Exploring St Lucia and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park

Posted on Posted in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, Ultimate South African Road Trip

Today we’re writing from the Cape Vidal section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

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The iSimangaliso Wetland Park

iSimangaliso is a park that needs no introduction. It was proclaimed as South Africa’s very first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. It was awarded this status for its unique ecosystems, its biodiversity and sheer beauty.

This is something to be proud of when one considers that one of the criteria for it being awarded world heritage status is that no other place like it exists anywhere else in the world. That means that the iSimangaliso Wetland Park is totally one of a kind!

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is home to the highest density of hippos in South Africa
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is home to the highest density of hippos in South Africa

There are many treasures that set iSimangaliso apart from other places. For starters, its southern section is home to Africa’s largest estuary, Lake St Lucia. There are another two lake systems further north in the park – Lake Sibaya and Kosi Bay. The local Tonga people still practice their 700 year old traditional way of fishing with fish traps in the Kosi Bay lakes. iSimangaliso has eight interlinking ecosystems and is not only home to the Big Five land mammals, but also sharks, whales and the ancient Coelacanth in its marine reserve. The incredible biodiversity of this area includes five turtle species (as well as the last significant breeding grounds for the leatherback and loggerhead turtles), the highest number of frog species in southern Africa, 50% of all of South Africa’s bird species and all five of the country’s remaining mangrove species. And that’s just scratching the surface! It’s easy to see why there’s nowhere else like the iSimangaliso Wetland Park in the world.

Find our more about the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

 

St Lucia base camp

So that is a very brief introduction to the amazing iSimangaliso Wetland Park. As for our trip, Jill and I have spent the last few days in St Lucia, which is a small town at the mouth of the St Lucia Estuary, just on the southern boundary of iSimangaliso. This town is a tourism hotspot, and is incredibly well-geared for travellers with its range of accommodation, restaurants and activity operators. It is also the perfect base from which to explore the southern section of the park.

The main attraction of the southern section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park is Lake St Lucia, bordered by wilderness game areas on its Eastern and Western Shores. While we have been here, we’ve made it our goal to experience this region of the park in as many different ways as possible.

Lake St Lucia estuary
Lake St Lucia estuary

Horseback Safari

First up, Jill and I decided to explore the Eastern Shores on a horseback safari with Bhangazi Horse Safaris. This was a first for both of us, and the thing that struck me the most about this experience was just how relaxed the game is when you approach them on horseback. Ordinarily, wild animals are wary of the presence of humans. Somehow on horseback though, they seemed far more accepting of our being there and we could not only get much closer than we would have otherwise been able to, but we could also observe their natural, undisturbed behaviour.

One other thing that was amazing was the sense of being completely immersed in your surroundings. Often being inside a vehicle can make you feel separated from the landscape outside. This experience was completely different – we felt as much a part of the environment as the animals we were viewing.

Exploring the eastern shores on horesback
Exploring the eastern shores on horseback
The best way to take a long walk on the beach
The best way to enjoy a long walk on the beach

Night game drives on the Eastern and Western Shores

We did decide to go for a traditional game drive in iSimangaliso, except this time we opted to go at night. We were lucky enough to explore both the Eastern and Western Shores on guided game drives with Shakabarker Tours and Heritage Tours and Safaris respectively. I absolutely love night game drives! The animals that can be seen at night are very different to the ones that are active during the daytime, so on a night game drive you can spot some real gems. As with other South African game reserves, driving in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park at night is strictly prohibited for the public, and so if you want to experience the reserve in the dark you will need to do this with one of the local operators.

Having a guide take you around really enhances your experience. Not only can you benefit from their knowledge of the area and animals, but they are also able to spot and identify animals that you would probably never have been able to find for yourselves! A particular favourite of ours were the Chameleons that our guides seemed to be able to pick out at will. Apparently a Chameleon’s skin changes colour in the dark making them easier to spot by torch light, but even so, no matter how hard I squinted, they seemed to be just as camouflaged as ever.

Finding Zebra on the western shores on our night drive
Finding Zebra on the western shores on our night drive
The night yields some smaller gems
The night yields some smaller gems

Lake St Lucia estuary cruise

Lastly, we decided to explore Lake St Lucia’s Estuary section on a boat cruise. In my opinion, this is an absolute must for anyone visiting St Lucia. Not only do you get to see some of the larger animals like hippos and crocodiles, of which Lake St Lucia has the largest concentration in the whole of the country, but you also get to experience a different side of the reserve. Habitats like the mangrove forests and reed beds and their animal and bird life are best viewed from the water.

We loved cruising up the Estuary with Shoreline, looking out for birds like the iconic African Fish Eagle, the African Finfoot and the hundreds of nesting Weavers.

Lake St Lucia cruising
Lake St Lucia cruising

Our time in St Lucia has been an absolute whirlwind, and we’ve had no trouble filling our days with awesome excursions.

We were so grateful to have the restful haven of St Lucia’s Forest Lodge to go back to at the end of each day. This bed and breakfast really was a treat for us – well-appointed, comfortable self-catering rooms, friendly and very accommodating staff, delicious breakfasts and a peaceful “forest” garden created the perfect ambiance for our time there.

 

The adventure continues

We are going to be in the Cape Vidal section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park for the next few days, enjoying some snorkelling and exploring this beautiful area, before heading back to St Lucia to take part in a trail run. We can’t wait! There is still so much more that we want to do in and around St Lucia, so hopefully we will get a chance to squeeze everything else in! We hope you will join us for the ride.

We wish to say a very big thank you to all the people who have helped to make these last few days so incredible. The passionate iSimangaliso staff are amazing at what they do, so thank you to them for showing us around. Bhangazi Horse Safaris were professional and so good at looking after a group of riders that ranged from novice to expert and we really enjoyed our ride with them. Riding through the Eastern Shores on a Unimog and sipping hot chocolate under the stars with Shakabarker Tours was a treat, and we really loved our night drive on the Western Shores with Heritage Tours and Safaris, even though it was a freezing night! Stacey from Shoreline taught us so much about St Lucia Estuary and its habitats and wildlife, and again, a huge thanks to the Forest Lodge. If our activities hadn’t been so much fun I don’t think we would have chosen to leave our room!

Forest Lodge: Our home in St Lucia
Forest Lodge: Our home in St Lucia

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