here at present due to a proliferation of reeds.
Kosi Bay Nature Reserve and lakes. There are both saline and freshwater systems within the wetland park. This multitude of inland water systems is one of the main breeding places for the Nile crocodile and is home to the largest and most southern population of about 800 hippo’s. The wetland is habitat to Africa’s highest density of reedbuck. The lake is one of the most important breeding areas for water birds in South Africa, supporting large numbers of pelicans, storks and flamingo’s. The best way to view the wildlife of the lake is on a cruise to explores the narrow areas as you alternate your cocktail with you camera. Kosi Bay is an area of 110 square kilometers consisting of an estuary of about 18 km surrounded by vegetated dunes, among the highest in the world, as well as lakes, marshes, white beaches, the Indian Ocean, canals, reeds, forests of huge Raffia palms and mangrove swamps. It is one of the last unspoiled African paradises. Some areas are accessible by 4×2 vehicles but we would suggest that to explore fully, you need a 4×4.
Where the lake drains into the sea, there is a shallow channel known as The Aquarium where snorkelers can see a huge concentration of reef fish, hence the name.
A system of fenced fish traps can be seen which the local Thonga communities have been using for generations. Skills and even exact places are transferred from father to son. The traps are built with curves to confuse the fish and gaps to allow small fish to escape while keeping the larger ones, thereby ensuring sustainable fishing.
Sodwana Bay is one of the top 10 dive sites in the world. The term “Sodwana ” indicates both the bay itself and the protected area inland. Home to South Africa’s best coral reef complex, the highest density of hippos and crocodiles in the country, and the prehistoric coelacanth fish.
There are scuba dive centres in the small town. It is part of the Maputoland and St Lucia Marine Reserves which form a continuous protected area, of some 150km’s long and extends three nautical miles out to sea. The 50 kms of coral gardens, reefs and overhangs found within the protected area are home to over 80 percent of South Africa’s fish species. These high altitude reefs make diving a pleasure. It is the perfect breeding ground for many marine creatures and this combined with the generally good visibility provides divers with a spectacle of colour and variety. On the Indian Ocean seabed there are several canyons that cut the continental shelf. In 2000, in Jesser Canyon, the prehistoric Coelacanth was found to be a resident. It was thought to be extinct.
There are 95 species of corals, as well as sponges and other invertebrates. There are over 1200 species of fish, including the bull shark or ragged tooth shark, the whale, the tiger shark, the manta ray, the rock cod and the potato bass.
The best spots for diving at Sodwana Bay are: 2 Mile Reef, 5 Mile Reef, 7 Mile Reef and 9 Mile Reef, each of these spots has unique characteristics. There is also excellent diving at Rocktail Bay and Mabibi. Be aware that there were some reports of theft from parked cars at 9 mile reef.
Shark diving is also good with regular sightings of Ragged Tooth Shark, Zambezi and Tiger Shark, even the Great White and occasionally during summer, the greatest of fish, the Whale Shark can be watched.
On the Western Shores of the Lake lie Charters Creek, Fani’s Island and False Bay Park. These are good birding and sport fishing areas. Elephants have been released here some years ago. False Bay contains important marine fossils of both animal and coral. Some finds can be viewed in the interpretative centre.
This area was cultivated but major redevelopment has been eradicating non-native or alien plants and shrubs to restore the original environment. Re-introduction of animals has been successful and with plant changes, the birdlife is plentiful.
The Western Shore of the St Lucia Lake is very different from the Eastern Shore overlooking the Indian Ocean. Although the two shores are relatively clos, they have two ecosystems and two different climates: the Western Shore is much less rainy and, consequently, its soil is less humid and, mainly, consists of palm veld and bush. Kwelamadoda Pan and the Kwelezintombi Pan are home to an abundance of birds.
Various lookouts and hides have been created, such as the eMgadankawu hide, public services introduced, places to picnic, such as the uBhejane picnic site and a great canopy walkway between the trees plus new routes.
The Eastern Shores and Cape Vidal. Grassland is separated by Coastal Dunes, which home the shy Red Duiker and the endangered Samango Monkey. In the forest patches, forest birds abound, including the beautiful Narina Trojan, and the ‘Mvubu Trail” is a must for birders. The dunes themselves are of the late Pleistocene age having been formed over the past 25000 years. Many exceed 160m in height with the highest being the Mapelane dune at 183m’s, all are thickly vegetated with dense shrubbery and trees up to 30m high. What makes the eastern shores special is the variety of trails, both guided and self guided. Buffalo, hippo, common reedbuck, waterbuck, bush pig and zebra are regularly seen. Leopard spoor is frequently seen. Cheetah has been introduced here. Amongst the dense forest patches and leaf litter lives the endangered Gaboon Viper. This snake is extremely well camouflaged, nocturnal and so seldom seen. The Wetland Park is home to a total of 53 snake species and 42 species of lizards.
Mkhuzi Game Reserve is a mecca for bird lovers with over 420 species recorded. It now has all of the Big 5- lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhino, without horns. There is a wide variety of habitats within this reserve ranging from the broad stretches of acacia savannah to the slopes of the Lebombo Mountains. Rare sand forest also occurs here and this is the habitat of many rare species including Suni, Crested Guineafowl, Grey-Hooded Kingfisher, Broadbill, Neergaards Sunbird and Pink-Throated Twinspot. There are a number of hides t get you safely closer to birds and animals. White and black rhino sightings are frequent. The ranger night drives are great and leopard sightings are particularly good. The Fig Tree Forest trail with its enormous 400 year old trees has wonderful birdlife and the local guides are knowledgeable. Mkhuzi is also renowned for it’s seasonal pans with their abundant birdlife, crocodiles and hippo’s.
The Sibaya Lake is the largest freshwater lake in South Africa and is bordered by enormous vegetation covered dunes which filter rainwater into the lake. No rivers feed it. It has several species of zooplankton that feed 15 species of aquatic clams and 43 species of terrestrial clams.
279 species of birdlife, some of which are at risk of extinction, can be found here and 62 of these depend on the lake to forage or nest. Up to 20,000 water birds can be observed at one time! A good way to view is from a kayak. You need a 4×4 for this soft sand area.
As well as conserving some of the wildest places in South Africa, iSimangaliso has managed to achieve several amazing feats in its relatively short existence since the 1990s. 100,000 cubic meters of sand, silt and vegetation were removed which had prevented the water of the uMfolozi River from reaching the St Lucia Lake. Also, the virtual eradication of Malaria from northern KZN and the re-wilding of large tracts of land previously utilized for plantations of water-intensive gum trees. You are still advised to take anti- malerial tablets, starting the course before you enter the area. The sanctuary is improving steadily and has a bright future as an African conservation success story.
The area is vast, so do not underestimate the distances and plan carefully.
(This information was plagiarized from Peter Chadwick’s excellent article, from the very thorough “Exploring Africa” and other sources)
Please click on the logo to see more. Have a look at these 2 videos showing how special the place is as well as its history.
Adults entering the Wetland Reserve : R51 p.p plus Community levy: R 5 pp. Car entry if under 6 people: R 61per car. R 8 pp per night if staying over. - Children under 12: R37 plus Community Levy of R5 pp.