Sad Goodbyes to the iSimangaliso Wetland Park

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

Welcome to our second update from the St Lucia section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

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Expectations exceeded

If someone had asked us before we started the trip how long we thought we’d spend in this area, we would have said three days, possibly four to be generous? We were sure that that would have been plenty of time to see and do everything St Lucia has to offer. Little did we know that we’d spend two weeks in this area, and be able to fill our stay with so many exciting activities and adventures that when it came time to leave, we’d go still feeling like there was more that we could have done! That’s where we find ourselves now; reflecting back over another whirlwind of a week in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

 Our new adventure partner

We finished things off last week with the pilot trail running event with iSimangaliso and KZN Trail Running. It was so great to be part of an event like that and meet some other like-minded people. We managed to hold on to one of the other trail runners for a while too – Grant Christie decided to stay on after the weekend’s run and join us for some excursions around town.

Grant is an interesting guy. He completed a walk around the entire coastline of South Africa a few years ago, a journey that took him from Alexander Bay in the Northern Cape to Kosi Bay in KwaZulu-Natal over a period of roughly seven months. As you might imagine, he had some stories to tell, and it was great to have him join us for a while in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

Grant Christie: Another Stray Along the Way
Grant Christie: Another Stray Along the Way

Close encounters: Kayaking Lake St Lucia

We started the week off with a paddle on Lake St Lucia with St Lucia Kayak Safaris. One of the first things our guide Bheki told us when he introduced himself to us was that today we were going to face our fears. He was of course referring to getting onto the water with the plentiful hippos and crocodiles that inhabit this estuary, but little did he know that he should have included himself in that statement too!

Kayak Safari on Lake St Lucia
Kayak Safari on Lake St Lucia

The mouth of the Lake St Lucia estuary has been closed to the sea for a number of years. Many marine fishes use estuaries along the KwaZulu-Natal coastline as nursery areas; the young fish enter the estuary and stay there until maturity when they return again to the sea. Because the mouth has been closed, many species of fish that use Lake St Lucia in this way have been trapped in the system for a number of years. Zambezi sharks are one of these fish species, and the babies in the estuary have gotten rather big.

We encountered one of these sharks whilst paddling along the Honeymoon Bend section of the estuary. It was very exciting to see a fin break the surface and cruise along perpendicular to us a fair distance off. It was only when the shark turned and we saw the fin heading straight towards us that we started to feel a little vulnerable on our two-man kayaks!

Needless to say, nothing came of the shark’s approach. When it got a little closer and realised how big we were I think it got a bit of a fright and beat a hasty retreat, much to our relief! Definitely not an encounter we will ever forget.

The Shark Team
Team Shark

The slow road: Mountain biking St Lucia

To calm the nerves that afternoon, we jumped on bicycles and joined our guide Caiphus from Shakabarker as he led us on a cycle tour of the St Lucia town and sections of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. He was incredibly knowledgeable about the birds and plants that we passed, and was full of interesting information not only about the natural environment but also about the workings of the town and things we passed on our route.

Cycle Tour of St Lucia and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park
Cycle Tour of St Lucia and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park

The highlight of that trip was the time we spent offroad in the iPhiva game area near iSimangaliso’s Bhangazi Gate. This is an area from which dangerous game has been excluded but where a variety of smaller antelope and zebras still abound. We entered this section towards the late afternoon, and were blown away by the absolute beauty of our surroundings as they were lit up by the golden afternoon sunset.

The iPhiva Trail in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park
The iPhiva Trail in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park

Abundant sea life: Searching for whales

One of the things we keep being told about the iSimangaliso Wetland Park is its incredible natural diversity. We got another taste of that when we joined a boat-based whale watching cruise with Advantage Tours.

Humpback whales migrate north from their feeding grounds near Antarctica to mate in the warm coastal waters off South Africa, and calve near Madagascar. Every year from May to September, visitors can view these magnificent animals up close on board a licensed charter.

Although the heavens opened during our trip out to sea, we were not disappointed by the whales. We were lucky to encounter a group of seven or eight males as they competed for breeding dominance. They display by breaching out of the water, or hitting the surface with their tails or pectoral fins. You truly get an appreciation for the size of these animals when you watch them from the water, and being close enough to hear them breathe as they surface is truly magical.

Beach launch from St Lucia
Beach launch from St Lucia
Whales displaying in the grey ocean
Whales displaying in the grey ocean

Rumours of treasure: Snorkeling Cape Vidal

We wrapped things up with a guided snorkel at Cape Vidal with Rick from Safari and Surf. Unfortunately again, the weather wasn’t entirely conducive to getting in the water. Once in though we quickly forgot the cold and were enthralled by the crystal clean water and the variety of fishes and invertebrates that we found.

Rick was quick to point out interesting sights, including the remains of the wreck of the Dorothea, whose story is something of a treasure-hunter’s dream.

An inquisitive fish coming to say hi
An inquisitive fish coming to say hi
Cape Vidal coastline
Cape Vidal coastline

Time on our own: Finding Bat Cave

We couldn’t resist spending more time on the beautiful, unspoilt coastline in the St Lucia section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. We spent an afternoon hiking from Mission Rocks north to find Bat Cave – a cave that has been eroded into the sandstone cliff and is home to a colony of bats.

An easy two hour hike took us there and back, and along the way we could enjoy the solitude of being the only ones on that stretch of beach. We were also entertained by the antics of the many ghost crabs as they scuttled along, turtles bobbing in the surf and a pair of fish eagles perched on the high forested dunes that characterise this coastline.

Exploring Bat Cave near Mission Rocks
Exploring Bat Cave near Mission Rocks

Sad goodbyes to the iSimangaliso Wetland Park

In all, the week absolutely flew by! The longer we have spent in this area, the more our appreciation for it has grown.

The Zulu meaning of the name “iSimangaliso” is “miracle” or “spectacular”, and it is so easy to see why. The diversity of the habitats, fauna and flora and sheer beauty of the landscape is something that is truly unique. What makes it all the more spectacular is to consider the history of the land.

Until fairly recently, the area around Lake St Lucia was under plantation farming. Acres and acres of trees sucked up the water and caused the loss of natural vegetation. Through much hard work and dedication, iSimangaliso have been rewilding this land, removing the cultivated trees and working to restore its natural state. Nature is resilient, and the restoration of natural ecological processes is testament to this fact and the hard work of the team in the park.

We are sad to bid St Lucia goodbye, as we are heading inland to spend some time in the Hluhluwe/Imfolozi Reserve. We’ll be back in iSimangaliso Wetland Park again soon but this time further north, as we work our way up the coastline towards the Mozambican border. We hope that you are feeling inspired to explore your own part of our amazing country! We’ll see you on the road.

Exploring the iSimangaliso Wetland Park
Exploring the iSimangaliso Wetland Park
The uMthoma Aerial Boarwalk
The uMthoma Aerial Boardwalk

Final thanks

A huge thanks to the St Lucia operators who hosted us during our stay. To St Lucia Kayak Safaris, Shakabarker Tours, Advantage Tours and Safari and Surf. We loved our experiences with each of you and have been really impressed by the level of professionalism and the personal touch that each of you add to your adventures. Once again, thanks also to the iSimangaliso staff who facilitated our time in the St Lucia section of the park. We’ve loved working with you.

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See you on the road.

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