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The new heart of Africa

Small miracles abound in iSimangaliso, a thriving wetland in South Africa’s Zululand. With the Indian Ocean at its fringes and eight interlinking ecosystems, it’s no wonder savvy travellers view this UNESCO-listed park as the next big beach-and-safari destination.

The new heart of Africa
Image: Getty

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“Please take care and be on the lookout for hippopotamuses and other wild animals at all times as they are known to roam freely in and around the town of St Lucia,” warns my welcome letter at Lidiko Lodge. We encounter no hippos on our evening strolls, but they reside in their hundreds on Lake St Lucia.

I’m in South Africa’s iSimangaliso Wetland Park in northern KwaZulu Natal province — a land of coastal dunes, coral reefs and curious swamps. Translating as ‘miracle’ in Zulu, ‘iSimangaliso’ is a fitting name for this 820,390-acre wetland park — the miracle is its very existence. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, it came under serious threat when a multinational company planned to mine St Lucia’s dunes for titanium. It was only after half-a-million citizens signed a ‘no mining petition’, that the new government enforced a total ban.

Then, in December 1999, iSimangaliso became South Africa’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the post-Apartheid era of reconciliation and nation-building, this sent out a clear signal: the region needed protecting and promoting. When Nelson Mandela visited the park in 2002 to mark the re-introduction of elephants to the Eastern Shores of Lake St Lucia, he declared: “There can be no better icon for the holistic approach we are taking to conservation than the development of this park.” Ten years on and its iconic status looks as rock-solid as Mandela’s with the launch of a host of projects creating a sustainable future for the park based on community partnerships between commerce and local people.

Flying into the tiny airport at Richards Bay, north of Durban, the town of St Lucia is our first stop on a road trip through the iSimangaliso Wetland Park (formerly Greater St Lucia Wetland Park). This huge expanse of eight interlinking ecosystems includes coastal forest, Indian Ocean beaches and open savannah, right up to the Mozambique border, 150 miles away.

“The authorities removed commercial plantations and rehabilitated the land,” explains Thandi Shabalala, of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority. “Elephant, wild dog, cheetah, oribi, black and white rhino, and buffalo have all been reintroduced. They also encouraged local communities living round the wetlands to benefit.” But what makes iSimangaliso stand out is its variety — there are also 137 miles of coast, pristine diving at Sodwana Bay, more than 500 bird species, most of South Africa’s remaining swamp forest and all its mangrove species plus 25,000-year-old coastal dunes.

Nature dictates here, just as it should. Lake St Lucia, South Africa’s largest estuary is home to around 800 hippo and 1,200 Nile crocodiles. Those figures seem reason enough to decline a kayaking invite, yet I find myself paddling along the still, early morning waters, heart pounding like a drumming band, unlike my inexplicably unfazed travelling companion who seems as confident as our guide. Floating logs a few feet away suddenly wink, causing me to draw in sharp breaths — some of these crocodiles basking in the morning sunshine are seven feet long. After these encounters, holding a hissing baby croc later that day at St Lucia’s Crocodile Centre — dedicated to research and breeding — seems a doddle.

It’s just as satisfying to admire them from a distance, on a sunset cruise, one hand on the camera, the other wrapped around the daily G&T sundowner. Around us, hippos raucously growl, yawn and snort, while crocodiles doze in the late-afternoon warmth, occasionally casting a beady eye around their territory. African jaçanas (known as ‘Jesus birds’ for their ability to seemingly walk on water) flit around in the distance as we watch the fiery red sun disappear slowly, then all too swiftly, into the horizon. Evenings in St Lucia are lively but low-key, whether chowing down in pizzeria/bar Reef & Dune or enjoying carnivorous espetada kebabs in Portuguese-Mozambican restaurant Braza, which serves up tasty halloumi for my herbivorous companion.

The good life is easily attainable here. Cape Vidal, 22 miles from St Lucia, is a stretch of undeveloped white-sand beach, ideal for lazy afternoons or bodysurfing on the Indian Ocean waves. Advantage Tours operates whale-watching excursions here — one of two boat-based operators permitted within 50 metres of whales. I’m here in November, one of the last chances to catch the migratory creatures. The waters are choppy, and as we prepare for launch, the captain’s commands are clear. Gesturing to the boat’s interior, he tells us: “This is inside the boat… That,” he says, pointing to the ocean, “is outside. If you feel rough, aim correctly.” He’s not joking. Green faces are as common a sighting as humpback whales, but every glimpse of a breaching beauty is worth 10 bouts of nausea.

It seems strange to switch from beach to safari in a matter of hours, but it’s what makes the region so unique. “To me, this is the heart of Africa,” our ranger, Trevor Collins of Heritage Tours and Safaris, tells us. “It’s just so evergreen here.” Standing at the lookout point of Mission Rocks, overlooking the eastern shores of the lake, with multiple ecosytems unfolding in front of us, it’s hard to disagree.

The ugly five

This area is home to the Big Four (elephant, rhino, leopard and buffalo — no lions), but lesson one of safari is you can’t pre-order. One exceptionally hot afternoon, most creatures (even the almost ever-present Burchell’s zebra, buck and antelope) have wisely swapped the sweltering plains for cooler climes. But the mark of a good ranger lies in his or her knowledge of the terrain. And so we quickly find ourselves observing a fascinating group of male dung beetles shaping perfectly round balls to impress the ladies. We also spot a pregnant warthog and her chomping pal — his front legs strangely bent as he chews the grass. “They’re one of the Ugly Five,” Trevor tells us, grinning. “Along with the gnu (wildebeest), vulture, hyena and the marabou stork.” Later, on a night drive, we’re treated to scampering water and reed buck, dwarf chameleons and even a slap in the face from a flying dung beetle.

For the Big Five, we head out of the wetland park to the 273,220-acre Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve, a straightforward two-hour drive northwest of St Lucia. Established in 1895, it’s touted as one of South Africa’s oldest game parks and is credited with saving the white rhino from extinction. For some, it’s on a par with Kruger. Zulu kings such as Shaka used to hunt here and it prompted South Africa’s first conservation laws. Our base is Umkhumbi Lodge, run by Anton and Emma Roberts as part of eco-safari company The Wetland Park Group. Over sundowners (by now a ritual) we talk with our ranger — and the lodge’s operations manager — Tommy Dierkse before dinner and a campfire nightcap. At one stage, Tommy points his torch to illuminate a huge spider; he later stops mid-conversation so we can hear the chorus of nocturnal birdsong. I was beginning to suspect the early-morning game drive would be worth the 4am start.

I’m proved right. Within half an hour, we spot two white rhinos — one mother, one junior — taking a mud bath by the side of the road, barely 10ft from our jeep. Hypnotised by their morning ablutions, we watch them roll in the mud; a dense puff of flies rising up from their bodies each time the rhinos change position, only to resettle moments later.

Tommy is just as captivated. This is some sighting. Later, we speak about poaching. “It’s a huge problem, especially for rhino horns: they’re an aphrodisiac; 333 already killed this year,” he tells us. “What’s crazy is rhino horns are made of keratin, the same component of the human fingernail — but it’s more expensive than platinum.” Anti-poaching is taken seriously, but it’s virtually impossible to police all borders.

Staying near Hluhluwe gives us the opportunity to explore the western shores of False Bay: Lake St Lucia at its widest point. “It used to be a bustling weekend retreat,” Umkhumbi Lodge’s Emma Roberts explains. “But it’s dried up due to receding water.” Standing before this empty expanse of sand, it’s hard to imagine this heyday, but the views and sense of space are rewarding. We also catch close-up views of warthogs and vervet monkeys — even cheetahs have been sighted here.

Guilt-free shopping

A mile from Hluhluwe town we find Ilala Weavers, a fairtrade shopping haven with an art gallery, Zulu museum and restaurant. KwaZulu Natal is home to Swazi, Shangaan, Tonga and a relict group of Gonda speakers, but the Zulus are the majority population. Ilala Weaver specialises in traditional woven Zulu handicrafts, made by around 2,000 local people who work from home to preserve traditional, family-based lifestyles. Local company Mbonise specialises in cultural tours to some of their villages and their schools.

Just as retail therapy comes guilt-free here, so too does luxury. iSimangaliso’s Coastal Forest lies in the area known as Maputaland, about halfway between St Lucia and Mozambique’s border. Home to several luxury beach lodges only accessible by off-road vehicles, we leave our car in secure parking area to embark on the bumpy ride to Thonga Beach Lodge on Mabibi Bay. Set on an empty stretch of white Indian Ocean sand and 68% community-owned, with most staff drawn from Mabibi village (including the trainee assistant manager), this is luxury I can get along fine with. Staff including lodge managers Andy and Maryke mingle with guests at cocktail hour, when ‘just the one’ Amarula nightcap can quickly turn into two, then three.

Thonga doesn’t just pay lip service to its community-owned status; it’s set up a feeding scheme at Mabibi schools and improved their facilities, as well as assisting locals to set up a minibus business that’s now used by the lodge to transfer guests and goods. Meals at Thonga are among the best we’ve sampled, with ingredients bought from local farmers where possible. Community weavers also showcase and sell their crafts here each day.

Thonga’s 24 en suite thatched suites are tucked away just off the beach. From the ocean, I can barely see the lodge. And this is the case all along iSimangaliso’s coastline, where new developments are deliberately kept low-key and a discreet distance from the sandy shores. At Thonga, for example, we laze in comfort on a simple deck and body surfing is the watersport of choice in the Indian Ocean waves; when powerful breakers pummel me into the sand I’m grateful a one-piece swimsuit was recommended.

From November to January, leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles return to these shores where they were born to lay eggs. And from the end of December to late February, hatchlings make their debut. Turtle tracking is one of Thonga’s most popular activities and part of the Ezemvelo Turtle Monitoring programme, with data submitted to government conservation body KZN Wildlife. We also spot more migrating whales and a pod of dolphins zipping out across the breakers.

Doing nothing comes easy at Thonga, but 25 minutes away is Lake Sibaya, South Africa’s largest freshwater lake, home to KwaZulu Natal’s second-largest population of hippo and crocodile. This time, we keep our distance. Sunset sees Lake Sibaya at its most atmospheric; when hippos grunt their warnings as they move onto dry land for feeding. Our ranger, James, serves G&Ts from the jeep’s mobile bar while we watch a cloudier, but still dramatic, African sunset.

This same coastal forest continues to the Mozambique border, to the unspoilt beaches of Kosi Bay. Something of a backwater in the Apartheid era, when it ended Kosi Bay was soon recognised for its biodiversity and declared a Nature Reserve. Our base, Amangwane Camp is partly owned and run by the community and comprises 10 simple, reed chalets. Luxury, we discover, comes in many guises. Here, mosquito netting replaces glass panes, and mobile phone reception, internet access and 24-hour electricity are traded for late-night chats, chilling out and starry skies.

Kosi Bay consists of four interlinking lakes, laced with traditional Zulu kraals (fish traps) — reed channels that taper to a circular reed-woven corral. They’ve been here for 700 years, passed from generation to generation; each kraal catching only what the family needs — a tiny proportion of the fish migrating to the ocean.

I visit the kraal of Elmon Mkhonto. “I’m going to teach you to spear like me,” he promises. The pressure builds still further when he tells me ‘Mkhonto’ means ‘spear of the nation’. Practising first on a leaf, I then wade past the reeds and into the circular trap to attempt spearing a juicy mullet. Having never knowingly killed anything bigger than an ant, blood surges and my heart rate reaches an all-time high as I spot the dark shadow of my target. I plunge my spear towards it. Elmon holds up the mullet like a trophy, before gutting it on the beach to take back to Amangwane for a fish curry dinner.

But live fish is what Kosi Bay does best. The Kosi Bay Mouth, where the estuary-lake system meets the Indian Ocean, is one of the region’s most pristine snorkelling reefs. We stride through several pools to reach this holy grail. It’s not called the ‘aquarium’ for nothing. A gentle current propels us along the reef like a lazy river ride. Resurfacing to clear the mask feels like a waste of precious moments; the show below is too good to miss, even for a second — Finding Nemo or a marine life documentary brought vividly to life.

Beautiful Kosi Bay, like many of the places we visit, is an example of, as Mandela put it, iSimangaliso’s holistic approach. And if my ranger is right and this is indeed the heart of Africa, I’ve left a piece of mine here.

ESSENTIALS

South Africa

Getting there
South African Airways flies from Heathrow to Johannesburg, on to Durban, around 150 miles from Richards Bay; flights from Jo’burg-Richards Bay are operated by SAA’s partner SA Express. www.flysaa.com
British Airways, Emirates and TAP fly from the UK to Durban via Johannesburg. www.ba.com www.emirates.com  www.flytap.com

 

Getting around
Self-drive offers most flexibility, but packages with transport are available. Public transport is limited, but the Baz Bus services St Lucia and Sodwana Bay. www.bazbus.com

 

When to go
March to June is particularly pleasant, while winter and spring are good for whale-watching. Summer (December onwards) can be busy and hot but excellent for turtle tracking.

 

Need to know
Currency: Rand (ZAR). £1 = ZAR 13.
Health: Ask your GP about jabs.
International dial code: 00 27.
Time: GMT +2.

 

Placed mentioned
Heritage Tours & Safaris. www.heritagetoursandsafaris.com
Advantage Tours. www.advantagetours.co.za
St Lucia Kayak Safaris. www.kayaksafaris.co.za
Ilala Weavers. www.ilala.co.za
Mbonise Cultural Concepts & Safaris. www.mbonise.com
Wetland Park Group. www.thewetlandpark.co.za

 

Where to stay
Lidiko Lodge, St Lucia. www.lidikolodge.co.za
Umkhumbi Lodge, Hluhluwe. www.thewetlandpark.co.za/umkhumbi.htm
Thonga Beach Lodge, Mabibi. www.isibindiafrica.co.za/mabibi
Amangwane Camp, Kosi Bay. www.thewetlandpark.co.za/amangwane.htm

 

More info
www.isimangaliso.com
www.southafrica.net
The Rough Guide to South Africa. RRP: £15.99.
Tourism KwaZulu-Natal/responsibletravel.com’s insiders’ guide www.responsibletravel.com

 

How to do it

Tribes Travel offers a nine-day trip (five nights at Umkhumbi Lodge and three at Amangwane Camp) plus some meals, transport and activities from £1,495 per person. It also has an eight-day self-drive staying at Lidiko Lodge, Umkhumbi Lodge, Amangwane Camp and Thonga Beach Lodge from £2,240 per person, including flights. www.tribes.co.uk

Published in the September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)