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Explore: The Wild, Wild West (& East) of iSimangaliso

South Africa’s first World Heritage Site turns 20 this year.

Here’s how to see the best of iSimangaliso Wetland Park from the charming village of St Lucia

Imagine a place where you can find hippos and humans living side by side. A place where humpback whales breach just beyond the breakers in the Indian Ocean and the endangered black rhinoceros finds safe harbour.

The name iSimangaliso means miracle and wonder, and you certainly find it in spades when exploring this precious park.

The 332 000-hectare iSimangaliso Wetland Park exists thanks to mining. The rolling dunes of this area are rich in titanium, but their pillaging was halted after public outcry. Declared a World Heritage Site in December 1999, Tata Mandela put it best with this popular quote: “iSimangaliso must be the only place on the globe where the world’s oldest land mammal (the rhinoceros) and the world’s biggest terrestrial mammal (the elephant) share an ecosystem with the world’s oldest fish (the coelacanth) and the world’s biggest marine mammal (the whale).”

Most easily accessed from St Lucia, the park is divided into two sections. Here’s how to explore the Western and Eastern Shores, plus the unusual island between them.

ONE FINE EVENING IN THE WEST
“By 2025 the plantations should be removed”, said our guide, Shaun, at Makakatana Bay Lodge. ‘”Once these trees are harvested, no more pine or eucalyptus will be planted”. Makakatana is the only concession lodge in the Western Shores section of the park, which is accessed by the Dukuduku Gate. The gate was only installed in 2013 because this western area was previously covered in forestry plantations and of little interest to tourists. Over almost a decade, iSimangaliso has removed thousands of hectares of alien plant life rehabilitating the natural landscape so that historically occurring game could flourish once again.

Connected via a series of boardwalks, keeping guests out of hippo highways and allowing the timid bushbuck to tiptoe below, Makakatana Bay Lodge offers six elegant bungalows. Historically, Makakatana Bay was a commercial crab-fishing hotspot and you can still find the old concrete block building where the crustaceans were stored away from the harsh sun.

A game drive in the west yields journeys of giraffe, crossings of zebra, grumpy buffalo bachelors and – if you’re lucky – elephant herds. Although we didn’t see them, we certainly heard them, cracking through branches in the surrounding bushveld as we sat around the fire to a fine dinner. Thicktailed bushbabies also joined us, hopping about in the branches above. Their eerie cries joined the sounds of snapping branches and the hippos harrumphing nearby, only to be punctured by a hyena whooping into the night. It’s crazy to think this incredible chorus didn’t exist a few years back.

The following morning, we set sights on the beach. The only way to get to the ocean is by going around and driving back into the town of St Lucia. Taking it easy, we meandered the uMphathe Loop (with its Kweyezalukazi Lookout) and uMdoni Loop – both easygoing self-drive game-spotting routes – scouring the dry palmveld for creatures great and small. The uMthoma Aerial Boardwalk was a welcome break from the confines of the car and climbing into the canopy of trees, you see the sprawling Lake St Lucia from above and Cape Vidal in the distance … our next destination.

FINDING WILD WATERS IN THE EAST
The last time I visited Cape Vidal, I was roughly seven years old. My family used to holiday here, back when you could still drive on the beaches. There are photos of my sister and I buried in the sand, like the precious turtle eggs that call these beaches home. To honour my inner child, I started my exploration of the Eastern Shores with a snorkel safari. Rick and Elise Stadler are passionate St Lucia locals and share these wild waters with visitors to Vidal almost every day. They know where the currents are, how to find colourful shrimps, the best spots for ogling an octopus and point out diamond rays hidden in the sands.

This section of the park is best for coastal camping, close-to-shore snorkelling and, amazingly, leopard-spotting. Just a couple of days before my plunge into the Indian Ocean, Rick and Elise spotted a leopard and cub on an early drive into the park to meet clients. Home to tropical dune forest thickets lining the coast of the Eastern Shores area, leopard are often spotted in the park and their prints have even been found in the beach sand. These highly adaptable creatures are shy, but are often spotted in the village of St Lucia too.

After a morning spent in the water, it was back to the said village for the night. In kilometres, the drive is short, but there are plenty of viewpoints and bird hides to stop at along the way. The best points are kuMfazana Pan on the Forest Loop drive, the views over Catalina Bay and kuMziki lookout, which is on the way to Mission Rocks.

The afternoon drive is a dawdle, picking up speed as the sunset draws nearer and with it the gate’s closing time. Suddenly, I snatch sight of a leopard, just as it darts swiftly across the tar road. It’s so quick and nimble you wonder if you really did see it. Only the presence of another car, it’s inhabitants just as awe-struck as me, proved the sighting to be true.

The day wasn’t over yet though. To experience the shores a little differently, I’d enlisted the help of Kian Barker to see it under the cover of night. The owner of Shakabarker Tours, Kian has been driving the park for over a decade and shares how chameleons glow in the dark. With a light shining on the scaly skin, chameleons give off a bright glow so they’re easier to spot when hidden in the foliage. We’re lucky to spot the tiny, endemic Sitara’s Dwarf Chameleon and find bushpigs, buffalo and hippo too, before the evening drive comes to an end.

AN UNUSUAL ISLAND TOWN
Technically, St Lucia is an island – and we’re not talking about the famous one in the Caribbean. Completely surrounded by a park, this village is ensconced by wilderness. Hippos walk the streets at night in search of grazing and leopards are often caught in the gardens (probably because bushbuck and duiker tend the lawns). By basing yourself in St Lucia you get the best of both worlds – bush and beach with easy access to cocktails and croissants should a craving kick in.

The stay ends with a classic. The St Lucia Estuary cruise is a sedate way to get close to the river horses and flat dogs of this sprawling lake system. There are hundreds of hippopotami calling these waters home, fish eagles cry out from tall riverside outposts and an estimated 1000 Nile crocodiles swim here.

Watching all this wilderness from the boat, one wonders if Tata Mandela was still around he’d add more achievements to iSimangaliso’s impressive track record. Not only is this magical place home to the world’s oldest land mammal, biggest terrestrial mammal, oldest fish and biggest marine mammal. It’s also the domain of the one of the oldest predators on earth (the crocodile) and sanctuary for one of the most persecuted large cats in the world (the leopard). With the recent World Wildlife Fund Living Planet Report stating that “60% of world’s wildlife has been wiped out since 1970”, iSimangaliso is hope and living proof that humans and hippos can live together in harmony.

GETTING THERE
Drive South of Sodwana Bay and just two and half hour’s drive north of Durban, St Lucia is South Africa’s own little island town completely surrounded by a game park.

Fly SAA codeshare partner SA Express flies daily from Johannesburg to Richards Bay, just 76km away from St Lucia. flysaa.com

BEST TIME TO GO
It’s always sunny in St Lucia! Winters are mild and summers tropically hot. June to November is best for finding whales off the coast.

SAFETY
Remember the insect repellent and bear in mind that iSimangaliso is considered a low-risk malaria area. Watch out for hippos at night and do not approach them.

NEED TO KNOW
Only 120 day visitors’ cars are allowed into the Cape Vidal area per day. The park gates are open from 05:00 to 19:00 in summer (November – March) and 06:00 to 18:00 in winter (April – October).

WHAT TO PACK
Snorkelling and beach gear, binoculars and mosquito repellent.

WHERE TO STAY
Sunset Lodge in the town of St Lucia offers affordable self-catering log cabins that face the estuary and a beautiful central firepit. sunsetstlucia.co.za

Makakatana Bay Lodge is a luxury four-star, all-inclusive lodge situated inside the iSimangaliso Wetland Park in the Western Shores section. makakatana.com

Cape Vidal campsites offer incredible access to the beach, but is sheltered by a small dune. Watch out for the mischievous monkeys.. kznwildlife.com

FOOD
Braza restaurant serves homely Portuguese food (plus generously-laden pizza) and has the added bonus of sharing a menu with neighbouring Ocean Basket, for those after seafood.

St Lucia Ski Club has great views of the St Lucia Estuary and is a vibey, affordable local hangout.

COSTS
Park entry fees – R48 per adult, R58 vehicle fee and R5 community levy per person.

ANIMALS YOU’LL SEE
526 bird species and 129 mammal species, including humpback whales, many antelope, elephant, leopards and 800 hippopotami. Plus 109 reptile species, including glow-in-the-dark chameleons.

WORDS & IMAGES Melanie van Zyl

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