During my stay at Hluhluwe, the St Lucia section of iSimangaliso Wetland Park was just a short drive away and I could easily pop in for day visits. It was now peak holiday season, so I shied away from the crowds at the popular beaches and avoided the busy little village of St Lucia. Instead I spent my time exploring along the many roads in this diverse park.
Trying to locate iSimangaliso Wetland Park on a map can be a bit confusing, so let me try and explain. As a whole, iSimangaliso is South Africa’s third largest conservation area and covers an area of 332 000ha. Of this, 85 000ha is marine reserve and the rest terrestrial. The park is made up of thirteen connected conservation areas strung out along the northern Kwazulu-Natal shores beginning from Mphelane just north of Richards Bay all the way to Kosi Bay at the border with Mozambique. The areas are made up of vast lakes, estuaries, swamps, dune-fields, rivers, floodplains and forests making it impossible to join them by road without first heading inland onto firmer terrain before returning to the park again. The three primary access points are St Lucia, Sodwana and Kosi Bay.
The diversity of the ecosystems of iSimangaliso is what makes it the miracle of life that gives meaning to its name. The habitat is home to an astonishing variety of species. Mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, fish and plants have all found an ideal habitat in iSimangaliso.
Lake St Lucia
At the heart of iSimangaliso is Lake St Lucia. Not strictly a lake but rather an enormous estuarine system, the largest of its kind in Africa. Forming a large shallow basin fed by the Hluhluwe, Mkuze, several smaller rivers and numerous springs the fresh waters of St Lucia are mixed with tidal flows from the ocean in a never-ending cycle. Over millennia a phenomenal diversity of species have adapted to life in and around these waters. The complexity and uniqueness of this enormous eco system is what earned it the right to be named as South Africa’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. It was added to the RAMSAR List Of Wetlands of International Importance in 1986.
The interference of Humans
The delicate balance of this unique ecosystem, fine tuned over thousands of years, was poorly understood by so-called modern man. In the 1800’s hunters were the first to begin the destruction by slaughtering huge populations of hippos and elephants for ivory. This was soon followed by commercial farmers, hacking away ancient vegetation and bulldozing waterways to suit their needs. It wasn’t long before nature protested. Freshwater floods no longer rinsed out the sediment and salt. The lake began to silt up and the salinity of the water increased. Wildlife could no longer drink and fish could no longer breed. St Lucia was dying.
I’d like to refer to two sources which explain the story in detail. The first is St Lucia’s History, a timeline from the 1800’s till today. The other, a two-part video series, shows how the St Lucia estuary works, why it’s drying out and what can be done to fix it. Please make time to read the timeline and watch the videos.
Efforts to restore the balance are underway but, even with reasonable success, it’s unlikely that the damage will ever be fully mended.
In 1943, during the Second World War, an air-force base was established on the lake to accommodate Catalina Flying Boats. Their task was to combat the enemy U-boats who were sinking ships off the coast. The base was called Eastern Shores, later becoming known as Catalina Bay.
Eastern Shores now refers to the strip of land between the lake and the ocean. Heading north from St Lucia Village, a tarred road takes visitors across the second-highest vegetated sand dunes in the world as far as Cape Vidal, a distance of about 30km. Along the way there are several loops leading off to attractions such as Mission Rocks and viewpoints over Catalina Bay. At Cape Vidal there is a camping area, accommodation in log cabins and an area for day visitors who want to visit the beach.
Eastern Shores is home to elephants, rhinos, buffalo, hippos and other smaller wildlife. The larger species eluded me though and I was only successful in spotting some of the smaller ones. The scenery however was magnificent and for that alone the drive was worthwhile.
On the inland side of Lake St Lucia lies an area known as Western Shores. Although both Eastern and Western Shores are managed by the same authority, visitors need separate permits for each side. In a way this emphasises difference between the two sections. While Eastern Shores is densely vegetated and the terrain hilly, here one drives thought a flatter landscape of grasslands dotted with palm trees.
Until fairly recently, large parts Western Shores consisted of alien tree plantations. The plantations have mostly been removed and rehabilitation of the natural landscape is ongoing. Game has been re-introduced and it was quite strange to see a rhino with a copse of eucalyptus trees as a backdrop. A visit to the Western Shore takes one right up the the water’s edge at Charter’s Creek where jetties have been constructed onto the lake.
After a lovely break camped under the trees at Bushbaby Lodge it was now a new month and a new year. Time to move on. Saying my farewells, I drove south to spend a few days with friends at Westbrook and Pinetown before resuming my wanderings. Leaving Pinetown, I took a drive through the Valley Of A Thousand Hills.