The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is one of the jewels of South Africa’s coastline, with a unique mosaic of ecosystems – swamps, lakes, beaches, coral reefs, wetlands, woodlands, coastal forests and grasslands – supporting an astounding diversity of animal, bird and marine life.
Formerly known as the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, the Park was renamed in 2007 to better reflect its unique African identity – and to avoid confusion with the Caribbean island country St Lucia.
Located on the north-eastern coast of KwaZulu-Natal, stretching from Kozi Bay in the north to Cape St Lucia in the south, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park was the first site in South Africa to be inscribed on the World Heritage List by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).
iSimangaliso’s uniqueness lies in its remarkable diversity, particularly its combination of a subtropical coastline and a classic African game park.
It is South Africa’s third-largest park, spanning 280 kilometres of coastline, from the Mozambican border in the north to Mapelane south of the St Lucia estuary, and made up of around 328,000 hectares of pristine natural ecosystems – including swamps, lake systems, beaches, coral reefs, wetlands, woodlands and coastal forests.
The park takes in a 60-kilometre river mouth that creates a huge estuary, Lake St Lucia, running parallel to the coast and separated from the sea by the world’s highest forested sand dunes. The lake is part of the St Lucia estuarine system, the largest estuarine system in Africa.
The park incorporates the whole of Lake St Lucia, the St Lucia and Maputaland Marine Reserves, the Coastal Forest Reserve and the Kosi Bay Natural Reserve. The 40,000 hectare Mkuzi Game Reserve is also in the process of being incorporated into the park.
Variety of ecosystems
iSimangaliso’s wide variety of ecosystems and natural habitats provides for an astounding diversity of species in the area. With its lakes, lagoons, freshwater swamps and grasslands, iSimangaliso supports more species of animal than the better-known and much larger Kruger National Park and Okavango Delta – from the country’s largest population of hippos and crocodiles to Giant Leatherback turtles, black rhino, leopards, and a vast array of bird and marine life.
According to Living Lakes, more than 530 species of birds use the wetland and other areas of the Lake St Lucia region. “These waters also are graced by 20,000 greater flamingos, 40,000 lesser flamingoes, as well as thousands of ducks. With 36 species, this area has the highest diversity of amphibians in South Africa.
“… Here, and nowhere else in the world, can one find hippopotamuses, crocodiles and sharks sharing the same waters.”
In proclaiming the iSimangaliso Wetland Park a World Heritage Site in 1999, Unesco said: “The interplay of the park’s environmental heterogeneity with major floods and coastal storms, and a transitional geographic location between sub-tropical and tropical Africa, has resulted in exceptional species diversity and ongoing speciation.
“The mosaic of landforms and habitat types creates superlative scenic vistas. The site contains critical habitat for a range of species from Africa’s marine, wetland and savannah environments.”
In 1989, a mining company seeking titanium and other metals sought to bulldoze the dunes along the eastern shore of Lake St Lucia.
In 1996, the South African government followed the recommendations of an environmental assessment in barring the mining proposals – and began work on an integrated development and land-use planning strategy for the entire region.
Under the Lubombo Spatial Development Initiative, the governments of South Africa, Swaziland and Mozambique aim to foster sustainable investment and job creation in the area, using the iSimangaliso Wetland Park as the core.
The variety of natural settings, the abundance of wildlife, and the sheer beauty of the place draw tourists to the area in increasing numbers. There is plenty to do – from fishing, boating and scuba diving to hiking, horseriding, game viewing, whale and bird watching.
The park is also one of South Africa’s most popular fishing destinations, lending itself to rock and surf fishing, kite fishing, spear fishing, fly fishing, estuary fishing and deep sea fishing.
There are plenty of hiking trails through the park – ranging from a few hours’ to a few days’ worth – offering the opportunity to see a huge variety of animal and bird life. Accommodation options are extensive, ranging from camping to private game lodges, and including hotels, flats and chalets in the nearby town of St Lucia.
Wonders and miracles
Announcing the park’s new name in May 2007, Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk said the change followed two years of extensive consultations.
Van Schalkwyk said the isiZulu wordiSimangaliso- meaning “miracle” – had a rich historical context. “Ujeqe was King Shaka’s insila[aide who keeps all the king’s secrets and gets buried with the king when the king dies]. He fled after uShaka’s death to avoid the customary burial with his master.
“He wandered into Thongaland, present-day Maputaland, and came back, saying: I saw wonders and miracles in the flat land and lakes of Thonga. From that follows an isiZulu saying that if you have seen miracles, you have seen what uJeqe saw:Ubone isimanga esabonwa uJeqe kwelama Thonga.
“Ujeqe might just have been one of the first tourists to visit what is now the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.”