Bush Walks, 1,000 Year Old Trees and the Best Sunsets Ever in iSimangaliso

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

Hi everyone. We left things off last time inside the Hluhluwe/iMfolozi Game Reserve. Since then, we’ve headed back into the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and had a week characterised by extreme weather that changed just about every plan we had. Somehow though, things have a way of working themselves out.

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We were sad to leave the Hluhluwe/iMfolozi Game Reserve. There is so much to explore in that park and we feel like we only had a chance to scratch the surface. That said though, we were treated to some special sightings and got a chance to take in the dramatic landscape on the Hluhluwe side of the reserve.

Breaking new ground at False Bay: iSimangaliso Wetland Park

Our next stop after Hluhluwe/iMfolozi was to head back towards Lake St Lucia, although this time to False Bay on the western shores of its northern lake.

Jill on the Ingwe Trail at False Bay iSImangaliso
Jill on the Ingwe Trail at False Bay

Lake St Lucia is an incredibly huge estuarine system, and its only after having driven so far north from the town of St Lucia and realising you were still within its 70 km length that you get a feeling of the scale of this system!

False Bay was somewhere completely new for us, and its always amazing to break new ground together. We were hosted by Wildebees Ecolodge during our stay there, and decided to treat ourselves to a fillet steak dinner in their African restaurant. I must be honest, it was a welcomed break from camp meals! Thank goodness the main course arrived quite quickly or I would have completely gorged myself on the delicious pot bread and butter!

Ancient remnants revealed by the drought

Lake St Lucia’s False Bay section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park is characterised by the rare sand forest habitat. We enjoyed a horse ride through the forest with Hluhluwe Horse Safaris which led us down to the lake. Because of persistent drought conditions, the water level was very low but the dry shoreline revealed a number of interesting tracks and ancient fossils that were amazing to look at.

False Bay supposedly got its name because, given the shape and scale of the bay, early explorers thought the bay they were looking at opened out to the ocean. Standing on the shoreline and taking everything in, it’s easy to see how they made that mistake. The size of Lake St Lucia really has to be seen to be appreciated. It is 23km across at its widest point, and 70km long! Quite astounding.

Fossilised Amonites on the bed of Lake St Lucia iSImangaliso
Fossilised Amonites on the bed of Lake St Lucia

A guided walk on the Ingwe Trail

We explored this area a bit more the next day on a guided walk on the Ingwe Trail, named for the largest predator in this area, the leopard. Although we kept a sharp eye all we found of it were tracks along the shoreline. We did find evidence of a lot of other animals too, most interesting of which for me was the porcupine.

Walking this trail with a guide who is so knowledgeable and passionate about the bush was such a great experience. We learnt so much from Nathan our guide, and left feeling inspired and so appreciative of the small sights he had pointed out – things we definitely would otherwise have missed.

Nathan explaining the bush to Jill iSImangaliso
Nathan explaining the bush to Jill

Humbled by nature in a 1000 year-old Fig Forest: uMkhuze Game Reserve

From False Bay we headed north, to uMkhuze Game Reserve which is also part of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. This relatively small reserve is home to over 420 species of birds because of its varied habitats. The most special of these is the forest of Sycamore fig trees – the only unspoiled indigenous forest of its kind in Africa!

This was the reason we had come. We joined a guided walk through the fig forest at sunrise one morning. Quietly following our armed field ranger in single file as he led us over a suspension bridge and into the depths of the forest was an experience I will never forget.

The Fig Forest Walk in uMkhuze Game Reserve iSImangaliso
The Fig Forest Walk in uMkhuze Game Reserve

The only way to describe being surrounded by thousand year old trees, listening to the cacophony of birds feeding in the canopy and the call of a group of baboons scavenging on the forest floor is magical, and truly humbling.

Ancient Sycamore Fig Trees in the uMkhuze Game Reserve iSImangaliso
Ancient Sycamore Fig Trees in the uMkhuze Game Reserve

Again, having a knowledgeable guide with us was something so special. He was able to uncover a terrapin from the dusty hole where it had buried itself while it waits out the dry season, and showed us the scratch marks on a tree where a leopard sharpened its claws before the evening hunt. We were truly immersed in the wild, and felt it.

The weather turns in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park

In the middle of all of this entered the extreme weather I mentioned. A gale force wind picked up and blew for the next five days without pause. It made the rest of our camping stay at uMkhuze a bit of a nightmare – I don’t think that our tent was really designed for those conditions and we ended up having to seek shelter behind the camp reception. Moving camp in the dark, after a full day out and in the howling wind and with no supper was an interesting experience that I’d be grateful not to have to repeat again too soon.

The calm before the storm at Emshophi Camp.
The calm before the storm at Emshophi Camp.

High and dry in Sodwana Bay

The weather followed us to Sodwana Bay too.

This coastal town in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park is well-known around the world for its incredible diving. What makes it even more special is the discovery of the fossil fish, the Coelacanth, in the underwater canyons just offshore.

We had been looking forward to blowing some bubbles while we were there but with 4m swells, howling winds and strong currents, needless to say we didn’t manage to get in the water. No dive charters launched for the four days that we were there – as the swell died and seas settled the surge had been picked up and visibility reduced to about 2m making underwater conditions unsafe for diving.

Massive storm surf battering the coast at Sodwana Bay
Massive storm surf battering the coast at Sodwana Bay

I guess you can plan for anything except the weather. We did manage to get into the pool with our dive charter Adventure Mania at least. Bevan got his first taste of diving and I did a much-needed refresher course. We will have to make some plans soon to put those skills to use!

Bevan at the pool in Sodwana Bay
Bevan at the pool in Sodwana Bay

The best sunsets so far

The extreme weather did, however create some of the most amazing sunsets we have seen in a long time. Every evening, the wide bay was awash in crisp, icy colour. The storm clouds were reflected in the wash that the huge waves created, turning the sand into a mirror. We couldn’t get enough of it and every evening saw us sheltering from the wind behind Jesser Point, just trying to take it all in.

Unforgettable evenings on the beach at Sodwana Bay iSImangaliso
Unforgettable evenings on the beach at Sodwana Bay
The colours of sunset reflected in the sand
The colours of sunset reflected in the sand

This northern KwaZulu-Natal coastline, which forms the Coastal Forest section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and stretches north from Sodwana Bay, is truly spectacular. Long untouched sandy bays and crystal clear waters over rocky points create endless opportunities for exploring. We are looking forward to spending time there in the days to come as we work our way north towards the border, but that will be part of another catch-up!

Thanks to everyone who hosted us along this leg of the trip. We had a lovely stay at the Wildebees Ecolodge and learnt about another amazing part of our province that we had never gotten to see. Nathan, we really enjoyed your guided walk. The “five trees” story too is one that we are trying to apply to our trip, so thanks for that life lesson! Jacques and Amanda from Adventure Mania– we are so sorry we didn’t get to dive with you but what can you do when faced like conditions like we had? Thank you so much for taking pity on us and offering us a house of brick and tiles instead of our rather flimsy tent! We really enjoyed our time with you despite the conditions. Thanks also to Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park for hosting us in uMkhuze and for the Fig Forest Walk – it was a truly incredible experience.

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See you on the road.

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